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Thursday 9 July 2015

The inside story of the Qantas wine coup; a new direction beckons

It was the secret of which everyone in the Australian wine industry was already aware - but that didn't prevent Qantas from unveiling its new wine program with considerable pride and swagger.

Guests were invited for cocktails and caviar canapés at Spice Temple in Sydney and then a dinner accompanied by some of Australia's finest wines at Rockpool Bar and Grill for the official announcement that Neil Perry's team of sommeliers and mixologists are taking over the Australian flag carrier's wine and spirits program with immediate effect. 

Perry has been the culinary advisor to Qantas for closing in on two decades now - and the new move sees his Rockpool group taking control of food and beverage across the airline's first, business and economy classes, as well as in premium lounges. 

The announcement means the end of 10 years as the Qantas wine selection panel for highly-regarded trio Steve Pannell from SC Pannell Wines, Vanya Cullen from Cullen Wines and Tom Carson from Yabby Lake, all three highly respected winemakers in their own right. 

The fact that news of Perry's team taking over had been common knowledge for some time caused considerable angst and attracted widespread criticism, particularly on social media. It seems obvious that the hurt felt by Cullen and Pannell, particularly, could have handled better. 

Leading wine writer Huon Hooke wrote: "Len Evans must be turning in his grave. Qantas has dismissed the wine selection panel he instituted and replaced it with a chef."

In fact, Perry's vastly experienced team will be doing all the tastings under his guidance. And, a major positive, for the first time food and beverages will be selected "holistically". And more focus on cocktails has to be a good thing, too. 

Pannell said he was upset the panel had been sacked because he felt they had been a positive influence on the wine industry, while Cullen took to Facebook to express her disappointment. Several leading winemakers and even other sommeliers were outspoken in their criticism of the decision.   

But old news is history and Qantas have confirmed their direction, with the new team holding their first tasting on July 20. 

The new team, named The Qantas Rockpool Sommeliers, features no fewer than 16 experienced sommeliers and mixologists. 

Among the group are the head of Sommeliers Australia, David Lawler from Rockpool Bar and Grill Melbourne, and Sebastian Crowther, one of only two Master Sommeliers in Australia, as well as head bartenders of Rockpool restaurants around the country.

The sommeliers will blind taste, review and select from 1,200 Australian wines and Champagnes over four days each year and provide tasting notes for the international first and domestic business cabins. 

They will also provide recommendations for wine in the lounges and, for the first time, Rockpool mixologists will create monthly cocktails to be served on board.

Gareth Evans, CEO Qantas International, said the group will provide an exciting new direction for the airline’s entire wine and beverage program.

“Qantas’ new holistic approach to food and beverage will mean not only matching our menus with the perfect wine, but with the perfect cocktail or champagne,” Evans said.

“We invest over $15 million dollars in the Australian Wine industry every year [and are the third-largest buyers of wine in the country], so we take the selection process very seriously. We are really proud to showcase Australian wine to the world, and we’ll keep supporting boutique Australian wineries as well as the iconic drops that have defined Australia’s global winemaking reputation.

The Rockpool Group team will also be involved in training Qantas staff, something the former panel had not the time for, and were certainly not well paid enough to undertake. 

Currently, over 2000 Qantas cabin crew have also completed an introductory, intermediate or advanced level of wine study. 

Neil Perry, the consumate professional as he worked the room, said his team’s expertise in wine and mixology will "offer the very best restaurant experience in the sky" to Qantas passengers. 

“Rockpool has worked with Qantas for over 18 years to design menus and we are thrilled to be working more closely to select beverages for the airline. We are committed to continue providing the finest Champagnes and the boldest wines from across Australia and deliver a restaurant experience on the ground and in the air,” he said. 

As under the previous regime, all tables wines will be Australian with sparkling wines from Champagne the only exception. 

“The Rockpool Group has some of the most awarded and industry recognised sommeliers and mixologists in the country, and they work with customers dining in the restaurant every day, so they will be able to offer valuable insight into customer preferences and wine trends,” Perry said. 

Experienced sommelier Lawler described the new duties as "an incredibly exciting opportunity", adding that "we have a talent pool that can be put to great use by Qantas - and it will be a challenge, but one we are looking forward to." 

Perry and Qantas officials paid tribute to Pannell, Carson and Cullen for their work over the past decade. "They did a fine job and selected some outstanding wines," he said. 

But nothing stays the same forever - and the pressure is now on Perry's brigade to perform. 

# The writer was a guest of Qantas at the launch. 

1 comment:

  1. Seems a pity the sparkling wine choices should be limited to Champagne. Oz sparklers easily rival medium priced NV Champagnes. At least, they should be offered as a choice. Better still, offered together in two different flutes with the challenges, "which is which and which do you prefer?"