The straight-talking sommelier: 'There’s more to drinks than beer for blokes and rosé for women'
To listen to Sean Gargano is to immerse yourself in what he describes as a golden age for drinks in Ireland. To start with, he tells me over coffee in the Woollen Mills restaurant in Dublin city centre, the idea that men drink pints and women drink rosé is being consigned to history - and we can thank the craft beer movement for it.
"If you go to Italy, you'll fine great big burly, hairy men happily drinking a glass of rosé, and yet here there are some drinks that have acquired a kind of reputation that puts people off. For a long time, Irish guys would only go for the four or five beers that were available on tap in their local," he says.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
"Thank God that has changed, and it's because of craft beer. It's made it cool to try different drinks in an evening, to experiment with other flavours, and to open the door to curiosity and wonder in alcohol."
Gargano is a man on mission to expand our drinking horizons. Currently head sommelier for Elaine Murphy's group of five restaurants - The Legal Eagle, The Washerwoman, The Woollen Mills, The Winding Stair and Yarn - it's up to him to make sure that Dublin diners can lay their hands on the tipple of their choice at the right time and in the right location. And that doesn't involve just thinking about the liquid itself.
"One of the big shifts that craft beer has caused is, believe it or not, in glassware. People have become willing to buy drinks in 330ml wine-shaped glasses, even if it's a beer. They're moving away from drinking beer in pints. Part of the reason is practical - if you drink a 568ml glass of an 8pc craft beer, firstly you'd fall over after a few of them and secondly, they'd cost €15 each," he says.
"Likewise, when it comes to wine, we've broadened our palates and we're willing now, for example, to look at wines that have some sweetness in them. Things have changed and I have to hand it over to the craft beer movement."
A further change in the way in which Irish people are consuming alcohol is particularly seen in younger people. Where older people might think nothing of drinking seven or eight pints on a night out, possibly followed by a whiskey chaser, people in their 20s and 30s are less inclined to drink this heavily.
"You watch them walk out of a place and they're not falling down. They'll have four or five 330ml glasses of beer where we would have had a dozen pints. And it's not that they don't get drunk, they know how to have fun too but it's in a different way and the same money would probably be spent," says Gargano.
"They're also willing to spend a little more on premium alcohols. Take craft gin, there are loads of them on the market and they're not all equally good. When someone walks into one of our places and says 'I want a gin and tonic', I'll say 'do you want it old school? Or do you want to choose your own?'"
'Old school' in this case means something like Tanqueray gin with a Schweppes tonic in a slim glass with lime and ice.
"There's absolutely nothing wrong with that - it's delicious and wonderful and it's pretty cheap at around €8. But if you want Micil Irish Gin with Fever-Tree Elderflower, and you want cardamom and lemon in a big bowl glass, it's going to be €11. And that's because that's what it costs."
Gargano cuts an unusual figure on the Dublin food and wine scene. A Chicago native, he came to Ireland in 1998 for a month-long holiday and never left. At The Yarn, there's a pizza named after him complete with a lasange topping.
His wine qualification comes from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), but he says this only makes up around a third of the knowledge he draws on each day at work.
"It's a base to stand on, but really most of your knowledge has to come from learning in the field. It's a question of consistently tasting, travelling, visiting vineyards and reading non-stop. It's a good thing I love my subject, because it's a constant in my life," he says.
"The way that wine, beer and spirits move in Ireland, you have to stay ahead of the game. It's my job to anticipate what customers want and make sure we have that to hand and that we're doing it the right way."
One thing that irritates him is the idea of sommeliers having personal preferences. They all do, of course, but when it comes to doing their job, he believes preferences have no place - their job is to match the customer's expectations.
"I hate it when I hear people who do this job say things like 'I don't like…' or 'I think…'. It doesn't matter what you like or don't like, or what you think - what matters is what the customer might like," he says. "It's about judging quality for quality's sake, and to do that you have to have a base knowledge of what the intention of a drink maker is.
"If you're going to judge cars, then you have to know what the car was made to do. If it's going to the race track then you judge it as a race car, and if it's a family car you judge it as a family car. It's the exact same thing with drinks."
He spends a lot of his time training staff to deal with customers. It's one thing, he says, to have a career's worth of knowledge behind you but it's quite another thing to impart that to waiting staff.
"A big part of the job is training, training and more training. This is why I always tell people that if they're going to buy wine, they should go to a wine shop and not a supermarket. The person in the supermarket just can't know about all the wines they sell. They're not trained to," he says. "But if you go to a dedicated wine shop there should be somebody there who you can approach and say 'listen, I've got €20, I want something killer and I normally like XYZ'. You're much more likely to leave with a decent bottle in that situation."
Democratising wine and making it more accessible is something that Gargano has spent a fair bit of time thinking about. One measure he's taken across the restaurants he works with is to break down the wine lists in unique ways.
"Take The Legal Eagle - there are about 235 entries on that wine list. I'm very aware of blinding people with knowledge and overloading them with choice, so it's broken down by style and by similar regions. It's very hard when you're writing menus to do something novel but we think this is unique," he says.
"For example, I'll put the word 'aromatic' on the menu, then 'New Zealand, Loire Valley'. So if people go 'I like New Zealand sauvignon blanc, I say to them 'well then the odds are you'll probably also really like this."
While any member of staff in a good restaurant should be able to "get you where you want to go" with a wine list, says Gargano, they probably won't have in-depth knowledge of the soils and climates of wine regions. However, with this system, a staff member can reliably get a drinker to the style of wine they like at the price they want to spend.
"To me that is one of the joys of going out. I'll never understand when people put their head down into the wine list and just tell you 'I'm grand' when part of the premium they're paying for when ordering wine in a restaurant is the ability to call on the expertise of the staff," says Gargano.
"It confuses me when they don't want that interaction, because truthfully, 99pc of people aren't trying to just upsell you on more expensive wine. They're just trying to get you happy - that's their job."
Gargano says that in his experience, Irish people can be a little slow to ask advice in general.
"I grew up in a different culture and totally have no problem with that. If I'm buying a present for my wife I will talk to whoever's behind the jeweller's counter and ask 'what's the difference between this and this? Why is that one €500 and this one €50?'" he says.
If he could offer just one piece of advice to people eating out in bars and restaurants, it would be to talk to the staff more.
"That's part of choosing a restaurant, of going somewhere that people really know what they're doing. If you take a look at the really popular successful restaurants, they're filled with staff that love their gig and know a lot about it. Why not take advantage?"
A light aperitif-style cocktail invoking the sweet/sour flavour of a rhubarb fool.
For the syrup:
250g caster sugar
2 split vanilla pods
1kg fresh rhubarb
Water to cover
Chop the rhubarb roughly into small pieces, add to saucepan and add just enough water to cover. Simmer until soft.
Add 250g caster sugar to a bowl, add 125ml boiling water stirring until sugar dissolves. Then add 2 vanilla pods.
When rhubarb becomes soft add it and all juices from pan to the vanilla sugar syrup. Let mixture cool then steep in the fridge at least 24 hours. Strain through a very fine sieve.
45ml JJ Whitley Rhubarb Vodka
45ml lemon juice
35 ml rhubarb vanilla syrup (see above)
20ml egg white
Chill a martini glass or champagne coupe. Add rhubarb vodka, lemon juice, rhubarb vanilla syrup and egg white to cocktail shaker. Dry shake without ice for 15 seconds. Add ice and shake for further 15 seconds. Strain into chilled coupe.
A ridiculously simple twist on a classic. A friend told me he had a Carciofo Negroni in New York and asked if I could make one for him. This is my version; he says it tastes the same, but he has to say that. (Cynar is a bitter liqueur that is made with artichokes.)
30ml Tanqueray gin
30ml Cynar Amaro
30ml Lillet Blanc Vermouth
In a mixing glass add gin, Cynar & Lillet. Fill to the top with ice and stir for 20 turns. Strain into old fashioned or rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with a fat lemon twist.