As a child, sommelier and restaurateur, Sunaina Sethi would guess what was cooking by scenting single spices within the rich aromas escaping the kitchen. She dismisses the idea that her talent for spotting enticing wines stems from superlative senses. But with celebrated chef and restaurateur, Karam Sethi, for a brother, and the family restaurant group, JKS, renowned for sniffing out what Londoners are dying to eat, long before they know it themselves, it’s fair to say the Sethi’s have phenomenal taste.
Eight years ago, their burgeoning epicurean empire was born with the opening of south west India-focused Trishna, followed by marginally more casual, pan-regional outfit, Gymkhana. It’s at these Michelin-starred spaces that Sunaina, who also heads up front of house operations, has free rein to create intrepid wine lists and novel food pairings on a daily basis. Whereas for last year’s launch: Sri Lankan, no reservation hotspot, Hoppers, she worked with an Italian vineyard to produce own-label, half-bottles to be served alongside those raved over kari and sambol combos. Most food-minded folk will also have spent time queuing outside at least one of the two JKS-backed BAO sites, eyes glazed with lust for Taiwanese buns. And you’ll find the group behind the scenes of innovative fast food-fine dining duo: BubbleDogs and The Kitchen Table; and flawless, east London acclaim-magnet, Lyle’s, too.
How do you develop your senses as a sommelier?
The more that you taste and the more that you understand the make up of wines, the more you hone yourself into the components and how to identify them. You don’t need a particular palette as ultimately it's subjective: so what I think tastes like apples, you might think does not. Also, having been trained in a certain way, you're ultimately looking to decide what level of quality a certain wine is, which can take away from the simple question of, “Do you like it?” So for that reason, I always tell my sommeliers that the first answer I would like is whether they like it. It’s really the most important thing.
So even at a professional level there are differences of opinion during tastings?
For sure. Recently I chose a full bodied red for a family dinner and my husband asked what flavors I was getting and I said, “Cigar box, tobacco, dark chocolate,” and that I really like it. He got the same notes, but didn’t like it for that very reason. Then my brother said, “I don't know what you're talking about! I don't get any of those things.” So that shows how you can pick up flavors, but whether or not you enjoy them, and therefore like that wine, makes all the difference.
Do you collaborate with chefs to ensure there are dishes that match your choices on the menus?
When we host wine nights, we’ll do a tasting to work out what will go perfectly with a certain dish and then there is a bit of tweaking – not to change a dish completely, but there's more freedom on those occasions. For example. if you take our Hariyali bream dish, which is cooked in a tandoor and has a marinade of spinach, mint, coriander, green chillies, that, for me, would automatically call for a fresh white with good acidity to cut through the fish’s oiliness and complement its marinade, but the issue is that there’s a tomato kachumber (like a salsa) on the side, which adds a hell of a lot of acidity, so you then need to look for something that won’t be overkill.
Do you have any standout memories of great matches?
A couple of years ago, I was blown away by tasting what I would have guessed was an expensive viognier from Rhone, but when I was shown the bottle, it was Greek and about a tenth of the price that I'd be paying for its counterpart. That same day we tasted new dishes with the chef and it clicked immediately – a eureka moment, and probably the greatest match I’ve ever created.
Is hunting for those moments what keeps you engaged?
Absolutely and so does championing wines from emerging regions like Greece. A lot of these places including Croatia, Slovenia and Hungary aren’t well known for their wines, but have proved they can make them as well as other parts of Europe. I love Croatian wines. They’re underrated and fantastic value. It’s also a beautiful country with intriguing culture.
Are you able to give these wines much space on the restaurants’ lists?
Increasingly so, but I also don't want diners to be daunted or not recognize anything so we include other options too. We also like to focus on small family producers over big names, but sometimes you get corporate groups coming in who want that high end burgundy, and it's important for everyone to feel there's something there for them.
How about low intervention and biodynamic wines, are you able to work with those too?
In the past, I've had difficult experiences with very natural wines as from a restaurant point of view, if you open something, you need the second bottle to taste very similar to it, and that wasn't the case with some. Also, we’re already serving cuisine that’s hard to match so we don't need the additional variable. But there are some fantastic natural and biodynamic wines that I have put on the list. It's not something that attracts or repels me, I just treat them like any other wines.
Are most diners now aware that you excel at pairing Indian cuisine with interesting wines?
Yes. Perceptions have changed so much, but you still get the odd person coming in and saying, “It's a curry so I need a beer.” And there's much that’s wrong with that statement as it's not a curry – but then again, there’s nothing wrong with just wanting a beer.
You created your own-label wine for Hoppers, have you been tempted to make others since?
An Indian-Italian producer, Fratelli, offered to create a wine for our wedding. Unfortunately we couldn’t make it there in time, but we spoke recently, and they said they’d love to make a blend for the restaurant, so hopefully we'll start making wine with them. I’m not thinking about having a vineyard of my own yet. Maybe in a few years when I want to escape, but it is a completely different ball game. And I’d definitely need to spend more time in wineries before I'd feel confident enough to make my own.