The Rebel Company
Ania Honey
Article

The duo helping restaurants and their guests fall in love with natural wine.

Read less

In Conversation With Ania Smelskaya & Honey Spencer

You work with independent restaurants and bars to up their wine list and service game. What’s the biggest advantage of working with a wine consultant?

First and foremost, we’re front-of-house people ourselves. With 30 years sommelier experience between us.

Restaurants have changed significantly over the years. And today, not every venue needs - or can justify - hiring a sommelier or wine team. And yet guests expect an interesting list and knowledgeable people to help them navigate it.

We bridge that gap. Curating an amazing list, preparing and hosting wine training sessions, and hosting dinners. And at a fraction of the cost of an in-house sommelier.

We train each team member to be their own ‘mini-sommelier’. With a solid foundation of theoretical knowledge and the ability to talk about each wine on the list.

Our work with an array of restaurant clients means we’ve developed a highly-intuitive style that centres on knowing how to meet the guests’ needs. Ensuring they return again and again.

How do you approach training to build an engaged, knowledgeable team in the absence of a sommelier?

We believe in engaging the staff in the benefits of minimal intervention wines. And in spreading the "natural wine bug" :))

Many people working in hospitality are there because they’re curious about the flavours. We encourage this curiosity and build confidence in talking about - and serving - wine.

Creating an army of “mini-sommeliers" who discover a whole new dimension in wines. The result is engaged staff with shiny eyes. Eager to learn more and to tell the world about their new passion.

If you had to lay claim to a favourite style of wine, what would it be?

Honey: I know we can both put our hands on our hearts and say that we love all forms of wine expression.

From the wild stuff that brings up more questions than answers. To the comforting familiarity of styles long-celebrated (so long as they are not heavy-laden with chemicals).

That said we’re both fascinated with the ancient amber wines (aka skin-contact, aka orange) as they are generally so vibrant and versatile.

When food and wine pairing, imagine the thrill of being able to play with a wine that offers all the aromatics of a white with the power of a red. And yet something else entirely.

The potential is vast and wonderful. And we’re only at the beginning of discovering all that amber wines can offer.

Ania: I agree with Honey when it comes to amber wines. I absolutely love to pair them with fun (or serious) food. I’m also obsessed with everything cider (from pet nat cider to ice cider) and love matching it with different dishes.

What are the main benefits of natural wine? From the wines themselves to the benefits on the planet?

Ania: From the point of view of organic viticulture, there are so many benefits that come from not using herbicides and pesticides. Not to mention being mindful of the weight of the bottle, any unnecessary usage of the plastic, and a smaller carbon footprint.

And as a raw, artisan product, it’s naturally better for your health. Made without additives, and fermented as nature intended. It’s no surprise that there’s this rumour that natural wines don't cause hangovers!

But, honestly, it does depend on how much you drink. But I always feel much fresher after drinking natural wines versus conventional wines.

What’s the best wine experience you’ve had in your life?

Honey: I suppose for me this is more of a retrospective. But back in the first days of Sager and Wilde where we both worked, we used to pour outrageous wines by the glass that you just can’t get hold of anymore.

I remember one night in particular. We had Overnoy, Clape, and Jérôme Prévost by the glass and it felt just like a normal night. I curse myself for not taking bigger gulps that night!

Ania: Hmm. It’s hard to say as I am quite spoiled! But I do remember when I first tried natural wines paired with “fine dining” food.

It was when I lived in Stockholm and went on a date to a restaurant called Ekstedt in Stockholm. The sommelier was absolutely amazing and I tried my first Testalonga wine there.

I still have pictures of the bottles! I remember thinking that I would like to be this person one day. Speaking with a contagious passion and confidence about wine. So here I am :-)

You recently embarked on a journey to get your head around the broader topic of sustainability for restaurants? What inspired this?

Ania: Working at Silo was extremely inspiring. I discovered that it was possible to run a restaurant and avoid the waste which at the time, was a given in our industry.

It can be quite terrifying if we think about the amount of food thrown away. I read an article recently which stated that restaurants in the UK produce 915,400 tonnes of waste every year. Including 199,100 tonnes of food waste.

To work in a restaurant with a zero-waste approach was eye-opening. People were interested in my take on the wine and drinks programme. We had to establish a lot of principles. Researching the topic in order to match Silo’s ethos. It was a very interesting journey.

Achieving genuine “zero waste” took a lot of practice and discipline. But after the rules are established, it is relatively easy!

Are there parallels to be drawn between sustainability in wine and in other drinks? And even food?

Ania: The same approach we take to wine can be used to source local, organically-grown ingredients in food. And also to sourcing local beers, ciders, and kombucha/soft drinks. It’s a very similar ethos.

It’s crucial we all make efforts to support small independent companies. And make sure they are mindful of their packaging practices and their carbon footprint.

When the pandemic is over, what are your thoughts on the future of the British hospitality industry? Are we in for the ‘roaring twenties’, or has the industry changed forever?

Honey: I’ve definitely gone through phases of being certain of both.

During the first and second lockdowns - like all of our industry colleagues - there was a feeling of dread. As though choosing to work in hospitality was like opting for the leaky boat.

But I definitely don’t think that now. Seeing how businesses have pivoted in the most extraordinary ways is proof that we are a talented and resilient bunch.

Couple that with 66 million people desperate to get back to the pub and into restaurants, and we think the industry is going to see a huge boom for years to come.