Earlier this year, sketch London’s Wine Director, Frédéric Brugues, celebrated 20 incredible years of service, and we were fortunate enough to sit down with him and discuss his extensive career and experience in the business. From his early years in France, tasting and exploring wine for the first time, to his ever-growing love and passion for pairing and designing wine list masterpieces in the heart of London, all leading up to Frédéric’s massive success with the iconic, three Michelin-starred restaurant, sketch.
His determination, passion, and drive within the industry, woven between layers of personal and professional accounts, are profoundly endearing. Even in our short time together, it is clear that Frédéric Brugues will imprint his legacy on every venue and wine list he comes across. Follow Frédéric’s dynamic and inspiring journey to Wine Director in our Q & A session below.
How and when did you first get into wine?
FB: My grandfather was a great lover of wine and food. He gave me my first glass of wine around the age of 10; it was a 1929 Mouton Rothschild and we’d opened the bottle for my grandmother’s birthday. I hated the taste then – I actually spit it out! Many years later, even the summer I did get into and study wine, I wasn’t drinking much of it, and I wasn’t a fan. But, having been immersed in wine from such a young age, my grandfather’s fascination with wine was infectious and I ended up in the business because of him.
Tell us about your journey with wine & how you ended up at sketch.
FB: I am originally from Dordogne in the Southwest of France. I studied and graduated in Talence, Bordeaux in 1995; I was incredibly lucky to have trained under the late Jean-Bernard Delmas at Haut-Brion. After graduation, I was desperately trying to find a job in France. Anywhere! I sent my CV to a number of places in Lion, Bordeaux, and Paris; I even applied in and across most of the three Michelin-starred restaurants in 1995. Nothing.
My hairdresser at the time (in Bordeaux) had a brother-in-law who was a Sommelier in London. She asked me if I had ever considered working abroad and put me in touch with him. He then passed my information on to the Head Sommelier at Marco Pierre White’s restaurant, who called and offered me a job. I went the very next day. What was supposed to be six months translated into 5 years with the team at Marco’s; eventually, I settled down in London.
In 2001, I was working at China House Restaurant, which had a very similar profile to sketch, when I was approached by a head-hunter because of the stark likeness between both venues. And that was it, the rest is history! When you think about it… a haircut changed my life! I would have stuck around in Bordeaux and never imagined or dreamed of working abroad.
You’ve been at sketch for 20 years! What has fundamentally changed with regards to wine in that space of time?
FB: Everything has changed! The job of a Sommelier, to start with, has changed dramatically over the years. Once considered to be an undistinguished role, it’s now more of a glamorous job; people want to work with wine and want to become Sommeliers. So, the job side of it – the allure to it – has definitely improved.
The wine side of the job has also changed. At present, we have access to way more high-quality wine in comparison to twenty, even thirty years ago. We are much more spoiled than we were; certain wines, for example, people would have never dreamt of buying the entire bottle or sampling a more premium, more expensive option by the glass. We certainly have better knowledge and understanding of wine varieties, better technology and materials – to both make and preserve wine. We have so much more choice these days.
How would you compare today’s consumer to those some twenty, thirty years ago?
FB: Consumer behaviours have adapted and evolved throughout the years, for sure, especially in relation to preference. Customers are no longer loyal to just one type of wine; they long for way more ‘experience’ than they had in the past, as demonstrated by the rise of by the glass programmes. By the glass is what sells in restaurants and that is where a Bermar preservation system really steps in and helps with our sales.
Sommeliers aren’t opening just one bottle. Guests are indulging in a few glasses of wine, whereby each glass is new and different. These desires and choices imply that wine pairing in terms of fine dining is huge – enormous! There is definitely way more work to be done by Sommeliers than we had in the past. People are looking to test and trial more things. They want to experience more, and that is the key difference nowadays. That is my advice to anyone looking at a wine service. Let the customers experience the wines on your list, help them explore and discover.
Continuing with experience then, what are your core principles when developing a wine programme for a new season or a new menu to deliver that unique sketch experience?
FB: Not to feel too restricted or stuck on one thing. Much like the seasons change, or as a person changes from year to year, interest in and love for different wines and flavours changes. Yes, in the winter months, I tend to work with deep reds, and, in the summer months, I look towards my white wines, but what evolves is your love for a different variety or a different district.
I treat my wines as you would a subject. You put your focus into one subject, explore it, study it and come to understand it as best and as deeply as you can to then spread the love and educate others. And, once I become skilled in that particular area, I move on and look for another subject.
There is so much wine to discover, and one lifetime is not enough to discover it all! Things change all the time, from generations to days; a lifetime simply is not enough. I will say that there is nothing on my wine list that I myself don’t like. When you open the wine book at sketch, it’s like opening the door to my personal wine cellar.
How important to the experience is having a good by the glass listing?
FB: By the glass listings can totally change and transform the way a restaurant sells and offers its wine.
I remember, twenty-odd years ago, dividing the price of a bottle of 1982 Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, Saint-Julien into 4 and selling the entire thing during lunch service. At the time, it was a huge decision to sell a single glass of wine for £150/glass – it was shocking! But it also opened the door to a whole new world. We, of course, didn’t have the technology at the time to look after our opened bottles as we do today.
Bermar opened the door to sparkling by the glass offers; we have no limit to the Champagne we can open & serve. We are able to pour the likes of Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Francaises, 2008, knowing that we can preserve the wine and it will remain just as good with every open, thanks to your system.
There are enough visitors and customers out there who want to taste and enjoy something special every once in a while. Without our Bermar preservation system, this simply wouldn’t be possible. sketch is now empowered with the ability to offer more selection and quality of wines to multiple tables, and that is priceless.
Finally, on experience, we see you’re big on food and wine pairings at sketch, how do you work with the chefs to marry up the wine programme and the food menu?
FB: First and foremost, we are not dictated by the price brackets. It is based on emotion.
Typically, when our chef is putting together their new menu, we will sit down together and begin to narrow down what we want. Luckily, we have a massive selection by the glass which all of our wine pairings derive from. Once the list is composed, we go on to sample the proposed food & wine pairings. Throughout the process, you can try something that actually doesn’t work well together, then you try something else and the flavours pair well and complement one another. The end result really is trial and error.
We also like to offer a ‘special treat’ pairing, which is separate from our normal wine pairing menu. The idea is to offer the customer something they cannot get every day; it’s nothing too expensive and is, in its true definition, a ‘treat’. Again, experience is at the core, shaping our food and wine pairing decisions.
Speaking of food and wine pairings, what are your favourite or preferred combinations?
FB: Difficult to say, as life would be so boring if you had to stick to one wine. I’d quite like to enjoy my ‘last glass of wine’ with a Crottin de Chavignol cheese paired with a white Sancerre from “Les Monts Damnee” from Chavignol. Allowing me to appreciate and savour it as my last glass on an island would be even better. That’s the ultimate dream for the last glass frankly, quite simple!
Thank you for sharing so much today about your journey and how you go about creating such an incredible wine experience at sketch. Finally, on a personal note, what is your guilty pleasure wine?
FB: If I had to pick a favourite, any wine that is made with a Petit Manseng [white] grape variety.
All photos credited to: @lrl.sketchlondon
Should you wish to visit sketch, London, they can be found here:
9 Conduit St, London W1S 2XG