By Jade Chen

15 mins reading time

Home to over 1,600 champagnes, wines and sakes, Landmark Mandarin Oriental’s restaurant and bar SOMM is a city-centre retreat for wine connoisseurs and novices alike. With deep hues of burgundy and earthy tones of brass and umber, the contemporary setting is a space for relaxation, experimentation and, most importantly, enjoyment.

Fittingly sculpted to be reminiscent of a wine barrel, SOMM’s interiors are refined but warm, with a mellow ambience that welcomes guests inside. During the morning when I arrive, guests are still trickling in for weekday brunch as the restaurant welcomes a gentle start to the new day. Settling into a plush banquette, I chat with King Mak, restaurant manager of SOMM, about sustainability, a journey happening in synchrony with SOMM’s daily operations. I’m curious to find out what his take on sustainability is, what initiatives SOMM has and how the restaurant is redefining sustainability in both the dining and the bar industry.

King Mak at the Food Made Good Award Ceremony

Spirited Initiatives

During his studies many years back, King fell in love with the food and beverage industry. “Day-to-day operations in the F&B industry are so dynamic. Every day, you see different people and you learn how to engage with them and build relationships with them. It’s such a fulfilling experience”. The initial spark brought King on a journey that has led him to where he is today. As restaurant manager of SOMM, he carries forward a simple philosophy: “at SOMM, we want to build an environment where guests can be free to voice out what they like and what they enjoy. We hope they can have discussions with sommeliers and feel at ease at SOMM. Having open communications with all our guests keeps them coming back, and we always find new ways to interest and excite them”.

With over 100 wines by-the-glass, SOMM features an ever-changing, innovative wine list that draws in adventurers and wine enthusiasts alike. Rather than stocking just a few wine selections, SOMM keeps its wine lists fresh and continuous, giving guests a breadth of choice and the excitement of always having something new to explore.

At the moment, King tells me that SOMM is focusing on organic and biodynamic wines. “I think this is a new trend in the wine industry, and as a restaurant and bar we want to be able to communicate with people and show them that sustainable wine tastes just as good, if not even better”. Wine is a product of nature, and King tells me that it’s important to pay tribute to the environment, honouring the vines and vineyards where the wines come from.

The SOMM team

Getting the message across

Pioneered by Dr Rudolf Steiner in early 20th century Austria, biodynamic is an approach to viticulture and wine production that incorporates elements of ecology, ethics, and spirituality. Yet producing wine with this approach in mind poses challenges on several fronts. To get official certification, vineyards must be biodynamically-managed for three consecutive years. As global warming and changing weather conditions create increasingly unstable climates, this becomes a huge hurdle for wine producers. In certain conditions, continuing with biodynamic measures may critically threaten the vineyard, and producers have no choice but to protect their vines with chemicals. As King explains, producers facing this dilemma often continue using biodynamic methods without certification.

This means that King and his team have to take matters into their own hands, researching different vineyards to seek sustainable wines. This may mean starting with certified suppliers, then conducting investigations to find suppliers who aren’t certified but still meet SOMM’s high sustainability standards. As King notes, wineries are becoming more modern, and their websites usually mention viticulture and wine production practices. Communicating with suppliers directly is also an important step and something that SOMM does to get clarification on each wineries’ production methods.

Incorporating more sustainable wines into the wine list is a gradual process that has already been taking place. As of right now, King tells me that around 60 of SOMM’s wine-by-the-glass offerings are organic, biodynamic, or certified as sustainable. This number has risen slowly over the past few years, starting at 20, moving up to 40 and then finally reaching 60. The target, King says, is 80-85, with a buffer zone for the ever-changing selection. “This is a key criterion for us when we’re sourcing wine,” King explains. Another priority is sourcing from small batch producers, which highlights the work of international communities and supports the businesses who need it the most.

Spreading the word

From King’s standpoint as a restaurant manager, biodynamic and sustainable wines also pose the challenge of communication. “Information on this topic still isn’t widespread. Although wineries are becoming more sustainable, often customers only know the name of the wine and not the story behind it”. Promisingly though, this is beginning to change. “A lot of organisations are doing seminars and workshops, and it’s a lot easier to acquire information about the wine’s origin”.

SOMM’s wine list

The availability of information means that SOMM’s guests are becoming more accepting as well. King tells me that SOMM has been facilitating this shift through blind tastings, noting that the goal is for guests to taste and experience the wine against their palates. Moreover, customers flipping through SOMM’s wine lists will find it scattered with colourful logos— symbols indicating which wines are organic, biodynamic or sustainably produced. As these logos grow in number, they draw in guests’ curiosities, and King tells me that many customers have begun to inquire about what the labels mean. “It becomes an opportunity for us to communicate with them and share information”.

Vineyards miles away

For consumers in Hong Kong, imagining European vineyards and envisioning what organic and biodynamic farming looks like can be quite a difficult task. “It’s tough,” says King. “We don’t have anything similar in Hong Kong. The closest vineyards may be in Thailand or Japan, but you need to go to Europe and France to get an authentic experience. But even then you don’t get the full picture— when you visit the winery, you might just sit in the tasting room and try the wine, but it’s hard for you to go behind the scenes and see what they’re doing in the vineyard”. Bringing the vineyards of Europe into the minds of customers here in Hong Kong is tricky, and King tells me that educating guests about sustainability continues to be an ongoing effort.

In terms of education, organic wine is relatively easier. King explains to me that organic is a more common concept, and its rising popularity in recent years (not just in viticulture but in agriculture as well) means that customers have a better understanding and are more aware. With biodynamics, however, explaining the concept becomes much harder— especially as it involves spiritual science— and King has had to come up with a metaphor of his own. “I always tell guests that biodynamics is similar to the philosophy of Chinese medicine. As opposed to Western medicine, which removes the pain or symptom, Chinese medicine dives into the root of the problem. Similarly, with biodynamics, you give the vine something that will strengthen it and improve its function”. By tailoring his explanations to the audience, King finds that guests can grasp the concept quicker and easier. The concept of biodynamics is similar to the more well-known one of Chinese medicine, and King tells me that comparing the two makes explanations easier to digest. “It’s a bridge that not only creates understanding but allows us to build relationships with the guests as well”.

The SOMM team

Changing climates and a shifting industry

As a threat to all industries big or small, climate change has already made an unwelcome mark in the wine world. King highlights that, as a gift of nature, wine feels the impacts of climate change directly and acutely. For instance, heat waves in Europe have given grapes a higher sugar content which, after fermentation, translates to a high alcohol level. Changes like this have meant that producers need to make adjustments— in the case of sugar and alcohol levels that may mean harvesting a little earlier or implementing other procedures. Moreover, different regions suffer different impacts: in regions with heavy rain, vines absorb more water and the grape juice becomes diluted. Meanwhile, in colder regions, layers of frost in the winter mean that producers lose huge chunks of production. As production decreases and demand stays high, climate change affects not just the quality but the price of wine as well.

The looming threat of climate change has encouraged wineries to rethink how they operate, spurring ideation of more sustainable measures. An example that King mentions is Sea Change, a wine company which addresses sustainability through the use of more eco-friendly packaging. Other wineries are following a similar route, and new ideas are popping up everywhere as producers re-consider all segments of their production chains.

King notes that another change is beginning to blossom. As old winery owners retire and new, bolder leaders emerge, the wine industry will experience a generational shift that brings fresh blood and modern vision into the industry. “Many new winery owners haven’t learned about wine production the traditional way, and have studied abroad or taken part in internships internationally. These owners tend to be more open-minded and more willing to accept change”. As King observes, the pace of transformation in the wine industry will likely grow in years to come.

SOMM’s grilled Japanese pork belly skewer with BBQ sauce & Hakata cabbage

Taking it one glass at a time

Change is contagious, and a transformation has already begun to take shape in Hong Kong. As someone very much involved in the wine world, King has seen this first-hand: “at wine exhibitions and fairs, I often see wines trying out different packaging and using different methods to become more environmentally friendly”. The global movement has experienced a leap as well as famous wineries strive to take the lead in their region. As King notes, seeing famous wineries take a stance on sustainability and become leaders in the movement is an encouraging sign for the future. Now that role models have been established, it’s up to the rest of the industry to follow and learn from their example.

With the help of interview features on organic, biodynamic and sustainable wine, the sustainability trend in the wine industry has taken off in recent years. King has already noticed the trend starting here in Hong Kong, but recognises that it’ll take time to expand and grow. Recently, a spotlight has been shone on sustainable wine as wine agents begin to feature them. “Often, wine agents have portfolios with hundreds of wines. Now, these agents will add a label for sustainable wines, or even create a page dedicated to it”. King argues that this development evidences a shift in consumer demands, demonstrating that the Hong Kong market has begun to seek more sustainable wine. “It’s a trend not just in SOMM, but among other sommeliers and restaurants in Hong Kong as well. From my experience, sommeliers in Hong Kong are proud to share their knowledge on this with customers. The sustainability movement is really an industry-wide effort: even though Hong Kong doesn’t make wine, we can still play our part to make a difference at the final base and engage with the customer to create a meaningful impact”.

SOMM’s approach to introducing sustainable wine is subtle, and King tells me that sommeliers remain open-minded and avoid pushing the guests too hard. When guests at SOMM look through the wine list, sommeliers hear their opinions and requests first before making recommendations accordingly. During this process, sustainable, biodynamic or organic wines are highlighted, and sommeliers will elaborate on this if guests are interested. King comments that it’s a process of continuous sharing and evolution as guests slowly become aware of sustainable wine.

Decisions to chew on

By customising the Landmark Mandarin Oriental Group’s sustainability to be uniquely ‘SOMM’, SOMM has been making waves in sustainability, taking measures to re-assess operations across the board. As I sip on my latte, King tells me that the wooden tray it was served on was created by Timber Bank, a local organisation that collects wood from trees that have to be felled (due to age or typhoons)and recycles it into unique and innovative wood products. Moreover, the restaurant no longer uses any plastic, and takeaway boxes are all made of paper. Instead of using (and having to wash) tablecloths, SOMM gives its beautiful walnut-wood table surfaces the chance to shine— literally. Napkins are also beach coloured to prevent chemical usage during washing.

SOMM’s purple artichoke, ricotta and parmesan reggiano ravioli with girolles, arugula and extra virgin olive oil coulis

On the sourcing front, SOMM focuses not just on wine but on food as well, working with sustainable partners and organisations. Just last month in June, the restaurant worked with the Hong Kong Shark Foundation to feature an ocean month menu with only sustainable seafood. The menu, which was paired with Sea Change to align with SOMM’s identity, was a huge success, raising money to support the Hong Kong Shark Foundation. In addition to all of this, SOMM’s day-to-day operations are considered as well, with water and electricity monitoring systems keeping the restaurant on track. Food waste is handled carefully with the Landmark Mandarin Oriental’s anaerobic waste digester, and in 2020 an average of 24.67% of total waste was diverted from the landfill. In its previous audit, SOMM received the acclaimed three-star sustainability rating from Food Made Good: an achievement that King is incredibly proud of and hopes to continue. “Sustainability is an ongoing process. With the audit next year, we have new initiatives to add and new updates on our policy”. The team is proud of their accomplishments so far and excited to see what lies ahead— as King says, everybody is responsible for protecting the environment.

Spicing things up

Reaching under the desk, King pulls out a cutlery drawer to reveal one of his proudest initiatives so far: the QR-code menu. Hidden beneath the tablecloth, the QR-code menu is an elegant alternative to the traditional menu, reducing the need for paper and saving natural resources over time. Flipping through the pages will reveal yet another unique initiative: carbon emission labels listed next to dishes’ names. Through a partnership with Klimato, which specialises in climate labelling for restaurants, SOMM hopes to raise awareness of how diets and eating habits can affect the climate. King tells me that this initiative is beneficial not just for guests (who are empowered to make more conscious food choices) but also for chefs, who can use the carbon footprint of different ingredients as a guide to reference when coming up with a dish.

To conclude, sustainability is a vast concept. Rather than being defined by a certain phrase, area or practice, it is an overarching idea encompassing a diverse range of actions and ideas. This may be why it seems abstract to some: you can name endless examples of it, but in the end, it can’t be narrowed down to one action. Everyone, King tells me, has different interpretations of sustainability.

As for the future, SOMM will continue to evolve, carrying forward its strong, sustainability-centred mission to set an example for other F&B businesses. “SOMM will continue to make its operations as sustainable as possible whilst promoting the message of sustainability. Our team will stay curious and ambitious: there’s still a lot we can do and I know that we’ll keep improving”.

To learn more about SOMM head to their website here.

If you are a foodservice provider please get in touch with us about Food Made Good Membership and lets see what possibilities lie ahead in normalising sustainability!