James Welsh: Prize list

James Welsh is sommelier at two of Launceston’s most venerated restaurants, Stillwater and Black Cow. Under his watch, the two eateries have been the standouts in recent years at the Australian Wine List of the Year Awards. Stillwater was awarded Best Wine list in Tasmania for three years in a row from 2016 to 2018, and Black Cow has been second three times in recent years.

If Stillwater wins a fourth title, it will join the Australian Wine Lists Hall of Fame, alongside The Source at MONA and Me Wah in Hobart. Those two restaurants, however, as with those of many mainland restaurants, might easily run to 2,000 wines, with multiple pages from European regions as well as Australian.

The Stillwater list sits at about 170 wines and the Black Cow up to 100, with Welsh’s choices weighted towards Tasmanian because they are the quality on his doorstep, and from the early days when founder Rod Ascui established the ethos behind the business, there has been an imperative to showcase what is regional, particularly when it matches and now rivals much of what is produced by the old world.

From there, it’s simply a case of narrowing down an awful lot of choice.

Wine lists have evolved, says Welsh, and awards now recognise that every list, and every restaurant, can sing from their own song sheet. Length is no longer an indication of quality and in Welsh’s opinion it’s more difficult to write a small list.

Those at Stillwater and Black Cow are integral to the dining experience and Tasmanian wines take pride of place on both. Welsh looks first to the Tamar Valley and its world-class wine route, carpeting the landscapes around Launceston with astonishing variety and quality. Once satisfied he’s tasted the best there, he extends his gaze to Tasmania’s other producers in Coal River, East Coast, Derwent and Huon valleys.

With the eyes of the wine world on Tasmania, there is a strong case for featuring the region’s wines and some high-profile endorsement: Stefano Lubiana winning world’s best bio-dynamic wine multiple times; Tyson Selzer arguing, “The greatest sparkling wine on earth, outside of Champagne, comes from Tasmania”; Bay of Fires winemaker Ed Carr presented with a Lifetime Achievement award at the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships in London. Etcetera.

With a playground of demi-gods to draw from, Welsh takes very seriously the job of showcasing the state’s wines in all their complexity,  tasting every one multiple times to verify it’s the best blanc de blanc, the best pinot – and deserving of a spot on his list.

. . .

So how does one set about winning a major sommelier award? With a background steeped in wine region credentials. Born in Tasmania, Welsh’s entry into hospitality was a cellar door job in Pipers River 14 years ago, before he joined the Stillwater and Black Cow family in 2006, becoming a partner three years later.

He attributes much of his early learning to co-owner Rod Ascui, who took Welsh along to tastings at the Launceston Wine Appreciation Society. The wines were as distinguished as the company, with Welsh often the youngest in the room by 30 years. It was his introduction to great wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, allowing him to set benchmarks against which he has measured wines since.

In 2015, when he won a scholarship to the Len Evans Tutorial, attended only by  the most serious wine industry people. Described by one graduate as “high-altitude intensive palate training”, it was established with the aim of developing Australia as a great wine nation. Word is the applicants are only considered if they have applied for five years in a row. Welsh got in on his sixth try.

The 12 slots per year bring together sommeliers, winemakers, journalists and retailers for a week of intensive tasting of $60,000 worth of rare wines from around the world. It culminates in a final tasting of pinot noir from five vineyards in Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, an estate in Burgundy producing some of the world’s most expensive wines. This while seated opposite legendary wine critic James Halliday. 

Much of the value generated by the Evans Tutorial lies in the dialogue it fuels within the Australian industry and the calibre of wine appraisal and knowledge amongst graduates. If a customer wants to know why there is so much oak in their chardonnay, Welsh takes the question to the winemaker, and a dialogue travels back and forth, between maker and consumer.

Welsh has gone on to judge regularly at Festivale and the Tasmanian Wine Show, assessing up to 1,000 wines per week, and gaining an in-depth understanding of the style and direction of the produce coming from vineyard to table. Tasting wines from the Tamar Valley at Festivale each year, for example, gives him “a snapshot of what the Tamar is doing”.

His approach to the list is organic rather than structured, with choices arising from this conversation and close contact with the industry. There’s a lot of “ebb and flow”, with the number of pinot noir listed ranging between 20 and 45 over the years. The sparkling wines page once featured 15 each from Champagne and Tasmania; the current list has three French and 30 from Tasmania.

With some customers dining at Stillwater and Black Cow up to three times weekly, Welsh is determined to keep pouring excitement into the glass, and the lists evolve continually. Tasting a wine he likes, Welsh wants his customers drinking it the next day. Front-of-house staff come to expect daily briefings.

Such passion can occasionally bring drama to the table. When Welsh made the Josef Chromy 2011 Chardonnay available by the glass, customers weren’t ready for its particular “struck match” quality. “I was punching it out at $12 a glass and people were sending it back and saying it was off!” he says. Two years later it won the World’s Best Chardonnay trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

At Black Cow Bistro, Launceston’s iconic up-market steak house showcasing premium Tasmanian beef, Welsh concentrates on muscular reds. Besides the bold, fruity charactered local pinot noirs, there could be rich mainland shiraz and cabernets as well as chiantis, La Freynelle Bordeaux and obscure varietals from Sicily. If the customer is looking for a Barossa red, Welsh is comfortable with that but looks for a balance between the new kids on the block such as Alex Head, with his 99-point Headwines Shiraz, and the established Rolls-Royces from Penfolds or Grant Burge.

The list at Stillwater Restaurant is more challenging due to the scope of the menu – seafood, poultry and game, itself changing constantly. For this Welsh seeks out more aromatic whites and sparkling wines, lighter pinot noirs and brighter styles.

Working closely with the kitchen is de rigueur and head chef Craig Will, also a partner in the businesses, is a “super taster”, says Welsh, with an incredible sense of smell. With Welsh regularly bringing an assistant sommelier into the discussion, decisions are often made “‘brains trust” style.

Welsh’s pride in his list and Tasmanian wines is evident in the way he speaks of the state’s winemakers, such as Jo Holyman, with his hands-off attitude and instincts for letting his vineyard and microclimate do what they do best without too much interference. The result is a chardonnay with a “grilled nut and nectarine character”,  described by one wine general seated next to Welsh at a Sydney dinner as “better than Penfolds Yattarna”, widely held to be the best in the country.

Personal connection with the wine maker means a more informed conversation with the customer, often pointing them toward a cellar door visit. Central to his list and every recommendation is the ethos he still draws upon, established by Rod Ascui, of paying the winemakers, viticulturist, distillers and brewers back for the blood, sweat and tears they put into every liquid drop.

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