Meet your Somm: Vinodhan Veloo
Meet Vinodhan Veloo, Vino for short, a Tamil Indian raised in Singapore. Starting his sommelier career as an ambivalent 24 year-old liberal arts student in 2014, working part-time dinner shifts at a fine-dining restaurant, those stints eventually became a full-time career. By the time he realised it was his future, Vino was working on his WSET Diploma in Wine and Spirits in London and there was no turning back. By then, he was so enamoured by the subject that nothing else mattered as much as wine.
In 2017, Vino joined Odette in Singapore (three Michelin stars, ranked number one in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2019 and 2020, and ranked 18 in the World’s 50 Best 2019) as assistant sommelier. There, he worked with a number of different chefs from around the world at Odette’s renowned four-hands dinners, a privilege for which he remains thankful. In 2019, Vino left Odette to join chef Rishi Naleendra to open his new fine-dining restaurant, Cloudstreet in Singapore, as head sommelier.
Jumping a year to the present day, Covid-19 has required a change of tack so his current Cloudstreet responsibilities find him working as a food packer and dispatch delivery coordinator. And although he and the team are doing fine, he obviously hopes to be back in the head sommelier saddle as soon as possible. Here, Vino tells us about his magazine-style list and some of the wines from unusual regions he’s enjoyed uncorking recently.
What’s your favourite wine region?
That’s very difficult to pick, but if there had to be one wine region, it would be the Loire Valley. The Loire is a super region flanking the longest river in France, producing everything from fresh and earthy red wines to the longest-living sweet wines in the world. I visited the Loire in 2018, driving from Nantes to Lyon, taking the route along the Loire River, stopping off to visit wineries in Muscadet appellations (Pépière, Brégeon), Anjou (Mark Angeli, Philippe Delesvaux), Bourgeuil (Chevalerie, Bel Air), Tours (Huet, François Chidaine) and Sancerre (Vincent Pinard, Vacheron). I did this entire road trip alone over nine days, driving endlessly along the narrowest country roads I’d ever taken, which felt like they were designed to make sure you never made it through.
What is your go-to beverage aside from wine?
Being based in Singapore, a warm and humid tropical country, wine isn’t exactly the most popular quaff. Add in our exotic food culture and flavours and you’d really be in the market for something that goes with everything. So, beer and cider. I’ve been enjoying these drinks a lot. In fact, if I hadn’t already signed up for so many activities and didn’t have so much on my plate right now, I’d be looking into taking a course on beer or ciders for the fun of it. I’m easy with beers, always looking for a new crisp lager to try, otherwise I love IPA or sours. I especially love cider made by Eric Bordelet and Cidrerie du Vulcain.
Which wine changed your life?
I don’t think there is any one particular wine that changed my life, but if there was one that I just cannot forget, it would be the 1999 Gaja Conteisa. It’s a single-vineyard bottling by one of, if not the most famous families from Barolo and Barbaresco. Elegant yet intense, pure but complex, it was multi-sensory. I didn’t even have a whole bottle to myself because I couldn’t afford it at the time. I would just sell a lot of it and taste it before I’d serve it. Just that tiny glass was enough to convince me of its inherent sublimity.
The task at hand when working on food and wine pairings is really simply not fucking up.
What’s the back story to your current wine list?
I received plenty of recognition for the wine list I’d curated for Cloudstreet. It was everything that I had hoped to one day create and I finally managed to pull it off, after about three months of working on it.
The wine list is designed to read like a magazine, with storytelling at the core of its philosophy. Wines are categorised according to themes and feelings like ‘The Clos of Priorat’ and ‘Seaspray’. I used simple imagery and design elements, along with blurbs of writing to get across the stories of the wines. I had always felt that wine lists should do justice to winemakers, who have poured their hearts into to making these wines, and not simply have their wines placed on a long list of grapes.
Also, designing it to read like a magazine meant the list itself would market some of the wines for me, which would allow greater exposure to many lesser-known wine styles through the list’s themes and stories. I mean, I don’t think there are many restaurants with a track record of selling plenty of fine Crémant wines. Some of our restaurant guests have just sat through their entire meal with my list open on the side, reading it cover to cover. I hadn’t expected it to work as well as it did.
Which wines excite you?
I’ve always especially enjoyed drinking wines made with indigenous grape varieties from odd parts of the world. Well, a lot of these ‘odd’ parts of the world at some point were incredibly important to the world of wine, had suffered some loss of reputation, but many regions and countries are making a comeback. I think Croatian wines now are especially interesting. Jo Ahearne makes some amazing wines from the Hvar. I also find the modern wines of Portugal and the historical and timeless wines of Colares particularly exciting.
What do you love most about your job?
I get paid to specialise in wines and to curate a wine and beverage programme, but most importantly I’m an ambassador of hospitality and the world of wine. I won’t deny that it’s a ridiculously tough job with long, long hours; I haven’t had time to enjoy a hobby in years. I’d yearned for the time that I have now because of the lockdown. But yet, this is all immensely fulfilling. A career that will continue to encourage and reward learning, reading and investing in yourself, is a great way to go about getting paid.
Which are your favourite wine resources?
A great question. I have more books about wines than I have wines at home, by many folds. One of my favourite wine books has to be French Wine: A History by Rod Phillips. He has written several books on wine history and is respected in the industry as an authority on that subject.
On the academic side, Understanding Wine Technology by David Bird MW helped me grasp wine making techniques and machinery without obsessing over the more esoteric points and technicalities. As Bird is a chemist, plenty of reactions that happen to wines and in winemaking are explained to a reasonable depth. Another two books I’ve loved reading are Neuroenology by Gordon M. Shepard and Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing by Mark A. Matthews.
What is your philosophy on wine and food?
I think wine and food go hand in hand. It’s important that you have the right wine for the job. I don’t get crazy about the nuances in the wines or food in the pairing because it’s likely that your guests might not get those nuances. Everyone tastes differently and is sensitive to different flavours, plus they have unique preferences. The task at hand when working on food and wine pairings is really simply not fucking up. An example of fucking up would be something like Cabernet Sauvignon paired with Uni. There are some classic pairings that I simply don’t understand and enjoy, like a full-bodied and tannic red wine with cheeses. I hate tannins when my mouth is covered on the inside with cheese; it’s the worst feeling. I’d much rather have a sweet late harvest wine or a Trockenbeerenauslese. I also don’t get pairing desserts with fortified wines. Sweet food make the ethanol in wine seem more prominent. So yes, I am a believer in food and wine pairings, although it must be done tastefully.
If you could work with any chef, who would it be?
Virgilio Martínez of Central in Peru is an inspiration. I worked with him briefly at a four-hands event at Odette, and the colours of his dishes were out of another world. His curiosity and enthusiasm for heirloom and indigenous Peruvian products help promote the diversity in our environments. The many different varieties of plant, vegetables and herbs around us are often forgotten for the more commercially viable varieties known around the world. He is definitely someone whom I’d imagine really enjoying working with.
What sets you apart from other sommeliers?
I’d like to think that my passion lies not just in being a sommelier, but also in storytelling and hospitality. I believe that it’s important, as a sommelier, that you focus even more on your strengths as a hospitalitarian. Our guests care more for the level of attention and hospitality than for how much we as sommeliers know. My philosophy is to provide that warmth and attentiveness to everyone who steps foot in the restaurant. I also really believe in being well informed and trying to dispel many myths behind wine and its consumption, for instance that great wines are by definition expensive wines, as much as possible.
What’s the best thing that ever happened to you as a somm?
The wine list I designed for Cloudstreet was one of only two wine lists to receive a 10/10 rating out of a total of 215 restaurants ranked in Singapore Tatler. We were up against Odette, Les Amis (three Michelin Stars) and many others that have been around for decades and have wine offerings that are many times larger than ours. We’d only been open for about seven months and that was a huge achievement for me.
Moving forward, what do you hope to accomplish?
I’m working on a few things. Of utmost importance is completing my DipWSET. The Covid situation has delayed my final exams for a year, from 13 May 2020 to 13 May 2021. This was a huge bummer as I was really looking forward to graduating this year after two years of studying for all their exams. Looks like I’ve got to keep going.
After the DipWSET, I plan to attempt the Advanced Sommelier programme and I’ll give myself about two years to complete that. I do dream of attempting the Master Sommelier exams one day.
But beyond this, I have since started working on a blog for wine in the trade in Singapore. It’s a work in progress but I plan on building it to include videos.
My aim is to be either a beverage director of a restaurant or hotel group one day, or to be a business owner with my chef girlfriend. We dream about setting up a café and wine bar space with affordable but high-quality food, specialty coffee in the day and boutique and tasty wines in the evening. We’ll see what the future has planned for us.
In last week’s Meet Your Somm, Geneva-based Vincent Debergé shares his story.