WOMEN OF THE IRISH FOOD INDUSTRY – CATHRYN BELL, SOMMELIER
Cathryn Bell has a career which should be written in lights in the Great Big Book Of Good Wine.
Cathryn is originally from Wales and holds a degree in Swahili and Development Studies, she did a stint in East and South Africa and these days, Ireland is where she calls home. And how lucky are we, given the sheer joys she has brought us again and again through her work with some of the finest establishments in the land.
In 2019, Cathryn Bell won the Food & Wine Sommelier Of The Year award and in 2020, she won the Business Post’s Sommelier Of The Year award.
These days, Cathryn is a busy woman. She runs Wine Rover which offers online tastings and a very nifty subscription service which is budget based and which I think is fantastic for people who don’t know much about wine and might feel overwhelmed by the sheer choice available out there.
Finally, if you want to catch Cathryn doing something a bit special, you can join her as she hosts the first of the “Potions” series for Chef Supper Club. It starts on the 23rd of September and will run every Thursday after that for 6 weeks. The series is described as a virtual cinematic wine series which will feature exceptional wines (some of which have been sourced and brought into Ireland exclusively for the chef supper club). The first session will focus on two winemakers whose influence has changed the landscape of the modern wine world. One of these two winemakers is Dirk Niepoort, a hugely influencial winemaker in Portugal. He has personally selected and sent a bottle of wine featured next week.
The six week course includes 12 bottles (2 per week), tasting notes, and six live (online) sessions with Cathryn. It sounds like a deeply joyous affair if you’re into really special wine. Due to the rare nature of the some of the wines featured, the number of bookings has been capped at 60 so if this is of interest don’t let it pass you by. With the pedigree
How did your career path bring you here?
I feel I am still very much “a work in progress”, my path is still unfolding, but I am where I am right now because of a series of “forks in the road” moments.
I became a sommelier after I decided to leave my previous career in International Development out in East Africa. I was involved in responsible tourism and was managing a little guesthouse on the island of Zanzibar and so was involved in facilitating and translating some of the hospitality training.
I had always loved wine, but knew nothing about it, other than I always held happy connotations with it, for me it always featured in convivial times with friends and family and was always a source of wonder and inspiration, what life beyond the UK was like.
I stared to spend more and more time researching and learning about wine to help me with the training and that’s when I discovered that such thing as a sommelier existed and that you could do it for a living.
I booked my first wine course on a dial up computer in front of a meshed window in a thatched roof building in Zanzibar and flew to Cape Town to do my WSET Level 1 course.
Within a month I had moved to Ireland and was recruited on the basis of my sheer enthusiasm I think, to be a junior sommelier at Ashford Castle – the steepest, most fantastic learning curve of my life!
From there I was lucky enough to go to Chapter One as Head Sommelier and then onto Aimsir and then the pandemic hit and I was met with another fork in the road.
As for many of us, the pandemic gave me a chance to re-evaluate my outlook on my work, the future of the hospitality industry that I love and how I wanted to contribute to that.
The premise for Wine Rover emerged quite naturally from that, in that I could contribute to the industry as a whole going forward, as a guide, a companion, a “go-fetcher”, a service, wherever I’m needed, both on and off trade.
I’m still in my first year of business and it’s been a baptism of fire, but I am achieving what I set out to achieve in being able to help lots of people with their wine experiences, through private customers to collaborations with chefs and restaurants and other business entities, and I am particularly enjoying the exposure to so many creative brains!
How does your career fulfill you?
I know the move from International Development to Sommelier might seem like quite a leap, but for me, the basic, underlying values are the same – it’s about making people happy, it’s about bringing some alleviation to the grind that is everyday life, living life in the good moments, bringing joy to the bits that you can – I can’t save the world, but I can create genuine moments of conviviality, and sharing and connection and happiness – life is short and tough, being able to bring kindness and enjoyment to that is the best thing I want to do.
A huge part of my work is making personal connections for people with wine and food and wine experiences. It’s incredibly fulfilling to be able to do that now through so many different mediums, online and now in real life and in so many different contexts – customers shopping for wine online, staff in a restaurant learning about wine and being able to serve their customers better, chefs being given a different dimension to their food through wine pairings, customers in a restaurant having the time of their life doing a food and wine tasting menu, and all the while I get to learn, I get to absorb learning from all these experiences so that I can keep doing it better.
What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Cathryn Bell?
I want to keep being able to be in a position to contribute as much as I can in this industry, as far as I can. I love what I do and I believe in it fiercely, I’m not saving lives but I can help create amazing food and wine experiences for people.
I also believe very strongly in breaking down a few barriers and misconceptions about wine and wine experiences – that there has to be a trade off between fun and friendliness and quality and professionalism when it comes to wine – you can have both, it’s not one or the other and any narrative that perpetuates that really gets my goat up!
I think the “snobbiness” that has historically been associated with wine, has long since been extinguished, especially since the pandemic, where wine experiences happened at home and in wine shops – the experience of wine in Ireland now, as far as I can see, is inclusive with a genuine excitement and desire to share and enhance these experiences, and how well you do this doesn’t need to be constrained by labels like “casual” or “fine-dining”.
So my ambition is to keep doing what I’m doing, working with different entities across the industry to enable anyone and everyone who cares about delivering truly heart-felt and genuine wine experiences to their customers.
A particular area that I want to focus more on is food and wine pairing, I love it, it’s literally my hobby, and my work in this area with various chefs and entities has been some of my most fulfilling (and fun!) work so far this year, so I would love to be able to do more of that through more collaborations across the industry.
Tell us of one woman in the food industry who consistently inspires you and why?
Jess Murphy is a beacon, she’s solid, she’s genuine, she’s open, she’s real and she’s giving. She’s talented and dedicated and authentic and generous in her time and in passing on her knowledge and experience to others.
When I first went live with Wine Rover at the start of the year she gave me a fantastic pep-talk over the phone, telling me to be confident in myself and walk the walk that I know that I can do, without the smoke and mirrors, just do what I want to do and do it well.
She’s a great role-model for that, in an industry that has been slightly hijacked by the superficial lense of social media, Jess is the real deal, she’s a reminder that I just need to work hard at what I do and care that I do it to the best of my ability and to not lose sight of that.
What do you think can be done to raise the profile and visibility of women in the industry?
I think there has been fantastic progress in getting more inclusion of women’s voices in positions of commentary and expertise in the industry and the growing momentum behind that is very tangible – more of that please!
What is the proudest moment of your career so far?
I’m proud of moments where I feel my work achieved its goal in giving and creating a special food and wine experience in somebody’s life.
During the first lockdown last year, I worried incessantly about a family that had been one of the last tables to dine with us in Aimsir before we closed in the March. It was a family dinner of elderly parents and their adult children, their second time with us because the father had unfortunately taken ill during their first outing. It was a wonderful evening, they were in the full swing of it, doing the tasting menu with the wine pairings, with “Dad” getting full blame and credit for creating such an interest and enjoyment of wine amongst them. It was a wonderful evening, but as the news started to come through of the destruction of the virus in those early days, I thought of them often and families like them – how had they been affected?
A year later, I had an email out of the blue to my Wine Rover account – it was one of the adult sons who had tracked me down by a serendipitous connection through my corporate work. Not only were they all alive and well, they wanted me to host an online wine tasting for them! I couldn’t believe it! So fantastic, a very special moment indeed!
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Advocate for yourself more, have faith, be confident, keeping working hard at it.
I love what I do and I give a lot of myself to it, as do most people in this industry I think, it can take its toll on your personal life and so you have to make sure that your work pays its due in that sense, whether it be by monetary reward or your work-life balance.
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
Perpetual curiosity is a must in this job where the subject matter is constantly expanding! Also, have a genuine love for hospitality and serving other people – my role as sommelier is Matchmaker and Storyteller, I need to transmit and use what I know and love in order to create fantastic and personal wine experiences for those I am serving.
Also be brave, don’t be afraid to experiment and get things wrong, it’s all a learning curve!
Are you a savoury or sweet kinda person? Please tell us about a real treat?
I have a horrendous sweet tooth – terrible! One of my favourite gastronomic experiences is a glass of Recioto della Valpolicella with some Tiramisu – oh my word, after that and it can be “beam me up Scotty, goodbye and goodnight!”.