Sarah Helliwell is head of wine at Wilding, a new restaurant, wine bar and wine shop in Oxford’s bohemian Jericho area founded by Kent Barker of Bibendum, Enotria and Oddbins. It is the sequel to Eight Stony Street in Frome.
What is your provenance and vintage?
Cornwall originally and 1987.
Describe your career to date?
I worked in vineyards and wineries in the Languedoc then England’s Camel Valley before moving into the world of Michelin-starred restaurants as a sommelier at Gidleigh Park. I was also a WSET educator. Sharing my knowledge with people has proved addictive: I never tire of making what can be a very complex world accessible.
How do you approach the wine list?
Kent and I share the rule that every wine we list has to be tasted and ticked by both of us so we end up with a rounded list. Otherwise, Kent would fill the shelves with Cabernet Franc. While we stick to this procedure 99% of the time, I do occasionally sneak through a great Riesling.
Which grape do you find it tricky to get along with?
Ironically, working so closely with Mark, I sometimes struggle with Cabernet Franc, stalkiness in wine being my least favourite characteristic.
Why the name?
Wilding’s list is a natural evolution from the one I created in Frome. Kent and I share the belief that the best wines are produced in the vineyard and that happens when there is a very light human footprint on the environment. The hospitality industry can get caught up in lots of distractions and we wanted to strip things back and ‘re-wild’ the offering to what really matters, i.e. great wine, food and service.
Do you feature wines from local estates?
I’m really excited to feature Gavin Carver’s Freedom of the Press Bacchus by the glass, which is made at an ‘urban winery’ nearby at Minster Lovell. We also have Harrow and Hope from Marlow.
If you could give your younger self advice, what would it be?
I try to encourage our team to be confident in voicing their opinion so they can enjoy the fun of talking about wine.
Describe a standout wine pairing with a dish by chef Dominique Goltinger?
During team training, we tried Dominique’s chocolate delice with Mas Amiel Maury. A great match, but even better to see the team light up when they tried the combination, which reminded me of the joy when you discover that the combination of the right food and wine can be so much more than the sum of its parts.
How do you recruit?
It has never been so hard for the industry to find staff. I recruit for enthusiasm and engagement. If someone shows interest, I can teach the rest.
Is the customer always right?
Not always, there being no place for rudeness towards staff in hospitality. Other than that, we will do whatever we can to make sure everyone leaves Wilding with the best memories.
Where would your fantasy vineyard be?
At the bottom of my garden so I can walk to it, coffee in hand, each morning. What a way to start the day…
Do you have an unusual hobby?
Running. And I would surf, kayak or paddle board every day if it was possible.
What is the last book you read?
Barak Obama’s autobiography, A Promised Land.
Wilding, 11-12 Little Clarendon Street, Oxford OX1 2HP; Tel: +44 (0)1865 985 630