Industry profile: The Westbury’s Philip Dunne
As part of the recent launch of Bibendum in Ireland, we interview Philip Dunne, one of Dublin’s leading sommeliers and a key player in the city’s flourishing wine scene.
Philip is currently Head Sommelier at The Westbury Hotel and is the Sunday Business Post's 'Sommelier of the Year 2019'. In the latest of our industry profiles, Sophia Godyn caught up with him to find out more about what Dublin wine fans are currently drinking, his passion for sherry, and the importance of training up-and-coming talent in the hospitality sector.
SG: Thanks for joining me Philip, let’s start with how you first got into wine.
PD: I’d say it was when I was 19 and took a job at BANG restaurant in Dublin. The owner there was really passionate about wine, so wanted everyone to study their WSET level 1 and 2. And it all started then.
SG: And what about the first time you tasted a wine that made you think, ‘this is what I want to do with my life’?
PD: That would have to be a wine from Mallorca actually. I was 18 and it was a red wine called AN/2. It was complete silk and really made me think about wine as more than a drink. It transported me over to that hot island and made me realise that this was something made by human hands.
SG: So you’re currently Head Sommelier at The Westbury, can you tell me a bit about the food and drink you serve there?
PD: The Westbury is a landmark hotel in Dublin, which has been going since the 1970s. It has two restaurants (Wilde and Balfes) and a bar (The Sidecar) which attracts a wide range of food and drink lovers. Balfes is a brasserie influenced by New York and Paris, with a focus on vegan and healthier eating. And Wilde is more of a casual fine dining restaurant with an emphasis on 1930s glamour.
SG: How did you go about curating the Westbury’s wine list? Any overarching themes or influences?
PD: The Balfes wine list is 100% vegan to reflect the cuisine we serve there. And I suppose I draw some inspiration from what’s going on with lists in New York, Sydney and California, but I always try and make things my own. The Wilde wine list is the hotel’s main list, which currently has 300 wines (it was 200, but I increased it by 50%!)
It’s got various themes running throughout it including ‘gastronomic wines’ (umami, salty, bitter), ‘wine collaborations’ and a selection of rosé and low-tannin reds to serve at 10°C. We also have ‘timeless’ whites and reds, which are our more traditional offerings, as well a selection for the ‘wine curious’
SG: You’ve only been at the Westbury since 2018, so can you tell me what you’ve done since you started?
PD: I started in July 2018 with the intention of bringing the Westbury’s wine programme up to a world class level. The Westbury was always known for its great cocktails in The Sidecar but never for its wine, but now it’s rated one of the top 10 wine lists in the country (in no particular order) by Sunday Business Post and has been recognised by Wine Spectator and AA. I was also delighted to receive Sommelier of the Year from Sunday Business Post in January, which was a really proud moment for me.
Since I started, we’ve also become the only hotel in Ireland to offer WSET level 1 and 2 to all front of house waiting staff. I’m a WSET educator myself and have already trained 120 staff to level 1, and 70 to level 2. I was given an opportunity when I was 19, so it’s really important for me to be passing on this opportunity to others in the industry ten years later.
SG: How would you sum up the Dublin wine scene?
PD: There’s a lot of movement in natural, biodynamic, organic and vegan wines and lots of small, independent wine buyers popping up. I feel like wine is getting traction in the same way cocktails did a couple of years ago. It’s like wine is having its moment. It’s really exciting to be at the forefront of a new movement.
SG: So what are wine fans drinking in Dublin at the moment?
PD: I think people are willing to experiment more than ever. Orange wine, sherry, quality sparkling (not necessarily from Champagne), premium rosé, they’re all pretty big right now. People are willing to spend serious money on rosé now, which in the past would have been unthinkable! And not just from Provence. Navarra in Spain is making some great rosé. Also lighter styles of red, like Beaujolais Crus. They’re great for chilling and there’s some really good quality over there. They’re also a great way to encourage white wine or spirits drinkers to start experimenting with red.
SG: And what’s the next big thing?
PD: It has to be sherry or madeira, they are some of the most complex wines in the world for such a good price. There needs to be a movement! Sherry works fantastically with so many dishes; it isn’t just an aperitif. People say Champagne works like that, but dry sherry can do exactly the same, and arguably you’re paying a lot less. This has to be the next big trend.
SG: What do you love most about the wine trade?
PD: The fact that you never stop learning and that it challenges you in such a diverse number of ways. It challenges your brain, your nose, your palate; you need to know about history, geography but also be business savvy; and you become an artist when it comes to curating a wine list. The wine trade really is a complete job. I also love the community we have here in Dublin. It’s so friendly, optimistic and supportive, and there’s a real freshness about the industry today.
SG: If you didn’t work in hospitality, what would you be doing?
PD: I honestly have no idea. I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 14, which is half my life. I know nothing else! And I could certainly never be as passionate about anything else.
SG: Can you tell us a little about some wines that you list by the glass, and why you think they work well in this format?
PD: Firstly, the Oddity Tokaji. For ay sommelier curating a by the glass programme, it's essential to include a 'bang for your buck' wine that delivers more quality than its price would suggest, and the Oddity Tokaji does that for us at the Westbury. It's a style with its own personality, to be enjoyed by those looking outside the box of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio etc.
Also, the Chateau Changyu Moser XV White Cabernet. Would any wine lover guess the grape variety or provenance of this wine, if they were to taste it blind? Probably not. That's why this is an important wine on our by the glass list; it showcases that it's the quality of the liquid that does the talking, not what's on the label. As this is relatively inexpensive on our list, it's an approachable gateway for people to step outside their comfort zone. And as China's now the second largest country under vine, we can expect to see more Chinese wines making their way to Irish shores and lists in the future.