15 mins reading time
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
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
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
SOMM’s wine list
Vineyards miles away
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
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 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
SOMM’s purple artichoke, ricotta and parmesan reggiano ravioli with girolles, arugula and extra virgin olive oil coulis
Spicing things up
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”.