The beauty of working in such a unique restaurant as China Tang is that it attracts everyone from A list film stars, political leaders, the Royal family, through to loyal guests of the Dorchester Hotel above it. Which, in turn, gives head of wine Igor Sotric such an open playing field on which to source and sell interesting wines from all over the world. Here he explains what wines sell best and why iconic producers such as California’s Orin Swift are as much in demand as the classic names from Bordeaux and Burgundy.
The food at China Tang might be old style Cantonese cuisine of the highest order, but the wines he pairs with it can come from the Old and New World, says head of wine Igor Sotric.
If Igor Sotric was not so discreet and professional he could probably earn himself a quite fortune sharing the secrets and the goings–on of some of the most famous and celebrated people on the planet, particularly those who have a soft spot for very good Chinese food and some fine wine to go with it.
But then if he did, China Tang, arguably London’s most prestigious Chinese restaurant, situated in its own underworld kingdom of the Dorchester Hotel, would not be the haven it is for the rich and famous.
Ever since it opened its doors in 2005 China Tang earned a worldwide reputation for not only its excellent dishes, based mainly on Cantonese cuisine, but for its hospitality, led by its founder, the late Sir David Tang. Clearly his death in 2017 was a major shock for the business and it is still pretty raw for Sotric and his team.
The glamorous surroundings of China Tang are very different to Sotric’s upbringing in Croatia and his training as a microbiologist. It was when he decided to move to the UK in 1992 that he swapped his test tubes for wine glasses after picking up a job in a wine shop in London. He says it was the moment he tasted a Chablis Premier Cru for the first time that he knew wine was the way forward for him. His first job was as wine buyer for the Ignite Group, which at the time included Cocoon and Bampkin restaurants, Boujis Night Club, favoured by the young Royals, and Eclipse bars. After three years there he also had stints at St Martins Lane and Bluebird, before making the move 10 years ago as head of wine at China Tang.
During that time he says he has worked hard to introduce a wider selection of wines, whilst also keeping true to its traditions of having a strong French wine list – which is still 45% French. When he first joined the list was 300 bins and more, mostly from France. This has now been cut back, with a keener eye on what is happening in the New World, particularly California which is always popular amongst Dorchester customers and their US guests. But, stresses Sotric, Bordeaux and Burgundy are still hugely important.
France, for example, now makes up three pages of its wine list, but the Rest of the World is four. “There are all wines that go with the old style Cantonese food that we do here,” insists Sotric.
“Which means wines that can work with strong flavours, that are precise and have good acidity, rather than the big, rich ones. But we have to make sure we have a good range to suit all tastes.”
He looks to introduce different and less obvious wines by the glass where he hopes he can give his guests reasonably safe alternatives to their tried and tested. China Tang now works with around 16 whites by the glass and 16 reds which are turned over to such an extent that there is “very little wastage” says Sotric. Again balancing the French, Italian and Old World classics (Bordeaux wines are around £25-£25 by the glass) with more adventurous styles like wines from his own country in Croatia or a Slovenian Chardonnay, a Greek Viognier.
“It’s much easier by the glass to recommend something different,” says Sotric. “We do an Alsatian Pinot Gris, for example. It helps us to play around with German Rieslings. But you have to follow the customer and your instincts. Some only want to be offered the classics. Others are more willing to experiment and trust us to recommend something different for them.”
The list also offers very good value at all price points and ranges from £32 for house right up to £15,000 and a little more. “The average spend will go up and down depending on the time of the year and who our customers are,” he says.
“You get such a wide mix of people coming here. Some people could be spending £80 to £100 a head on wine. But it changes a lot during the year. In the summer we get a lot (of Arabs and) customers from the Middle East.”
By opening up the list to more countries and producers it also means China Tang is now in a better position to work more closely with key suppliers, distributors and producers who can bring the right styles and wine profiles to the restaurant and its (profile of) customers. “For example, we have established a strong partnership with E&J Gallo Winery and its growing portfolio of super premium Californian producers. These wines are very much what the China Tang customers are looking for,” says Sotric. This is helped even more by the fact Sotric also has such a close relationship with Enotria & Coe, distributors of the E&J Gallo Winery super premium range.
China Tang has had great success in the last year with wines from cutting-edge Californian winemaker Dave Phinney, founder of the US brand Orin Swift, which is also now part of E&J Gallo Winery. So much so that Gallo held a special dinner at China Tang last autumn with guests who had taken part in a promotion to buy special wines from the Orin Swift estate. The event saw the E&J Gallo Winery super premium team work with China Tang to match certain wine styles with key dishes.
The Buyer was able to go and see how this all and it proved a fascinating exercise not only in successful food and wine pairing, but also the passion and excitement some consumers have for their favourite producers. Dave Phinney is clearly not just a rock star in the wine trade.
“We love the styles of wines that Dave Phinney is making,” says Sotric. “We have been following Orin Swift wines for some time. We have been selling The Prisoner for some time. Our list currently includes Abstract, a complex Grenache, Syrah and Petite Syrah blend, Palermo, a stunning Cabernet Sauvignon and Mannequin, a beautiful Chardonnay ; the wines are also over at The Cut at 45 Park Lane. They are the exact wines we want to sell. They have such a connection with our customers. The labels look so beautiful and stunning sitting on people’s tables that we will often get guests asking to buy the wine that is ‘on that table’.”
“It’s been good to work with Gallo and Enotria on this. We have built a very good connection with Gallo’s super premium wine team who have been in to do specific training with our staff.”
It clearly helps that iconic Californian wines from producers like Orin Swift are so popular amongst not only China Tang’s American customers, but also their Russian ones too. “They love US wines that have a slightly sweeter edge and a touch of oak that are ready to drink now. American wines can give you that.”
It’s an area that both Sotric and the chef team are keen to do more of, particularly as it helps them better understand their own menu and styles of cuisine and what combinations and ingredients are best suited to pair with the right kind of wines.
The China Tang wine team has now been expanded to eight, and its sommeliers are able to work with key suppliers offering feedback, often with formal tasting four or five times a month, on what is working and selling on the restaurant floor. Which when you have up to 80 suppliers is vital to make sure you are top of your range but also the people you are working with, says Sotric.
He is particularly proud that he also has around half of his team that have been there for a number of years. Yes, the nature of the sommelier market means there are those that will come for the experience and move on, but for the others China Tang has become as much of their lives as it has for him. Julien Sahut, for example, who is now at Sexy Fish, spent four years at China Tang.
“My assistant was the first persona I employed,” he says. “It’s a good to place learn and train and to be able to taste and sell so many interesting wines. But it is also good to see people moving in their careers.”
Sotric will look to sit down with his team at least once a week to go through and taste and talk about certain wines. That could be more if they have suppliers and producers coming in who can host those sessions as well. “We like to get our suppliers in do that particular when they have new vintages of a particular wine.”
He will also go out to trade tastings with members of his sommelier team and encourages them to carry on their education and look at advancing their careers by following the Master Sommelier programme.
It’s why he also has good relationships with the other restaurants within the Dorchester and the nearby Cut at 45 Park Lane across the road.
Ultimately, he says, it is about taking all that knowledge out on to the restaurant floor and being able to cope with what they find. You also have to be able to deal with big shifts in demand, particularly during major events in London like Fashion Week when suddenly the restaurant is full of super models.
The rich and famous
One of the exciting aspects, adds Sotric, about working for such a landmark restaurant as China Tang is that no two days are the same. “You just don’t know who is going to walk in next. It could be a major A list Hollywood star. It could be a world leader. It could be someone who just walks in a T-shirt and jeans and then goes on to order one of our most expensive wines. It really is such a great place to work,” he explains.
It’s partly why the restaurant has so many private dining rooms and closed off areas where guests that want their privacy can have it. It means, he says, that often guests have no idea that just behind the window to their left are some of the most well–known actors, singers, or politicians in the world.
It is also the kind of place where prestigious wines on the list don’t just sit there, they sell.
It’s not just about knowing how to handle the A listers, says Sotric, it’s arguably even more important to look after your regulars. Of which there are a lot at China Tang. So much so that it now has on a Tuesday night an evening of song and music for mostly its regular guests. “It’s important to have that balance.”
- For more information about the E&J Gallo Winery Super premium range, contact Will Ahier on email Will.firstname.lastname@example.org.
- You can also find our more about E&J Gallo’s premium wine offer on The Buyer’s partnership page here.