Dermot Powell, a solicitor from Dublin, is the winner of the 2022 Irish Times Food Month competition to win a year-long wine experience with The K Club hotel and resort in Co Kildare.
The five finalists in the competition, who were selected on the basis of a written submission, took part in a practical and theoretical examination at the hotel on Monday before meeting the judges, who included Irish Times wine columnist John Wilson, and the hotel’s head sommelier, Lisa O’Doherty.
The finalists were examined on their wine knowledge and their ability to match wine with food. There was also a practical element to the judging process, with two wines to be blind tasted and assessed.
The winner will travel with a companion to Bordeaux to visit Château Magnol, the vineyard of winemakers Barton & Guestier, for lunch and wine tastings. In 1831 Hugh Barton purchased land in Kildare and built the original Straffan House on The K Club lands, and Barton & Guestier remains the hotel’s house wine.
The prize also includes tickets for a collaborative wine dinner with The K Club and the Marbella Club in Spain, private access to the K Club’s cellar tour and an opportunity to shadow Lisa O’Doherty at a professional wine-tasting event. All of the finalists were presented with certificates of merit and sets of Riedel wine glasses.
The winner, who is from Cavan, now living in Dublin, wrote in his initial submission about how as a latecomer to wine drinking, he was introduced to fine wines while undertaking postgraduate studies in Japan, through his French, Italian and Greek colleagues.
“My entry was simply a labour of love,” he said. “Being picked as a finalist was fantastic. I know enough to know I will never know enough about wine, but winning this incredible prize will fast forward my odyssey.”
His written submission, and those of the other four finalists, is published below.
It was the early 1990s and I was working on placement in Japan. Up to that point my interactions in Ireland with wine were limited to attending social events where the choice was: red or white. Other than the colour, you had no idea what you were drinking, but ultimately I knew I didn’t like it.
A French friend in Tokyo asked if I liked wine. I said no. He asked which types I didn’t like and I said both colours. He shook his head and asked me to go with him to a local wine shop. On the way he explained that there was a wine war ongoing in Tokyo, where European wine was priced very competitively to try to gain market share.
He chose a selection of wines from the top shelf, which were unbelievably in budget even though they had pictures of beautiful chateaux on the front. There were wines from the left and right banks of Bordeaux, but the one that entranced me was Carbonnieux, from Graves. Maybe it was because it was outside the well-known areas but it was actually the first wine I drank where I could close my eyes and be transported home walking along a lane eating blackberries from a bush, but even better than that, with a layer of soft vanilla to compliment the taste.
This is the wine that triggered a love affair with Bacchus. This is the wine that makes me drive to the other side of Dublin each month to buy wine because you find a wine shop you trust. This is the wine that makes me choose wine pairings at a restaurant at every opportunity I can. Why people do not put their order in the hands of a sommelier is beyond me. Tell them a price range and they accept the trust you put in them.
It is quite like my time in Tokyo, where once a month when a group of us got paid, we would go to a sushi restaurant. We only ever made one order: “omakase” which means chef, we leave it up to you. He abides by “giri” which is a duty which for the chef means serving you the best fish available to him.
Some of the most amazing wine I have experienced I would never have ordered other than it was chosen by a sommelier. It is how I found wine like Grüner and Godello. It is why when we have roast chicken I instantly think of Uchizy. It is why there is, incongruously, a wine fridge in our otherwise ordinary kitchen.
I’m totally overheating in my tight uniform which doesn’t lend itself to the pace of the job I am doing. Six courses to be served, no more practising, this has to be flawless. It’s four weeks into this part-time job and I can’t believe that one meal can generate so much tableware.
Even Jean Paul, the sommelier, who’s been at this for years, is feeling the pressure. He’s been agonising over the wine parings for weeks now and is banking on this selection to impress the hotel owner and guests for this special Christmas Eve lunch.
The diners enter [it’s] showtime. The first course is over before I know it, all good so far. John Paul pours a glass of the silky red wine for the owner. He takes a sip, his face expressionless, savours it and as it slides down his throat a smile appears at the corner of his lips and he nods in appreciation. “John Paul, you have surpassed yourself, an exceptional Bordeaux.”
A devout Bacardi and Coke girl myself it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about, but I am pleased for John Paul. Thankfully the massive clear-up is over and I’m about to leave, delighted I’m not working on Christmas Day. John Paul appears in the doorway with one of the opened untouched bottles of red that have not been drunk. He hands it to me and says, “take this home to share with your family”. Later that evening I sit with my family around a warm fire and have a glass. I feel its warm embrace envelop me, I suddenly realise what all the fuss is about and a lifelong love affair begins.
It’s raining, I barely notice the A-frame sidewalk board through my tears. It’s advertising a last-minute trip to Bire winery. Hopefully, the perfect adventure to snap me out of my melancholy. It had not been a great month. Our tour guide, Rafaella leads us out of Korcula town, down to the village of Lumbarda. As we cycle my eyes take in the views of the turquoise ocean alongside the vineyards.
The vines and ocean fill the air with herbal and salt aromas. It’s heady. We arrive at the winery and are introduced to Grk wine, a grape variety that only grows in this region. I learn that the word, pronounced “gurk”, means either Greek or bitter in Croatian. It is a full-bodied white, golden in colour, with notes of hay and citrus. It tastes of pears with a hint of bitterness. It goes well with the Dalmatian meats, cheeses and fish which have been offered to us on a wooden platter.
I love Chardonnay so it’s no surprise that it retails at €40 a bottle in a store. I know I have an expensive palate. I smell the Bire GRK once more, taste and swallow. My intrusive thought escapes and I blurt out, “To Korcula, my golden retriever, who passed. He loved running through hay fields and lazing in the sun, may you rest in peace.” And with that, a rainbow appears on the horizon and Rafaella says, “Zivjeli – let’s live”. We all laugh and open another bottle. “To man’s best friend” we all chime.
My interest in wine began with the advent of wine pairings in restaurants. As my wife does not drink, I rarely bought a bottle of wine at home as it was too much for me to consume myself. And surely it would be gone off by the next day? I devoured the Wine Bible and, bit by bit, the bewildering world of wine started to make some kind of sense.
My enthusiasm grew, but things came to a shuddering halt with lockdown. Then my wife bought me a Coravin. A world tour of wine suddenly beckoned without me having to leave my front door. A drawer under the spare bed was earmarked as a wine cellar.
A local business was selling off some expensive wine which had failed to make it into executive Christmas stockings. I was friends with the owner and wanted to support his enterprise at a difficult time. So I purchased a Lucullus Bordeaux. I had barely made it on to the street outside before I felt a distinct twinge of guilt at spending €70 on a bottle of wine. And all for myself. On the other hand, was it not the perfect departure point for my Coravin adventure?
I was anxious plunging the needle into the bottle: my level of expectation was high, but what if it was disappointing after spending so much money? The first rush of brooding dark fruit on the palate dispelled my nerves. This was complexity in a way I had never experienced. Chocolate and pencil shavings, espresso and bitter herbs, shot through with a lightning acidity, illuminating the harmonious whole.
I sat at the kitchen table in silence as the impact reverberated long after the sip was gone. My Coravin adventure suddenly promised to be a thrilling ride. The next time Lucullus saw the light of day, I was pouring it into a cooking pot. The quality of the grapes and the skill of the winemaker were not matched by the integrity of the cork. My wine cellar resembled a murder scene, and my sublime nectar had turned into a pumpkin. It was almost an out-of-body experience watching €60 of Bordeaux disappearing into a stew. It was, however, the best boeuf bourguignon ever.
Ellen Ní Chinseallaigh
March 2020. Covid hit Ireland and we stopped in our tracks. Family WhatsApp is bleeping constantly. Four “grown-up” sisters coming home from the Big Smoke, the People’s Republic in Cork and from the home of the Geordies back to our parents’ farmhouse in the middle of Ireland. The settling-in process takes its time and takes a toll. We wonder if these masks and visors will be with us when the days get longer.
We reach summer and we are all still at home, wandering bóithríns and wondering up dreams. On a summer’s night someone has broken up with someone and someone is trying to decide what to do with life. Frankly, the moment calls for a glass of something, but old habits die hard and us four sisters cannot agree. One is a glittery rosé girl, one only a deep Chianti when paired with the right white fish, the other only a fan of anything with Graham Norton’s name on it and the last is confused between a Malbec and a Marlborough.
There are sighs and murmurs of “typical” so and so. We decide to blindly pick a bottle from the “good shelf”. And we smell, inhale and sip our glasses of Wicklow Way Blackberry Moineir. Then a first in our house; a moment of silence. And then more murmurs, quickly bursting into laughter, and a few tears. I tasted the last few months. A wine that was still rich and full of depth, that tasted like the hedgerows around us and smelled like a countryside jaunt. An Irish wine to drink in the Irish countryside under Irish stars. A wine that tastes like home. A wine that kept myself and my sisters up by a candle at a makeshift outdoors table and chairs, reminiscing on childhoods spent outdoors and planning our adventures in a post-Covid world.
From that moment I dreamt of going to see vineyards and learning about the grapes and generations that build bottles of wine that become memories and moments. In this moment I knew we would never spend another time like this again. We would go back to lives and plans, new jobs and new fellas, but right now it was four sisters against the world, putting the world to right with an Irish wine by our side.
It was happiness and sadness, time slipping by and time standing still and it was everything. A wine that took us back to childhoods collecting blackberries, faces smeared with purple by the time we came in for tea, and it excited us for a future of unknowns. I have never been to a vineyard and have never met a sommelier, and I didn’t know a glass of wine could change a life.
But a cold glass of blackberry wine on a country summer night changed everything for me, and I have spent the last few years learning how wines and their histories make people and our histories. A good wine may speak of exotic destinations and rare grapes, but for me, it always brings me home to a summer’s night, to my sisters, my best friends.