For those of us who have been living in Singapore for some time, and have frequented some of the island’s hottest restaurants – will know that Wes is ‘The Man”. Wes has ran restaurants for some of the world’s most famous chefs and has a powerful Rolodex of high-society diners and influencers that call on him for that special table booking and dining experience. Today, Wes is at the helm of Artemis Grill and the famous Bistecca Tuscan Stakehouse, but it’s his passion project around Californian artisan wines called The Drinkery is what everybody is talking about.
We sat down with Wes, and this is what he had to say..
After spending 6 years serving the who’s who of Singapore and people from all walks of life at CUT and Spago, you decided to share your passion for Californian wines with the world, can you tell us a little about The Drinkery?
The Drinkery has been around for a few years and started off as a distributor of craft beer in Singapore. My California counterparts at Drinkery were wine selling directly to me when I worked at Marina Bay Sands. This allowed me to curate a list pretty much whatever I wanted. It also allowed them to introduce new products to me. Being abroad so long, trends change and I relied heavily upon them to bring me the dates and greatest. We would direct ship every few months and this allowed us to offer a rather exclusive range of products to our guests. So a year ago I figured why not try this broad scope and I teamed up with the same guys who had created this great supply chain. It also allowed me to work more closely people and bring them exactly what they want – if California wine is what they are looking for.
The Drinkery is also partnered with TAP at Capitol Piazza and they have 4 Thirsty shops around town as well, which offer a widely diverse range of beer. We aren’t selling wine there yet, but likely will later this year.
The wine lists at both CUT & Spago are very well curated and full of fantastic options, what was your strategy in recommending the perfect bottle for your guests?
First of all, when it comes to a wine list, I want to make certain we have something for almost everyone: price and style. I usually ask someone what kind of wine they like to drink. And I’ve heard it all from indecisive to curious to specific. I think I learned in Vegas a long time ago, when it comes to wine, never try to fit a square peg into a round hole. If someone loves Bordeaux and they specifically don’t want to drink California wine, don’t try talking them into a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. You likely do yourself and them a disservice. If they love Bordeaux, but want to try something different, a Rhône Valley red is a nice alternative. Medium to full bodied and old world in style – and it satisfies the francophile in any of us.
Why the obsession with Californian wines?
I’ve always had a passion for wine, probably since I was 18 and started working in a small French fine dining restaurant. A veteran maitre d’ took me under her wing and started teaching me how to appreciate wine. We were exposed to all kinds from sweet German riesling to vintage Burgundy. By 24 years old I was running an F&B department in an affluent country club in Las Vegas. This required I host California winemaker dinners and chair a “Wine Committee”. This was a panel of wine savvy club members and included doctors, lawyers and a judge. This led to California wine trips I had to organise consisting of 4 days of travel, wine tasting and dinner all while trying not to screw it up. Those trips, the wine dinners and the 2004 movie Sideways just took me deeper. Early last year I read a couple books, one of which was The Judgment of Paris, the George M. Taber book about the California vs. France wine contest held in Paris in 1976. Around then, I decided this is what I really want to do.
Can you share a little more about the wineries you work with in California, and what makes them so special to you?
10 years in Las Vegas and 3 of them at Spago and CUT Las Vegas allowed me face time with a lot of people in the wine industry whether they were winemakers, proprietors or one of the many Master Sommeliers ubiquitously seen in Vegas. When I moved to Singapore I remember getting emails Napa wine notables Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards and Randy Lewis, the former Indy car driver and founder of Lewis Cellars. Both wanted to be assured their wines would be on our list at CUT. I took this as a great compliment. Having some of these personal relationships gives me a story when I’m at a table. George Wine Co. is a great example. I met George Levkoff in 2003 in my office at the country club. At the time, he had just released his 2nd vintage. He buys grapes from 4 family-owned Pinot Noir vineyards and personal makes a minuscule amount of wine by himself. He personally writes the number of each bottle on the label. I sell these wines here in Singapore and they are exceptional. There is a ton of great Pinot Noir out there, but I know George and every year he sets asides a handful of cases for me no matter where I’m working.
How would you say they differ from wines from other parts of the world?
First I’d like to clarify one myth I’ve been hearing for years in Singapore, that American wine is expensive. Anyone who has wandered the aisles of an American supermarket has seen wines for well under $20-30 USD. And yes, you can find some fantastic quality for that price. It’s a matter of those wines finding their way to our part of world. As far as taste goes, the flavour profile of the normally sought out Pinot Noirs, Cabernets, and Chardonnay’s are distinctly California. As much so as a Barossa Shiraz is indicative of its terroir. I think one of the greatest surprises coming out of California right now are her Syrahs. No other grape other than maybe Syrah’s Rhône counterparts: Grenache and Marsanne/Roussane, come close to tasting so “Old World” in style, at least to me. I’m a huge advocate of these wines and when I do mixed cases for our clients I always try to drop a Cali Syrah in there. The ageabilty is incredible. I have sort of a “wine crush” on Côte-Rôtie and Cornas reds, so I might be a bit bias.
We know that you are also a huge foodie, so can you suggest some great food pairings with some of your wines?
When I work a restaurant floor, I get to enjoy the best part of the wine experience. I get to deal with what I call the “end-user”. This is when the bottle is opened. Bottles all over the world are sitting in personal wine cellars, ageing and awaiting their day. As a restaurant operator, I get to be there when a guest opens and drinks the bottle, usually with a great meal and how wine was originally intended to be enjoyed. On the wine sales side of thing, whenever I get a text from one of my clients whether it’s a restaurant manager or sommelier or it’s a picture text to me, and the message that follow is how much they enjoyed the wine, an immediate mental fist pump ensues.
As far as pairings go, I have 3 rules. 1) Drink what you want to drink and don’t take pairing so seriously, what good is pairing a wine if it’s not really what you want to drink. Plus not everyone at the table is usually eating the same thing but if you are, it makes pairing make a bit more sense. 2) Sally Schneider said it best, if it grows together it goes together. I’d say drink Barolo with braised veal, and drink German beer with sausage and sauerkraut. Simple. 3) If you’re drinking a few different wines, enjoy progressively in terms of alcohol content or tannic structure. You probably should open a dry white wine after you’ve been drinking red. And I don’t typically recommend drinking something that’s 13% ABV if you’ve been drinking something at 14.5% ABV. This seldom yields a positive result.
Sometimes there is a lot of pretension around wine, how do you feel about that?
I find it extremely off-putting. One of my main goals with wine is to bring it down to earth. People ask me all the time what I think about Opus One and Screaming Eagle because these are the wines they are familiar with. Of course they are both great wines, but not something we can all enjoy day to day and honestly there’s not a whole lot of it out there anyway. There are 400 other wineries in Napa, some that most people have never heard of that will blow your mind. What gets me excited is when someone introduces me to something new…like wine that grows naturally without sulphites from France, or a “cold climate” Chardonnay from Santa Maria where you can see the ocean from the vineyard or an Old Vine Grenache from Australia where the vines are a century old and have never been exposed to phylloxera, a parasite known to decimate entire wine regions. That kind of stuff isn’t pretentious and anyone can relate. I think the concept that wine is history in a bottle, transported around the world…that thinking gets me fired up in the morning.
If you had a crystal ball, what would you predict for the next 5-10 years in the wine industry? (In particular the Californian wine industry)
I think wine is going the same direction that beer and spirits kind of went a few years ago, vis a vis the Hipster-movement – a lot of home-grown projects. You’re hearing the term Garagista used more and more which is akin to the French term “garagistes”. This term was used to describe guys making wine in their garages in Bordeaux back in the 90’s. Now you have guys and gals alike doing similar projects in California. These passion projects start popping up and what you get is people making great terroir driven wines. And Americans, much like many of the Austrians and Australians, have some fantastic looking packaging. I get calls all the time about the labels of our wines, people love them, and the wine happens to be great as well. Wine RVLT over on Killiney Road has a spectacular collection of natural and organic wines, packaging is off the charts cool.
What is your favorite bottle of wine right now? Why?
I’m a huge fan of the Black Sheep Finds “Hocus Pocus” Syrah. There’s a fantastic story there about Master of Wine, Amy Christine and her husband, veteran winemaker Peter Hunken, worth the read out there for anyone interested. They are sourcing fantastic fruit out of Santa Rita Hills making a small production of various Syrah’s, a Cabernet blend, some Pinot Noir and a Rosé. And doing all of this in a humble warehouse behind the Home Depot in Lampoc, California. I think for a wine under $50, it drinks exceptionally higher than that. I am always satisfied and our clients are too…a real showstopper. I hope they saved me some, because I’m almost out!
Lastly, where can we buy your wines?
California Chef, David Myers has a restaurant over at Marina Bay Sands called Adrift. It’s a great vibe, awesome setlist of music, and they have a super cool service team lead by their GM, Gibran. He and I share a vision for progressive wine lists. They took on a number of our California labels earlier this year. Meat Smith has our stuff and so does a new restaurant out in East Coast called Firebake. I’m a double agent and many of my evenings working over at Artemis up on the top of the CapitaGreen building overlooking Marina Bay. We carry several Drinkery labels and also offer a unique collection of wine from all around the Mediterranean.
People are free to reach out to us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, we sell direct to consumer and deliver island-wide. The great part is we bring in new wine labels monthly. So we always have new products arriving.