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Wine to 5 – The sommelier-turned-wine buyer: Fionnuala Synnott, La Rousse Wines, Dublin

Our new feature offers a window into the working lives of wine professionals around the world. We kick off with a well-travelled former journalist and sommelier, now wine buyer at merchant La Rousse in Dublin, Fionnuala Synnott

From journalist to wine buyer…How did that happen?

I got a taste for wine in Argentina and was determined to get into wine writing. In London, I got my first experience in financial journalism, did WSET exams, talked to a lot of people and finally (it took five years) found a position on a wine and spirits trade magazine.

Being a wine journalist was great, but I was fascinated by the dark arts of the sommelier – my experience in this was key to becoming a wine buyer.

I interviewed Gérard Basset who told me that he had started ‘late’ at 29, and this galvanised me into action. Sommelier supremo Luke Robertson was good enough to take me on and train me. It gave me a real feel for what people actually want to drink, and what they are comfortable spending, which is really what wine buying is all about.

What’s the best thing about your job?

The people. Wine is all about sharing. It attracts a wonderful community, from winemakers to restaurateurs or retailers to consumers – there is a lot of passion. And there’s the constant learning. You will never know all there is to know about wine, and you must embrace this fact to enjoy it. You need to read extensively, taste widely and keep pushing the limits of your knowledge. The worst thing is the spreadsheets. And dental bills! If you taste wine for a living you need to visit your hygienist very regularly.

What’s the most common misconception about your job?

That I taste wine all day. The buying period is concentrated across a few months of the year, and the rest is about building a route to market: trying to communicate the winemaker’s philosophy to clients. I love joining the dots between people, be it a Michelin-star restaurant and the ‘right’ Champagne house or talking people through their first taste of skin-contact wine.

Your greatest moment?

One that stands out was a dinner at Les Crayères in Reims hosted by then Mumm chef de cave Didier Mariotti. It was a beautiful June evening and we sipped a Cuvée R Lalou from 1966. I had never had anything like it. The wine was a deep gold and perfectly still but once in a while, a bubble would break on the surface.

And your greatest mistake?

When I first moved to Paris, a friend put me in touch with the head sommelier at Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée. He offered to show me his cellar, but I was really broke and due to start a paying-the-bills job on that day. I should have gone, and trusted that I would find another job.

How’s your work-life balance?

After working as a sommelier, there’s not a job in the world with hours that could scare me! The pace of restaurant life is unsustainable for many in the long term – pregnant sommeliers are still a rarity. My work-life balance is pretty good now. My four-year-old makes sure I never get a lie-in, but I can have dinner at 7.30pm rather than 1.30am.

The best advice you’ve had?

Always take on new challenges, preferably ones that scare you a little… And never brush your teeth straight after tasting: it’ll strip the enamel.

Fionnuala came to London from Buenos Aires with a degree in History & Spanish and the intention of writing. After a stint as a financial reporter, she secured a job as a wine and spirits journalist, then became a sommelier working in four restaurant openings including Pollen Street Social and Oblix (the first restaurant in The Shard). She is currently the wine buyer for La Rousse Wines in Dublin.

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