Adam Pawlowski, Head Sommelier, Northcote

The Staff Canteen

Originally from Poland, Master Sommelier, Adam Pawlowski is head sommelier at Northcote which has held a star in the Michelin Guide UK since 1996.

As head sommelier at Northcote, Adam works alongside chef patron Nigel Haworth who has held a Michelin star since 1996, and managing director Craig Bancroft who leads the wine team. Adam’s interest in wine began when he moved to the UK six years ago and he talks to

The Staff Canteen about becoming the first Polish Master Sommelier, where his love of wine came from and how he deals with difficult customers.

Why did you become interested in wine?

Michelin starred Nothcote
Michelin starred Nothcote

I’ve always been part of the hospitality industry as my parents run a pub back in Poland, which I used to help out in. I had an office job before I moved to the UK which I wasn’t keen on so when I came here I took a job in a hotel in Blackpool. That’s when I discovered wine. It was much more accessible in the UK and affordable – at work I was tasting more wines and I found it really interesting. It became a hobby, I bought a book and started buying different wines and asking myself questions like ‘why does it taste like that?’ It gave me the idea that I should turn it into a full time job so after six months in the UK I decided I wanted to become a sommelier. I find it fascinating that every single bottle of wine tastes different and I want to know the reason for it. I like the fact you can have great wines with great food but also you can have it with simple food at home and it brings people together.

Having decided to become a sommelier, what was the next step?

I did the second level Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) which is an intermediate course, once I got that I started to look for wine related jobs. The first place to get back to me was Northcote and I joined the team as assistant sommelier in 2009.

Nigel and Adam from Michelin-starred Northcote

Nigel and Adam from

Michelin-starred Northcote

How has the team at Northcote supported you in developing your knowledge and skills as a sommelier?

I’ve been mentored by Northcote’s Managing Director, Craig Bancroft and many other people over the years within Northcote and outside it, which has helped me become better at my job. After six months at Northcote I had passed several sommelier courses and I had done very well, so Nigel Haworth and Craig decided to give me a chance and they promoted me to head sommelier. I had big shoes to fill but I was determined and ambitious enough to succeed – I haven’t stopped pushing ever since! The last five years have been a hell of a journey but when I first started on it I knew I wanted to be a master sommelier, and I committed to that goal full time. It has become more of a lifestyle than a career – I’m living and breathing wine every day! There are now four sommeliers and it’s great to work as a team and share that passion and knowledge with the customers.

When did you become a master sommelier?

My five favourite wines: Charles Heidsieck, Blanc des Millénaires, Champagne, France, 1995 Meursault, Domaine Coche-Dury, Burgundy, France, 2002 Riesling Auslese, Brauneberrger Juffer Sonnenuhr, Fritz Haag, Mosel, Germany, 2004 Vinha Maria Teresa, Quinta do Crasto, Douro, Portugal, 2005 Côte-Rôtie, La Mouline, Domaine Etienne Guigal, Rhone Valley, France, 1999 My favourite dish on the menu at Northcote: Grouse, liver parfait, damson prunes and tiny potatoes. I match it with a beautiful French Syrah from Côte-Rôtie appellation in Rhône Valley (Côte-Rôtie, Gaec François et Fils, Rhône Valley, France, 2011). The wine shows black plum, blackberry and cherry aromas which complement rich flavour of the grouse and pick up on the sweetness of the prunes.

I’m a baby master sommelier! I only passed on November 1 last year so I’m the newest master sommelier and one of only 220 in the world since 1969 – and I’m the first Polish master sommelier. The pass rate for the exam is about five percent and according to Forbes Magazine it’s the most difficult exam in the world.

What does the exam involve?

Only those who have passed the advance sommelier exam can apply for the master sommelier exam. The waiting list is very, very long because people from all over the world want to do it. This was my second attempt and I had been on the waiting list for nine months. There is an oral theory exam, you’re asked 100 questions and you are expected to answer immediately and you have to get a minimum of 75 right. They can ask you anything so you really have to know everything – it’s really nerve wracking. I passed my theory on my first attempt and you can keep a pass for the next two attempts so I didn’t have to do that again. The other two parts are the practical and the tasting, the practical is a snappy scenario and you have to say how you would deal with that situation. It’s so they can check you behave accordingly, that you’re diplomatic and how you work under stress. There are management questions such as pricing wines according to GP or planning a banquet. It’s not just the wine knowledge which has to be immaculate! Then there’s the tasting which isn’t just wine you have to taste spirits as well. You get six wines and 25 minutes to taste them – it’s the most difficult part of the exam and I had tasted hundreds and hundreds of wines blind beforehand. You can be a great taster and then have a bad day.

How did you feel when you found out you had passed and you were now a master sommelier?

I found it very overwhelming. It was very surreal and even now when I look at my badge I don’t think it has sunk in properly. It was like winning the lottery! I was the only successful candidate from those exams too which was also a shock.

Adam Pawlowski

Adam Pawlowski 

As a master sommelier, what does your role at Northcote now involve?

It’s quite a big and complex job. We put together and maintain the wine list which has about 600 wines on it. We try to make it interesting for customers by changing it regularly so they can taste new and interesting wines. As Northcote is fine dining establishment we have a tasting menu which we pair wine too and I work closely with Nigel to do that. It’s a great creative process which involves both the kitchen and the wine team which we hope customers will enjoy. Delivering the wine and presenting it at the table is a very individual approach. It requires a lot of knowledge and staff as well which is why there are four of us. The attention to detail is key, you have to maintain and manage temperature, glassware, and running service day in and day out is a huge job. Then there’s deliveries, suppliers and recommending wines for events and functions.

Do you prefer customers who come to you with no knowledge of wine or those who have an idea of what they like?

I think of myself as the person who helps customers choose the perfect wine for the perfect occasion. My job is to listen and to ask the right questions – I’m not there to be a master sommelier superstar and to tell you what to drink, I’m there to help. If customers choose to go with my recommendations then perfect, it will be served and my reasons for why I chose it will be explained and I welcome feedback.

Michelin-starred Northcote
Michelin-starred Northcote

The more information I get from the customer the better my questions are and the easier it is to come up with the right wine.  Some sommeliers may think they know best – but when it comes to this particular topic it feels like the more you know about it the less you know! People can often feel intimidated by a sommelier so a good question to ask is ‘what was the last bottle of wine that you enjoyed?’ Then you have an idea and when you know your stuff you can come up with five different things that are similar but also allow them to try something different.

People come to Northcote because of Nigel’s reputation not specifically for the wine, is it difficult being in the shadow of the food?

We know the food is the star and we don’t want to steal the show. We want to marry the flavours, we don’t want to overpower them, we want the food to shine through. When you get your wine and food pairing right both can help each other. The perfect pairing can both enhance the flavour of the food and the wine. We don’t want to overdo it or over complicate it, we know our place and we know that people come for the food.

Michelin-starred Northcote
Michelin-starred Northcote

As well as looking after the wine your job involves dealing with customers, how do you deal with them when they are difficult?

You do get difficult customers, it’s not on a daily basis but I do have to deal with it. The last thing I want is a customer drinking a wine that they didn’t want to, or that they don’t enjoy. If you don’t like the wine I’ve recommended, just tell me straight away and I’ll change it. I like to be a as accommodating as I can and make sure the customer is happy at the end. We get complaints like the wine is too cold, or to warm and you can’t tell the customer they are wrong – that’s just the way they like the wine. They have to tell me if they like a particular wine very cold for example – I can’t read minds and I’ll serve it as I’ve been trained. It’s never easy to deal with complaints but it’s part of the job.

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The Staff Canteen

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Editor 12th March 2015

Adam Pawlowski, Head Sommelier, Northcote