James Welsh : Sommelier Superstar

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Publishedon 16/10/2015 - 06:02 am


Drinking $60,000 worth of the best wine in the world all day and all night with industry elite for a week in the Hunter Valley. Tough gig. No, really, it will be.

James Welsh - Sommelier“Every morning we judge 40 wines then have an afternoon master class with the likes of James Halliday, Iain Riggs and Tim James. We then look at even more wines over dinner. So the pressure’s on from 9am til you go to bed,” says James Welsh, co-owner and Sommelier of Launceston’s famed Stillwater Restaurant and Black Cow Bistro.

This relentless schedule of vino is the format of the 2015 Len Evans Tutorial. Each year, a select few industry professionals are plucked from a mass of applicants to learn from the masters.

The event was established by Australian wine pioneer, Len Evans, as a means of grooming the next batch of savants.

“As his legacy he wanted this tutorial to elevate the standard of the national wine industry and ultimately add back to the wine show system by creating better, younger judges each year,” says James.

He’s tried a few times to attend the tutorial, admitting a more refined palate and judging experience probably got him over the line this time. James joins a list of Tasmanian wine royalty: Fran Austin, Jeremy Dineen and Nick Glaetzer are among local past scholars. 

Finding time to study for the tutorial in early November is tricky for a man with two award-winning restaurants, but James is trying to cheekily squeeze it in.   

“I get a bit distracted. I might start a chapter then drink a glass, a chapter then a bottle.”

He’s reading up because at one point, he’ll need to pick the vineyard and vintage of the world’s most sought-after burgundy, Domain Romanee Comti. His other judging will similarly be compared to that of the expert tutors.

“The scholar’s points of each wine are matched with the points of the panel. So whoever has the closest points to the likes of Halliday, Riggs and James, becomes dux at the end of the week,” says James.

“If you high point something or low point something or even sit on the fence, they’ll scrutinise you. They’ll say, ‘you said this wine is a gold medal worth 18.5 points, why?’”

The demands of the tutorial are not lost on James, a man who has worked hard in hospitality for a decade. Charisma and attention to detail make James’ service impeccable, but it’s his wine lists that have earned him recognition across the country. With a leaning toward pinot noir, the pages are filled with bold drops, specialty brews, exquisite bubbles and sticky treats. 

“I look for balance, complexity, length and persistence of flavour,” he says. 

James is constantly gathering the new, unique and best from emerging and established winemakers, so you’re certain to try something different upon each visit to his establishments. While he’s not afraid to look abroad, James is a staunch supporter of local.

James Welsh - Sommelier“Tasmania is the rock star of the national industry. Because the country’s getting hotter and hotter, a lot of companies are buying vineyards down here because it’s cooler in both senses.”

Along with taste, James says the price of our wines is palatable, too.

“A lot of people go to the bottle shop and pay $15 for a multi-regional Australian red wine, whereas they could be buying a decent single vineyard Tasmanian wine for $22. So for a little extra they could be drinking something far better.”

Right now, he’s enjoying Chablis and burgundy, with beer and some gin thrown in. But he’s really looking forward to savoring Chardonnay, Pinot and Champagne at the tutorial.

“I want to bring back a far more educated palate. Because it is so intense, it’s probably equivalent to years of school,” says James.

He’s also aiming to judge more and pass his new knowledge on to his team upon his return. But even more so, he’ll be upping the ante of his wine lists, meaning you can taste the handpicked favourites of a Len Evans scholar. 

All images credit : Clint and Bethany Creative.

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