Interview by Samuel Moppett
Photography by Liz Seabrook
We interview the talented sommelier Lucy Ward for an honest and inspiring conversation on natural wines and how to create a wine list

Training to be a sommelier 

Lucy Ward started training as a sommelier when she was in Paris. She tells me ‘I bopped around the place, I went to Belgium, then I went to the Antipodeans for a long time and there its a lot easier to learn about wine. Apart from the fact, everything is on your doorstep, people are a little bit more forthcoming with information. It is not quite as rigid. There is no attitude such as if you don’t know it, I’m not going to tell you, you should know it already.” Lucy carries on to describe ‘its the kind of attitude you’d get (and probably still do) in kitchens, but on the floor, things have developed a bit more.”

After her Visa ran out, Lucy moved back home to South East London. The next step was to Noble Rot. Lucy explains “I slowly made my way up there, to assistant head, I had come from a very conventional background so I can tell you all you want to know about high-class Bordeaux, the stuff you should know, but it’s better to have a broader scope. We did some really good training, but my head sommelier, his name is Niko, and he now makes wine in Emilia-Romagna, brought me into more natural wines, but I didn’t really know enough about it. I liked natural wine but didn’t have a good attitude to it. And he sort of brought me around and taught me about it and we learned together.”

I wonder if natural wine is a new discovery, Lucy promptly explains, “its always been there. I think the problem is, its an umbrella term. So you have people that recognise it as a trendy thing, and it is delicious. Most of the wine could be seen as being quite easy-drinking and slightly more approachable. So when people say I want natural wine, in my eyes, they are looking for a particular style and using a fruitful word a little bit weird. Depending on what you’re looking for, either like Pét-Nats, for example, that’s quite easy drinking and maybe slightly fizzy, but won’t be the whole way through or indeed a little bit barnyardy.”

Natural wine exposure

To move from a classical background and move into the trendy side of wines, I am intrigued how Lucy became so arrested with them, she tells me “from my perspective, it’s more about how the wines have been treated. You have more terroir involved. I struggle with that concept a little bit because I think that’s not always the case. But then these makers take a lot more care, they respect everything, they’re doing a lot more. And that as a general rule can’t be a bad thing.”

‘Not adding anything to your wine or treating your land terribly, this is all very, very positive stuff, but I think there’s always a way of looking at things’

The term natural wine can often mean something quite simple, nothing added. But to the general wine drinker like me; like bread, we have no real consciousness of all the added elements, after all, don’t we all buy wine from the supermarket or corner shop when we run out for a desperate last-minute bottle of plonk? The good stuff is saved for eating out until we still go for the house or a recognised name. 

Lucy starts to educate me, “Not adding anything to your wine or treating your land terribly, this is all very, very positive stuff, but I think there’s always a way of looking at things. There are delicious things from both camps if that makes sense, so I guess if you say natural wine, I think people have jumped on the bandwagon. The last time I was in Paris, I went to go to Clamato. Nice restaurant, from the wine world in Paris anyway they’ve got a great curve, everything’s fantastic, they get it. I went around the corner because they were closed to this trendy natural wine bar and these guys didn’t have a clue, and that’s fair enough. We do that in all parts of our lives, business. They invited me to come downstairs and have a look, it was just different sizes of the same wine. Like, no offence, guys this isn’t really a cellar. This is just the same one that you’ve got a lot of in different formats.”

Lucy says “Terroir in Dulwich didn’t jump on the bandwagon. They’re the most prominent organic, biodynamic importer in the UK, probably Europe and you’ve got to respect them, they’ve done a great job. Their portfolios are so big that you get lost in it. But it’s better to have more, I suppose.”

Staff training

After leaving Noble Rot, Lucy started working in Mayfair, making a wine list where the concept of the restaurant wasn’t really quite fitting in with her ethos. Lucy says “I don’t think anyone paid attention to how Mayfair has changed.” Consultancy came after and soon Lucy embarked on work with Wilder, meeting Richard (Head chef) through a friend, Lucy was keen on working with him but from a distance, keeping her consultancy at the heart of her business. Before lock-down Lucy still worked three nights a week on the restaurant floor, Lucy explains “I think it’s important to sell your product or enjoy selling your product, enjoy teaching everyone around. Half of the fun is actually talking to people. Some of the staff were really, really interested in what we did and we did a pretty boring but systematic tasting. You have to do it systematically. Otherwise, you’re only thinking about how much you enjoy and not actually what the wine is. I was doing this twice a week, and they loved it, picking up really well. That’s basically most of what I enjoy doing.”

The wine list

I ask, is there a battle between what one personally likes against what the wine actually offers. Lucy tells me “you have to teach yourself not to, for example, if you hate gooseberries, take a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, there’s a lot of gooseberries there. You can’t deny it. It is there, subjectively or not.”

‘I support variety. We had a Malbec by the glass, but it’s from South-Western France, and it’s a little bit different, but it kind of has the qualities that you want’

I ask Lucy how you create a wine list from scratch. She explains “my old list, I literally just made a list. And I did it with Fiona Beckett actually, and she’s absolutely amazing, she’s 73, and we were tasting through 150 wines a day, and she was totally fine. You’re spitting so you’re not getting drunk, but it’s more tiring, and your palate aches. My face was waining, I was like God, you’re my hero. But she was very much, people like Malbec, put a Malbec on. And it has to be a Malbec from Argentina, so people recognise it. I kind of waited for it run out, and I didn’t put it back on the list again. But that list was just things I liked, wasn’t a bad list, but it wasn’t fascinating either. So now I support variety. We had a Malbec by the glass, but it’s from South-Western France, and it’s a little bit different, but it kind of has the qualities that you want. You have to have a chat about it because Malbec is not written on the menu.”

Lucy continues, “we use a winemaker who buys in his grapes, and he ferments and bottles in Bethnal Green which to me sounds absolutely ridiculous.” I quickly jump in and ask why? “I don’t think English wine is up to scratch. Well, sure, maybe a little bit better, but for the price that you’re paying, I don’t think so. But this is just my opinion. I’m coming around to it, it’s important to get things on that people enjoy. Otherwise, you’re not a very good person. If people aren’t doing these crazy things we will never know, it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not. He’s got some Syrah fermenting, instead of starting the ferment with natural yeast in the winery, he started it with cranberries and blackberries or something that he’d found. I really respect him for it. And his wines are good. They’re just a little bit tryhard.”

Starting the list for Wilder, Lucy decided to use old world wines only. Old world as Lucy explains is “Wine that would be from France, Spain, all the way down to Greece, you could probably add Turkey and Georgia in there as well. But that is still a little bit far to me. So we try to keep with wines comings already in from closer. For example, you can get really great wines from South Africa, really amazing ones from Chile, or everywhere, America, everything, but we want it to be sustainable. And then we’re bringing it all the way over, you know, continents, it’s not great. Richard essentially wanted all his ingredients to be from the UK if possible, we needed to follow that same thing. It’s hard to say let’s only have biodynamic wines though.”

Indigenous & ancient grapes

How long does a vineyard need to research and develop until they can label a natural wine? Lucy tells me “people use this umbrella term, natural wine, and they’ve only been making wine for three years. So it’s actually trial and error, and you’re paying 15 quid a bottle for it, and they don’t even know what they’re doing yet.”

“Some wines that are a little bit off-piste, frankly, whatever you want to call it, barnyardy, and it’s delicious, but to a certain level. You then need a balance with more precise wines and clean. So most of the wines are biodynamic, but it’s not necessarily something that will be brought up in conversation. Orange wines are important because they’re great pairing with offal. Wines from Jura, for example, they are absolutely fantastic. And most of the producers around there will be biodynamic or organic. Because the weather’s a lot better so they can do it.”

We end by talking about indigenous wine. Lucy explains to me “It’s a bit hard to talk about France because indigenous French grape varieties have now become the international grape varieties. But if we would take, for example, St Laurent, which is an excellent variety indigenous to the southeast, Austria from Burgenland. Now, this is DNA related to Pinot Noir. But again, it’s a different composition. It’s a little bit heavier, still has this really dark cherry and smoky aspect. We need to use indigenous varieties or choose them to mirror the style on the list if that makes sense. If somebody’s looking for pinot noir you can not necessarily wildcard them but go look, you’ve got this here.

My friend makes wine. The woman who owns it, called Elena, her father in the 60s poured all the indigenous vines out and replanted it with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot. Which doesn’t necessarily work there. It doesn’t make terrible wine, but it doesn’t really work there. Then she took over in the 80s ripped it all out again, replanted everything. She was seen as pretty old school then, but she is at the forefront now.”

“I was talking to somebody the other day, who makes wine just outside Barcelona. And I said to him, you know, this year is going to be hot, so what you’re gonna do. They said, “to be honest, I think we’re going to be fine because our international grapes won’t do very well, but our indigenous are kind of used to this, and if you look back in time, this has happened before, so maybe the move is to go back.””