“I want to continue my education, with my aspiration to be a Master of Wine before my hair turns grey!” The ambitious life goal might sound like wishful thinking in the voice of most young wine-lovers, but at just 25, Philip Dunne is the Head Sommelier of multi award-wining Ashford Castle, an opportunity that has consolidated his knowledge of wine and has allowed him to grow and focus as a professional.
Originally from Celbridge, Kildare, Philip has been working in the Irish hospitality industry since he was 15, and he’s been close to wine for seven years. “I started in a fine dining restaurant in Castletown House, Celbridge, once owned by the Guinness family”, he says, and while that gave him an understanding of fine dining, he explains that it was at Bang Restaurant where he actually developed a passion for wine.
“There was incredible passion from the company director, which he passed down to me”, says Philip who joined their staff in 2011, adding that “the buzz of wine knowledge in the restaurant became infectious” which motivated him to pursue an education in wine. By 2013 he had finished his WSET Level 3, a globally recognised certification that most wine experts will recommend for those serious about a career in wine.
Becoming a Five Star Sommelier
Philip Dunne became a part of the wine team at Ashford Castle back in 2015 as a Junior Sommelier and quickly progressed: “after six months working alongside our amazing sommelier team and Restaurant Manager Robert Bowe, I was promoted to Senior Sommelier.” Another half year later and after plenty of hard work studying the extensive wine list at the estate he was “very honoured to be made Head Sommelier”.
During this period, Ashford Castle won Best Wine Experience in Ireland at the RAI awards 2016, an achievement that was partly obtained thanks to Philip’s initiative to incorporate private tastings at the castle.
“Since October 2016, I have implemented alongside my sommelier team, private wine tastings for our guests in our newly renovated underground wine cellar, formerly the Ashford Castle coal cellars.” Philip explains that guests have the opportunity to taste wines by appointment with their personal sommelier between 4:00 to 7:00 pm. “Tastings last one hour, and include options from our vineyard Bouchard Finlayson -owned by the Tollman family of Ashford Castle- and a Super Tuscan tasting incorporating classics like Sassicaia and Tignanello.”
Philip Dunne points out that the wine experience at Ashford Castle is held to the same high standards that have earned the estate many accolades over the years and the recognition as one of the best hotels in the world. Besides the tastings, they offer private tours and masterclasses in a stunning new wine cellar where guests can choose the wine for their dinner with their expert advise.
The sommelier team and I do our very best to translate the passion that 600 winemakers on our list have put into their wine, through the wine tastings, and at the dinner table.
Nowadays, Philip and his team have worked together for long enough to have developed a routine. His day begins by checking the reservations for dinner throughout the three restaurants of Ashford Castle and wine tasting appointments.
I confer with our Executive Chef Philippe Farineau on the menus and assign wine pairings to match. When I have finished the private wine tastings with guests, I check over our wine list and get ready for evening service in our award winning fine dining restaurant, the George V Dining Room.
When asked about the most rewarding part of his work, Philip recalls “the interaction with the wonderful guests of Ashford Castle” as well as being able to have the “unique opportunity” of spending an hour during a wine cellar tasting, or a few minutes at the table during dinner, “sharing my passion and knowledge of wine.”
Regarding the hardest part, he points out “carrying in many wine boxes when the deliveries arrive! It saves the cost of a gym membership!”
Do you have any say on the wines served at Ashford Castle?
“Yes, alongside our Restaurant Manager Robert Bowe, who has been one of Ireland’s finest sommeliers for over 25 years, we would collectively make decisions on what wines would best fit Ashford Castle’s classic and contemporary wine portfolio.”
What do you look for in a wine when considering adding it to the list?
“The wines that we have chosen for our list include everything from the iconic Petrus of Pomerol to a little known Spanish vineyard on the island of Mallorca called Anima Negra, which uses grape varietals such as Callet and Fogoneau.”
Wine, Writing and Music
While Philip emphasises that his “primary concentration is building the wine program at Ashford Castle to be one of the best in the world”, he somehow finds time to pursue personal interests.
I love playing the piano. I have played since I was small when Santa Claus kindly brought me one for Christmas!
Another of his interests is travelling, and he adds that he truly enjoys “planning and visiting many vineyards across Europe”, time permitting.
He has also become a featured wine writer for local newspaper Mayo News, in which he writes a column since July 2016, focusing on a different wine-related topic bi-weekly. “For me, wine doesn’t need to be intimidating or complicated, the essence of my articles is to simplify the content and make wine approachable and enjoyable for everyone.”
With an friendly and no-nonsense prose, he talks about Bordeaux, sparkling wines, popular grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling and more, in a style that manages to be educational yet never condescending or even worst, boring.
The “Do” and “Don’ts” of a sommelier working in a five-star hotel
According to Philip, among the must-have traits of a sommelier who wishes to work on a five star environment the first one is the ability of putting together a good mise-en-place: “Be ready for service: clean glassware, wines ready at the correct temperature and condition.”
Another “Do” is to be able to anticipate and set trends, and to “work closely with the other sommeliers and the Executive Chef to create innovative food and wine pairings.”
Regarding the “Don’ts”, Philip just reminds us that you “can’t forget your wine opener and your smile!”
While he has no immediate plans to participate in international competitions or championships, he “would certainly consider it in the future” as he believes “it is always good to test yourself on a personal level.” For now, Philip’s goal is to continue improving the wine experience at Ashford Castle and to advance in his education. With such determination and passion, that highly coveted MW might actually be gracing his name before streaks of silver reach his perfectly groomed dark brown hair.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.