Tom Baxter

How long have you been in the restaurant?

Since September 2018.

What attracted you to become a sommelier?

Above anything else, I’ve always seen it as a job that requires non-stop learning. I’m the kind of person who never wants the learning process to come to an end. No matter how comfortable you might get with the challenges of service, there will always be room for more geographical knowledge, wine production knowledge and food knowledge. I see the work of a sommelier/sommelière as a unique combination of skills: mastery of information relevant to wine, business skills (pricing, up-selling and margins) and social skills. They all play their part!

Quite aside from the above, I’ve always loved travelling and gaining insight to a country or region through its food and, as I reached the right age, its wine!

Where did you do your training?

I began my training in London, continued in Beijing (I lived there for a year), Cambridge and have now resumed further study in London. A substantial part of my training has taken place at work itself, bolstered with many long hours of study at my desk at home or in a well-lit café in south London!

What would you say are the essential skills to become a sommelier?

I think fearlessness is of the upmost importance. I’ll never forget just how terrified I was for my first ever service – not to mention my first ever service alone! Gritting your teeth and getting stuck in with new challenges has to be faced with bravery in order to prove to yourself you can do it and to grow in confidence as a result.

Motivation is also very valuable in my line of work, I think. In order to get to grips with the vast world that is wine, you have to keep chipping away at your studies, taste at every given opportunity and be self-aware enough to track your progress. Without spirit and motivation, these things can be very hard to keep up!

A good palate and a good nose are vital, of course. Whilst there are some people that can put into words what they are tasting and smelling from an early stage, others may take more time. I believe that it doesn’t matter too much which camp you fall into from the start, so long as you are willing to put the hours into tasting critically. This way, you will gradually get to know your own senses well enough.

What wines complement your personal favourite three-course meal and why?

I am an outspoken lover of dry sherry. Whilst it is a classic combination, I find it very hard to fault a good fino or manzanilla with olives, bread and jamón to whet my appetite.

As for the other wines, it of course depends on what the food is and on what mood I find myself in. Depending on the richness of a dish, I am a massive fan of white Rioja. Its inimitable style will always have a special place in my heart. As for red, I have recently developed a fascination with Cabernet Franc expressed as a monovarietal wine. I love its depth, its expressive range and its balance of vegetal, herbaceous notes. By the same token, I adore the balance so often achieved in the sweet wines of Tokaji. I frequently marvel at the rip-roaring acidity that balances the sweetness of this region’s wines!

What are your thoughts on the “Red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat and fish” age-old debate?

Whilst I think formulas like these have sound principles at heart, I think the harmony of wine and food is one that has by no means been explored extensively. Therefore, new and seemingly unorthodox combinations always deserve tasting and considering – even if you end up serving red with fish. God forbid…!

How does the choice of the right wines complement the different food courses served?

Put simply, there are combinations that work nicely but that do not set the world alight. Beyond this, there are also great combinations which elevate both the food and the wine to greatness that they couldn’t touch by themselves.

What’s the best part of your job?

Feeling like I’m always a student, always improving. In addition to this, putting a smile on someone’s face with a great wine that they’ve never even heard of is a deeply gratifying experience.

And the worst?

Making mistakes. Dropping things makes me want to become a hermit and never be seen again.

What is the most unusual wine that you have ever tasted and why?

Barolo Chinato. I feel equal measures of delight and dread when I taste its cough-syrup like flavours.

What is the most money that you’ve ever spent on a single bottle?

£100. I’ve only recently moved out of a student budget…

How many bottles do you have?

Personally, around 75. Not bad for a little Eurocave at the back of a cupboard in my flat in south London!

How often do you find that customers complain about wine being corked and – in your opinion – how often do you think that they are right?

Luckily, the fact that I taste every single wine before service means that these instances are relatively infrequent. Having said that, some customers have used the word ‘corked’ when a wine doesn’t taste as they thought it would or should. One of the trickier parts of my job is speaking to customers who think they’ve found faults that I don’t think are there. That’s where diplomacy comes in!