Interview - Billy Ward
William 'Billy' Ward. Englishman, 34 years old, sommelier at Ved Stranden 10 in Copenhagen. Loves to fish and paint, belts out a pretty impressive rendition of John Mayer's 'Gravity', plays the guitar and happens to be pretty handsome. Boasting a very interesting life trajectory and path through all things wine and dine and multiple continents, I decided to share his story and interview him for Slovakia's In Bar Magazine, out in stores now. Below you can find the original English version where Billy and I talk about making wine, drinking wine and how he's survived it all in good grace and faith. One of the most respectful and caring men I know. Enjoy!
Hey Billy! To start things off, it would be great if you could briefly introduce your career in gastronomy & wine.
I've always loved eating and drinking! Family and friends gathering for food is something I was brought up in. Wine came a little later. In 2006, after I'd finished University, I lived in Galicia, North-Western Spain, for 6 months. During an evening of bar hopping in town, the girl I was with ordered some drinks while I hung up our coats. When I returned to the bar she handed me a glass of red wine and exclaimed 'You have to try this Billy!'. That was the moment my life changed! What was I drinking?! How did something taste like that?! Where did it come from?! Turns out it was a 2000 Rioja Crianza which had only been made that one year with only a limited amount of bottles produced. And so my wine quest began. After a few years working in London at an art gallery I realized I needed to satisfy a more expanded thirst for the world and what it has to offer. I moved to Hampshire on the south coast of England and picked up a waiting job at a superb restaurant that housed an acclaimed Michelin Starred chef. That whole experience catalyzed my passion and interest in food, wine and hospitality.
Ah, the waiter to somm trajectory. Why being a sommelier though as your career? What drew you towards wine in the first place?
So far I have been fortunate to work in all arms of the industry with some remarkable people. It was never a conscious decision to become a sommelier, the role kind of found me in a way. I just wanted to work with wine as it fascinated me so much - the origins, the tastes, how grapes were grown and made, the history of the winemaker... Every wine had a story and I wanted to know it. I enjoy meeting and communicating with people and being able to share new wines I have discovered has always given me such a buzz so being a sommelier was the perfect facilitator for that.
You work with mostly natural wines, a thankfully once again booming part of the wine world. Was that a conscious decision?
It was and it wasn't. I was offered a job in Copenhagen to work at the most endearing of wine bars - Ved Stranden 10 - which meant I'd be working a lot with natural wine. It interested me immensely as it was a part of the industry I had never dealt with before. But the pull to the wine bar and Copenhagen was much more than that - It's a very special city with an incredible charm that also happens to have a great food and wine scene!
What's the most important thing you'd say that you learned about wine and yourself so far? Any bad mistakes you made at the beginning of your career that you look back on and smile?
I don't believe in bad mistakes as they are part and parcel of life and have led me to where I am today, but one of the most valuable things I have learned is to always believe in what you like and never let anyone try to convince you away from that. The same can be said with wine.
True. Not shying away from something you like is definitely important. Now, always a difficult question to answer, but what have been your top wine and gastronomic experiences so far? Any favorite restaurants or wineries around the world that stand out?
Crikey, that's a tough question! There have been so many. Collectively Copenhagen has it all and lots of it. I mean the night we had at Nabo?! That was pretty special! I can't place a single occasion as number one but last September I ate at a traditional Danish restaurant here in Copenhagen called Sankt Annæ. The whole experience was perfect from start to finish. I must have spent 4 hours there and after the 5 or 6 courses of varying classic Danish dishes and intermittent Aquavit servings we went outside to have coffee and petit fours on their terrace in the beaming sunshine. It was one of those great moments of satisfaction where I thought to myself: I am exactly where I should be right now. As for wineries - this is more for it's oddity of location and the measure of awe it gave me rather than it's wines. My brother used to live in Jordan and when I went to visit him he recommended I take a look at Zumot Winery which runs right alongside the Syrian border. I arrived there and was greeted by the viticulturist who took me up to the villa styled winery's roof patio where we proceeded to taste some highly alcoholic Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. It was super hot and he told me all about the biodynamic practices he had installed in the vineyards that surrounded us and stretched out as far as the eye could see. As we slurped through other varieties the chat was broken by the sound of some kind of explosion! I looked out towards Syria where the noise had come from and saw a huge plume of black smoke. Concerned I asked what had just happened. Nonchalantly my host replied: 'Oh that was just a bomb, it happens all the time' and continued to explain his reasons for introducing geese into the vineyards!
That sounds pretty insane. What would you say are the biggest misconceptions people have about wine? I deal with a lot myself so I'm curious what they are for you.
I'm not sure this directly answers your question but it can be incredibly frustrating when people start to use wine as a brand or a way to exaggerate their status. People can quickly forget what goes on behind the label. At the end of the day it's about the wine and the people involved in making it - they are the real rock stars!
Rock on! Before we move on to your travels, you have a lot of experience with wine & food pairings. Any particular pairing that historically stands out? Non-alcoholic beverage pairing is just coming to our neck of the woods for example.
Well, that Port and dessert pairing we had at Amass the other night is definitely up there! There have been a lot of outstanding combinations, but one that comes straight to mind is one I didn't see coming. A customer at the wine bar/merchants I helped open in England invited me to his house for a lengthy evening of wine tasting and his final offering was a 30 year old Pedro Ximénez from Australia's Barossa Valley. He said: 'Take a swig then have another one with this!'. He threw me a Cadbury Dairy Milk Freddo chocolate bar and I did as he asked. That was quite a mind-blowingly-symbiotic experience!
You lived in New Zealand for a while on and off, working with wine and food. Let's start with food. Is there a New Zealand cuisine to speak of?
Fishing is New Zealand's number one recreational activity and something I have done from a very early age so it was difficult for me not to explore the seafood sections of any restaurant menu. The produce is so fresh and styles of dish are endless. Snapper and Kingfish are two of my favourite fish to eat, though anything fishy would definitely grab my attention. Also, New Zealand is like one big garden from North to South. The fruit and vegetables are the most pure and intensely flavoured I have ever tried and choice is huge. I remember speaking with the owner and head chef of a favourite Italian restaurant I liked to frequent - his dishes were all home made and he expressed to me one day how the produce he discovered in NZ was better than in Italy!
You told me stories about how you backpacked through the country, essentially just fishing and foraging for yourself. What was that like? To a city gal like me it sounds utterly adventurous.
Fishing, as I mentioned before, is something I started doing very young. I was seven years old when I caught my first fish - a brown trout in a river in the Highlands of Scotland. From even earlier than that, though, my Dad showed my brother and I how to find cockles and mussels, fillet fish, create camp fires and survive out in the wilderness. When I moved to New Zealand it was like discovering my favorite playground. It seems designed for traveling around and camping out on any of the hundreds of isolated beaches. I would often go fishing 3 times a week, mainly off the rocks. It is a very mindful experience - sitting out in the warm sunshine, drinking beer with a good friend. It was almost a bonus if we caught anything.
Moving towards wine - the region is very well known for it's Sauvignon Blanc. Any top producers that stand out for you?
My first real understanding of NZ Sauvignon Blanc was at the restaurant I worked at in Hampshire. It was Nobilo 2007 Regional Collection - tropical, gooseberries, grassy and very clean - It's kind of a bench mark NZ SB. I felt I had to make a pilgrimage to visit them in Marlborough though after making the long journey south I discovered that their winery was all the way back in West Auckland! My curiosity of this boom in NZ SB helped me find many different styles and interesting producers - Seresin, Tin Pot Hut, Greywacke and Forrest Wines are just a few amongst an array of great producers I discovered.
But it isn't just about the Sauv - what other wine is noteworthy from the area? I've heard a lot about good Pinot coming out of there.
Absolutely, there are so many amazing gems hiding in the shadows of Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Noir undoubtedly shines second to SB as an export and it really is of top quality. In my opinion Martinborough and Central Otago display the best diversity of that, but you will find a lot of other grape varieties being grown too. Chardonnay out there can be incredibly unctuous and rich and I have not yet discovered a more beautiful Pinot Gris than the Martinborough Vineyard 2009. Syrah is another wonderfully crafted variety and something that is gaining it's own regional style. Bordeaux blends, Spanish varieties, sweet wines - they're all there!
WINEMAKING IN BURGUNDY
Tell me about your experience in Burgundy - you lived there for a year and made your own wine?
I had helped grow and harvest wine in New Zealand but I had never made it before. In the summer of 2012 after I returned from NZ to England, I was deciding on what to do next. My step-sister lives in Beaune, Burgundy, and her boyfriend, Charly, is a French man who operates a family winery there. I asked him if I could help him with the harvest that coming Autumn and he said I could, so I spent a memorable 6 weeks there harvesting varying parcels from around the region and aiding in the winemaking. I returned to England for Christmas feeling very fulfilled and before the end of the year Charly contacted me and asked if I would like to come back and do an entire season with him to which I jumped!
Was it a challenging experience? Amongst my acquaintances there is this romantic notion that winemakers just drink wine all day and walk around the vineyards but you and I both know, you more than me, that that's far from the truth.
It was incredibly challenging! Try going out into a field, crouching down to ground and moving like a crab for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week. And the weather was extreme at certain times of the year - below freezing in winter and as high as 40 degrees in peak summer. It truly was blood, sweat and tears. I was left to my own devices to farm the vine parcels pretty much most of the time, but luckily my Ipod was at hand to help distract me from the monotony of the day's task. I have quite an extensive soundtrack for that period of my life! Don't get me wrong, it was an immensely rewarding experience and one I am so grateful for having the opportunity to do. I was exposed to so much amazing, varied wine from essentially just two different grape varieties as well as a culture I had never seen before and I learned how to make wine. It taught me the value of patience. The grapes I grew and the wine I made from them, from pruning to bottling, took almost 3 years before I could pour into glass. That's quite an investment.
Did making your own wine help you work with it better in your sommelier career?
Yes. Every time I look at a new bottle I know that some kind of hardship has got it to where it is. It makes you want to learn more about it, and the people involved. And customers love a good story. When they buy a glass of wine I make sure they get some informative knowledge about it as well.
COPENHAGEN & DANISH GASTRONOMY
You moved to Copenhagen last year. The Danish food scene, especially in Copenhagen, has been incredibly booming in the past couple of years, going from practically 0 to everything. The city, population wise, is approximately the same size as Bratislava and we definitely don't have multiple Michelin restaurants to speak of :-) How do you think Copenhagen happened?
The opening of Noma in 2004 was no doubt integral in making what culinary Copenhagen represents today and it inspired existing eateries to up their game. It was kind of like the epicenter of the Big Bang which set a bench mark level for innovation and quality. Its explosion created a lot of stars amongst the present day New Nordic food scene as so many of it's former employees have branched off and launched their own restaurants or produce oriented projects. I also believe the size of the city and the mentality of the society have helped catalyze it's evolution. Everything is very accessible and everybody is ready to recommend the next place. And apparently, from what I have been told, the social behavior of the people is different from how it was 15 years ago - it used to be that they would gather at home more regularly. Now it is the opposite and common meeting places are out in any of the hundreds of bars and restaurants.
What are the classic sort of "staples" that anyone has to try when they come to Denmark? You told me once about aebleskiver, but we didn't try any when I came to visit.
Æbleskiver are an important Danish Christmas tradition. They are spherical, apple-filled pancakes which you serve with homemade jam and preferably a large glass of glögg - very tasty! Denmark's main signature dish, though, is smørrebrød - open faced sandwiches. The recipes can vary but it generally consists of a buttered piece of rye bread topped with some kind of cold meat or fish with onions and pickles - herring is an obvious favourite. When it is done right it is incredibly delicious.
Smørrebrød! How could we have missed that. Next time. Which kind of trends are you currently seeing in Copenhagen in terms of cuisine and what restaurants do you think are the leaders pushing modern Danish gastronomy right now?
One of the main reasons I instantly fell in love with Copenhagen was the way in which I was treated by people wherever I went- true hospitality. Each place I ate or drank at I was made to feel extremely welcome and I very much liked the humbleness of the modern day server. People are human here and that really inspired me to want to be a part of it. As well as the food, that style of hospitality and the introduction of more interesting wines are definitely a growing trend and something that will continue to benefit the scene. Noma still institutionalizes this format and in my opinion leads the way in terms of status, however, as I mentioned earlier, it has inspired so many to open places with their own equally successful spin on New Nordic cuisine. There are so many restaurants that come into this category and without exception: Amass, Kadeau, Nabo, Den Vandrette, Relæ, Manfreds, Admiralgade 26 - They all contribute to what is being considered the culinary capital of the world.
Thanks Billy for the great interview, the lovely photos and for being a handsome beast may I add.