The Australian owner of luxury hotel group Per Aquum has built a huge 10,000-bottle wine cellar at one resort. Beverley Blanning MW finds out whether his own wine collection lives up to those of his hotels
Love. Devotion. Excitement. Urge. Emotion,’ purrs the brochure. ‘Alone. Together. Natural. Flowing.’ I could go on… but you probably get the general idea. At the luxury resorts of Tom McLoughlin in the Maldives, you leave your cares – and verbs – at home. It really does look lovely. And to complete the total luxury experience, he has built an underground wine cellar with space for 10,000 bottles on one island.
McLoughlin, CEO of the company and ‘a huge collector of wine’ (according to his enthusiastic public relations agent) inspired the wine focus of his resorts. So I was a little surprised to see him shift uncomfortably in his seat when he learned that the purpose of our interview was to get a better understanding of his passion for wine. ‘It’s just about you,’ I tried to reassure him. ‘That’s scary,’ he muttered, which was not the response I’d expected from the man who once said ‘We create our villas so you can feel free to be naked and have sex in every part of them.’ Perhaps he thinks wine discussions are a more private affair. Fortunately, his PR girl, glowing from a recent trip to one of his resorts, was sitting close by to give him moral support.
Claiming to be ‘more self-educated than anything’ about wine, he is rather dismissive of people who call themselves ‘wine experts’ (he uses a different word, but we can’t really publish it in a nice magazine like this). He says: ‘If someone says he’s an expert then he’s probably a little bit full of it. It’s not about whether it’s a great label – it’s just about what you enjoy. If I like a wine and enjoy it, it’s more important than knowing what elevation it’s grown on and which way the wind blows from and who was the son and the grandson in the vineyard. Life’s too short for getting caught up in all those details. If you like it, buy it.’
He says he always prefers Australian wines (Leeuwin Estate and Torbreck are ‘favourites at the moment’), although his sommelier ‘keeps trying to educate me, to get me to try different things,’ which he says he does. Beyond the names of the countries they come from, though (Spain, France, Chile, Argentina), he can’t enlighten us further as to his preferences – more of those annoying details that he doesn’t like.
Some light is shed on McLoughlin’s ‘passion for wine’ when he talks about his business, the ‘journeys into wine and food’ he embarks upon with his clients and the ‘state-of-the-art’ cellars he has built at his resorts. His early love of wine was forged in his native Australia, when he decided to enlarge the list at the hotel where he was working, ‘to give people more choice’. It was a smart move: revenues trebled. From then on, it appears, wine became a priority in his work. He has been developing resorts in the Maldives for the past seven years.
McLoughlin doesn’t fit the usual mould of a person who has, we are told, ‘a personal passion for fine wines’. Possibly we are seeing instead a manifestation of other aspects of his personality noted in his biography: ‘massively creative’, ‘enjoys practical jokes’, ‘dry sense of humour’, or maybe ‘risk taker’. But before leaping to hasty judgements, I ask McLoughlin about his personal cellar. More shifting in his seat… he doesn’t actually have one.
To be fair, McLoughlin does have more than enough wine to choose from in the wonderful cellar he has built in the Maldives. Why would he need to keep any at home as well? What does he like to drink when he’s relaxing at home with his wife? ‘I don’t usually drink much at home. I’m a big fan of bottled water,’ he says. ‘Evian is my favourite,’ he volunteers, belatedly getting the hang of my line of questioning. He says he enjoys wine more through work. ‘Wine is a journey,’ he reminds me. He describes a recent dinner with some of his customers that included 1986 Pétrus. ‘I was quite surprised; I actually enjoyed it. I’ve had it four or five times previously and not enjoyed it, and thought it very overvalued.’
Speaking of value, or lack thereof, the top prices in his own restaurant are pretty stratospheric – wouldn’t he baulk at a US$20,000 price tag for a bottle? ‘You get what you pay for up to a point. I’m not too caught up in the price of wine. Yes, for a special occasion, with great friends, I’d pay it. It would have to be a big group, so we could all share it.’ The PR girl beams: ‘Being around a table with Tom is quite an experience,’ she oozes, apparently forgetting for a moment that we are.
He does, however, know what he likes best: ‘I’m a bit biased about Australian wines,’ he says. ‘I love Australian Semillon and my favourite is Shiraz, not necessarily the big, alcoholic ones, but those more focused on the fruit. We recently celebrated our wedding anniversary. We drank the same wines we’d drunk at our wedding: Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay and Torbreck Runrig Shiraz.’ I learned that he also celebrated his 40th birthday earlier this year. What special bottles did he open for that? He looks a bit sheepish: ‘Actually, we fell back on the wedding wines again…’
What did you drink last night? Bottled water; I just flew in. On the flight over here I drank Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay
What’s your dream wine? I don’t really have one – if you want something that badly, you’ll get it
Who is your perfect drinking companion? My wife
What is the most you’ve ever spent on a bottle? I don’t know, but recently I hosted a dinner at Sketch for 15 people and the cost of the wine exceeded the food bill by £10,000