Interview: ex-chef discusses how a culinary background shaped her latest retail venture

March 26, 2024
By Cody Profaca

South West Wine Shop, the latest concept store by Parker Group, has gone about things differently to most stores, rethinking the very basics of the wine retail experience itself.

Drinks Trade sat down with Cyndal Petty, the chef-turned-sommelier behind the new venture, to discuss the South West Wine Shop concept, the importance of her culinary background in shaping her view on wine, and what she thinks about the current health of the industry.

Drinks Trade: Can you briefly describe yourself and how you got to where you are?

Cyndal Petty: I’ve been in the food and wine industry for 15 years almost, coming up next year. I started as a chef in kitchens. 

I guess I kind of always idolised and loved the sommeliers on the floor, so after my apprenticeship finished, I went into front of house management and then happened to fall into wine buying and wine-based roles on the floor. And then kind of forever just a romantic of the wine industry now.

DT: What’s the concept behind South West Wine Shop?

CP: We opened in January this year and essentially we’ve been calling it a ‘community watering hole’… So at the forefront of everything before we talk about wine and it being a shop we want to be known for humble hospitality.

We have a wine wall, which is what we’re pouring by the glass, and it’s sectioned into the categories of the style rather than the grape variety. So the whole shop is sectioned in that way.

So someone comes in, they’re looking for something aromatic and fresh: we have a whole section that’s in that aromatic and fresh zone, so we head them to there and then we walk them through [it]. And then on the wall, we also then have an aromatic, that’s always pouring in that aromatic could be a reasoning or an estimate.

DT: Do you feel South West Wine Shop’s business model tailors more to the fun and casual side of the wine industry?

CP: No, I don’t. I think that the whole concept of the curation fits into a direct split between the two. So our motto is ‘fun or fine wines,’ so the way that we’ve shared the list is that it either fits into one of the two categories. 

There’s cross over of course, but in general, they fit into two categories. So either it is a fun, casual, easy to drink, sit down with mates and just enjoy the taste and the drinkability of the wine; or it is a serious, complex, quality wine.

DT: How has your background in food impacted your perspective on wine and wine retail?

CP: I think that starting off as a chef, you already learned to develop a specific palate, and I think the palate is always slightly different to someone that’s a classically trained sommelier, so I think it gives you a little bit of edge in the industry and sometimes allows you to think of things in a different angle; and then it also gives you a leg up when it comes to food and wine matching and all of those kind of fun parts of the wine industry.

Food is a really big part of curation for me, so approaching wines for food and working with [chef] Brendan in the Busselton Pavilion in his history comes from Vasse Felix, it’s been a really cool opportunity to be able to chat food and wine on that level.

I guess I’m looking for wines that match our food and our concept. We have a lot of seafood, so we’re always kind of on the search on the hunt for wines that are quite salty and mineral and have really nice acid drive that really combat that people’s seafood element that we have in the South West Wine Shop and in the Busselton Pavilion as a whole.

DT: Can you talk a little bit more about how the palates of chefs and sommeliers differ?

CP: So chefs have a palate that’s based on balancing flavours, so for instance, if you’re in Asian cuisine, you might be balancing sugar, sour, spicy, salt, so you’re always looking to essentially create harmony with those flavours on your palate.

When you’re looking and you’re dissecting wine or doing food and wine matching, you’re essentially doing the same thing but in a different way, so you’re looking at the palate weight, the fruit concentration, the tannin, the length, and all of those kind of complex elements that either disjoin wine or do the opposite and make it harmonise, so I think having that palate and then reversing it in a different way gives you a different way of looking in.

DT: Who does this business model suit? What’ve been the challenges? What does it require?

CP: I think the key for me is you need to have very experienced staff; the concept does not work unless you have very experienced staff. [We] all have the WSET level three, and have been in the industry for over 10 years; without having that experience, it would be a hard concept.

Also, we’re there to mitigate any fear or any angst when guests arrive, especially those that might not be necessarily wine industry. So without those experienced people in there, I think it would be very hard to run.

So I think that’s a positive for us, but it’s also a negative for someone who was looking at the same model because it is confusing to people when they walk in, but it’s not confusing because we’re there to guide them. If we weren’t there, people would be a little bit unsure of how to approach the shop.

I think the other key [point] for me is I guess a positive and a negative… our list is 150 wines capped, so we have a hundred and fifty bins. I think if you were to go any bigger than that, same thing without extremely experienced staff, it could be hard to manage. The only negative of that is when you have a smaller selection and you’re living in a wine region, you don’t get to represent as much of the local industry as you might like to.

DT: Where do you think Australia’s wine industry is at in general at the moment?  What could it be doing better?

CP: I think there is a paradigm shift there. I think the actual industry itself is heading in a direction that is not so much that old school kind of wine… I think that there’s still some education in the general public to realise that shift, but I think it’s happening.

I think wine has become more approachable, more fun. It’s more understanding for people. And I think that we’re starting to mitigate that view that people have of us; I think sometimes it’s [still] there, but it’s there in every industry.

I guess [what] I’d like to see change in the wine industry, I would like there to maybe be a little bit more understanding of the amount of effort and work that goes into producing wine and I think that comes through educating people. I also believe that the future of the wine industry doesn’t need to stick to some of the rigid rules that we have had in the past and I think that that is something that is changing.

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