How to get a wine collection just like one of Australia's top Sommeliers

As the head Sommelier and wine buyer for Andrew McConnell's fine-dining flagship, Cutler& Co, along with its adjacent wine bar Marion, Liam O'Brien gets to taste a lot of wine.

His guess is somewhere around 1000 wines a year.

Obviously only a relatively small portion of those wines will be poured across the two venues, and the choices are determined by the character of each venue and the food the wines will be served alongside.

A year or so ago, O'Brien and his passionate team decided they wanted to find a way to share more of the wines they loved with the public, and so the Deadman's Dozen was born: a monthly wine selection chosen by the wine guns at Marion, and named after Deadman's lane, which borders the building on one side. The package is great value, at $270 a dozen, and I decided to meet up and ask him how he goes about picking twelve killer wines at that competitive price-point each and every month.

A taste for the industry

I met O'Brien on a Tuesday afternoon before Marion opened, the venue full of wine boxes and bustling to prepare for service.

He explained that the idea for the Deadman's Dozen came about naturally through the regular tasting sessions the Marion beverage team engage in.

"We've honestly got a really incredible team in terms of their dedication and wanting to learn," he says.

"One of the training sessions we run is just called 'talking about wine'… It's this internal group of people getting together having in-depth discussions about wine. We do have quite vigorous discussions… It was sort-of born out of that."  

For the love of wine

The intention behind the Deadman's Dozen seems to be two-fold.

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Firstly, it offers a way to transmit the passion and knowledge of the team to a wider audience.

"The overarching philosophy was just wine for the love of wine, for the joy of it. Not being too intellectual or ticking boxes or trying to impress…"

Still, O'Brien wanted to make sure the selection also captured the spirit of the Marion team tastings.

"Part of what we want to achieve is almost breaking down habitual drinking and challenging people a bit."

For this reason, the dozen often contains some styles, varieties or regions that might be unfamiliar to the average wine drinker.

"It's not dumbed down at all," he explains.

"Staff buy them. They should provide interest and intrigue."

Extending the reach

The other aim is to be able to put the respected McConnell brand behind more of the wine producers that O'Brien is passionate about.

"People really respond to the small-scale Australian producers," says O'Brien. "It's nice to have that balance of emerging and established as well."

The current dozen includes some of his top picks from across the previous selections, including one sparkling wine, four whites, a Rosè and an orange wine, four reds and a Sauternes, with nine out of twelve produced in Australia.

He was particularly excited about the Hoddle's Creek Blanc de Blancs and the Wilimee Chardonnay from local Macedon Ranges producer Ben Ranken.

Choice tannins

When recalling his past favourites, O"Brien's enthusiasm is immediately evident.

"Yeah, some have been real standouts, like Abel Gibson from Ruggabellus, who's based out of the Barossa Valley. Jo Marsh from Billy Button, based up in the Alpine and King Valleys. She embodies what we like. She makes over a dozen wines in some years, from different varieties."

O'Brien also mentioned Brendan Hawker's label Lady & the Hawk, whose first vintage of Rosè he snapped up for the list.

"It was really nice to put that in the dozen and say, 'hey, this guy his just started out.' We love jumping in early when we can and supporting these sorts of people, and hopefully it's win-win: you get a bargain, and he gets his first vintage selling pretty well."

O'Brien's love of wine is certainly infectious, and his knowledge impressive. I for one would love to be a fly on the wall during the Marion staff tastings, but I guess I'll settle for taking home a Deadman's Dozen, the wines that have risen to the top of the pile during these discussions.

"It's a little bit of our world that you can transport away with you,"  O'Brien suggests. "It's a way to live our life… in a way, a little bit."