Penny Grant, whose passion for wine started as a kid, picking and stomping grapes with close family friends at BlackJack wines in central Victoria, decided at the age of 16 to focus on a career in the wine industry. She first trained at Brisbane’s highly respected ISIS Brasserie (later Ortiga Spanish restaurant). Head sommelier Matt Brooke was instrumental in connecting her with Circa Melbourne, where she met her partner Jake Nicolson (now executive chef at Blackbird).

At the time Circa had one of the biggest wine programs in all of Melbourne with five sommeliers on the floor and a huge 1600-bin wine list. Working as a junior under Chris Crawford, there was a hell of a lot to learn, Penny says. From there she was fortunate to work alongside Lincoln Riley (Gourmet Traveller Wine’s 2008 sommelier of the year award winner) at Taxi Dining Room Melbourne and later at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, and Stokehouse, Melbourne. Lincoln became ‘the biggest mentor of my life’, she says.

Recently returning to Queensland to become head sommelier at Brisbane’s waterfront bar/grill Blackbird, Penny was tasked with creating a ‘very food friendly and affordable’ 200-bin wine list. She decided to stock benchmark Australian wines from the likes of Tyrrells, Tarrawarra Estate and Bowen Estate, wines that are easy for people to identify. That met the wine brief for Blackbird. (Restaurants today are becoming far more practical; many no longer allow sommeliers to create their own egotistical ‘hero’ lists.)

Penny seems very conscious of that. ‘There are only a certain few diners that want to drink barrel-ferment, skin-contact French wines,’ she acknowledges. We were very pleased, however, to see some serious gems. ‘You might notice that I have a bit of a thing for Italian wines,’ she laughs. ‘The vertical of Sandrone Valmaggiorre Nebbiolo d’Alba is a huge interest to me, and it’s probably one of my favourite vineyards in the world. Situated on a very interesting slope in Piedmont, it can only be accessed by foot – and by donkeys. This one individual site produces a small quantity of wine; we’re lucky enough to have vintages 2012, ‘11, ’06 and ’05.’ (That’s just the tip of an iceberg; Penny’s Italian nebbiolo collection is huge.)

Essentials, ever hungry for a top drop, was delighted to spy a selection of Victorian wines including Quealy Pinot Grigio (Mornington Peninsula), Rob Dolan Wines Pinot Gris (Yarra Valley) and chardonnays from Mac Forbes, Giaconda and Fighting Gully Road. While Penny’s list of international aromatic wines and more Italians may tickle our fancy, it is the main-stay classics that keep Brisbane’s business community coming back for more.

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