A Day in My Life as Head Sommelier in Ashford Castle
It’s 8:30 am. Autumn time in Mayo, Ireland’s west – a county that’s a kaleidoscope of colour, rhythm, and movement. A season where the leaves change colour, and perhaps your wine does too. The bed vibrates, my new Samsung squealing for attention: 12 emails, 4 Twitter notifications, and a text from my most discerning fan, my mother. “Phil, did you know there are sulphites in wine? That is an allergen. Lots of love. Mam”. A twinkle hits my eye.
Dad was also up early today, 7:30 am, according to my Twitter notification where he has messaged me. He sends me a link to a news website that reads ‘Ashford Castle Achieves International Award.’ “Scooping them up Phil, proud of you,” he writes under the link.
My eyes peel open. It’s 8:45 am now. Feels like one minute ago. I pull one leg out of bed and accidentally knock over my half full glass of Californian Cabernet that accompanied a Decanter wine magazine and me to bed last night. The glistening front cover of Decanter has been shaded red by the falling heavyweight Californian Cab. I clean up, go to the sink, and wash the red liquid from my hands like a scene from a crime movie.
9:30 am. 15 emails in the inbox, and a new follower notification on Twitter. The first appointment of the day is at 10:00 am – an interview with a Junior Sommelier candidate. I feed the fish, take my Centrum vitamin, and pat down my silk laced trouser pockets.
Phone – check. Pen – check. Wine opener – check. Bow tie for dinner service tonight – check. Content with having the ‘sommelier starter pack’ holstered on me, I begin my 5-minute voyage to the idyllic workplace of mine, Ashford Castle.
I make my way towards the bridge accessing the castle grounds. The sunshine is peeping out through the Connemara rain clouds. One of our charming gatekeepers draped in a pristine long coat and top hat is entertaining the early risers of the hotel just after breakfast.
A white cat greets me cautiously on the other side of the bridge. He seems inquisitive as to why I am trespassing at his castle. Entering through the fabled staff doors of Ashford Castle, a pile of 60 wine boxes lies in wait. I forgot it’s the delivery day today – such fun. It’s not always glamour and bow ties, I think wryly to myself.
9:45 am. A quick espresso coffee in the staff canteen before I meet the Junior Somm candidate. I take one final glimpse in the mirror to check myself before going up to the guest areas of the castle. From there on; there is simply no compromise on sheer excellence in my role as the Head Sommelier of the most luxurious, grandest hotel in the world.
10:45 am. Interview finishes. Superstar potential, seems inquisitive. I like that in someone. The daily management meeting in Ashford Castle begins at 11:00 am – our general manager will be pleased to know we’re booked out over the next four days for private wine tastings in our suave wine cellar.
Executive head chef Philippe whispers to me during the meeting he has four new dishes coming onto the George V menu this evening. One of the dishes involves lobster. By sommelier instinct, I think of a Riesling/Albarino blend from the North West of Spain called Ekam that would be a 5-star match for the dish. My tail wags for the pre-service food and wine tasting at 6:00 pm.
Before I know it, it’s 12:00 pm already. The aroma of pork chops and roast potatoes which makes its way down to the staff canteen for lunch is deflecting me from my reports and emails. My concentration subsides momentarily. By 1:00 pm, nine emails are written and 2 reports completed. One of the emails is my entry to the Irish Guild of Sommeliers’ National Sommelier Competition in January. Being a novice to this contest, I assure myself that now is the time.
In a dazed reflection, the phone rings. It’s reception to tell me my first private wine tasting this afternoon at 4:00 pm would like to increase their party size from five to six. Happily obliged. At €195 per person, the ‘Super Tuscan’ private tasting these guests experience will include wines such as Sassicaia, Tignanello, Summus, and other surprises throughout.
It is truly the wine connoisseurs’ equivalent of Disneyland to taste extraordinary bottles such as these in the charmingly natural setting that it takes place in, our cellar at Ashford. Before I make my way down to the cellar at 3.30 pm, I pass by the energetic pastry kitchen, which is bustling with the Afternoon Tea service, to collect some freshly baked crackers and bread from our talented pastry queen Paula. The aroma of fresh bread reminds me of childhood, 20 years ago.
As I make my way into our cellar, I discern that one of my junior sommeliers, Elizabeth, already has the wine glasses shined and lined up in our main tasting room. Little superstar. While I’m hosting the tastings at 4:00 pm and 5:30 pm today, Elizabeth will be coordinating our wine station and replenishing our stock for tonight’s 80 cover dinner service in Ashford Castle’s George V Dining Room.
There are 40 candles lit, the echo of Tony Bennett singing ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ faintly in the background. The ambiance is set. For the next 3 hours, I can exemplify passion, education, pride, and appreciation towards the wines I’ll be showcasing, and the setting I am presenting them in, Ashford Castle. The sensation is truly immeasurable.
As I bid farewell to the last wine tasting guests, dinner service has just begun at 6:45 pm. As I trickle up to the flight of stairs from the cellar, Elizabeth meets me halfway to tell me a bottle of Leoville Barton ’82 from Bordeaux has been ordered by table 14.
I make a U-Turn back to the candle smoke filled wine tunnel to retrieve the prized Claret. Blowing off a trickle of dust, I withdraw the bottle from its resting place among other Bordeaux greats like Petrus and Chateau Latour and start making my way back up. A decanting station is already set up by Elizabeth for me by the guest’s table, where I will open and serve the wine.
The guests on table 14, from California, tell me this is a particular treat for their 35th Wedding Anniversary. Congratulating them on their anniversary, I cast an inquisitive eye on the aged, fragile cork I’m opening. If I’m too rough, or too heavy-handed, the cork will break, which any sommelier will tell you, is never the coveted outcome when opening a bottle. Fortuitously, it comes out in one piece.
I pass the cork to the lady on a silver coaster and tell her that although it may not be a diamond ring, it is assuredly the next best thing. I give both the husband and wife a taste of the Leoville Barton – while the gentleman kindly offers me a taste too. Graciously, I decline. I want them both to relish every drop. This is their moment, their special wine, their Ashford Castle memory. They both have a taste, affirm their love for both each other and the wine – I smile affectionately, ready to fill their glass with memories of 1982, the year they married 35 years ago, from the bottle.
The next time I look at my watch, its 10:10 pm. A total of 80 covers are wined and dined, ready for the evening entertainment in the Drawing Room. Sore feet, slowly sinking eyelids. I wouldn’t change it for the world. The crackle of empty wine bottles rings as we clear the tables. The crystal chandeliers in the dining room give one last flicker. Lights off. Another day in paradise.
Originally from Celbridge, Kildare, Philip Dunne has worked in the Irish hospitality industry since he was 15. After experiences in fine and casual dinning, he started to work at Ashford Castle in 2015 and after working his way up, he became Ashford Castle’s Head Sommelier at the age of 25.
Philip’s passion for wine goes beyond the service at the luxurious five star as he also writes about the topic and he’s an enthusiastic and active presence in the Irish wine scene.