Penny Grant – Raising the bar

written by Lilani Goonesena

At 21, Penny Grant was one of the youngest waiter finalists in the 2008 program. She was then working at ISIS Brasserie (later Ortiga) in Brisbane, but had just accepted a junior sommelier role at Circa, The Prince in Melbourne.

“The program definitely helped me to better understand the industry, and to network. The industry in Brisbane back then, six years ago, wasn’t as developed as it is now, so I gained a lot out of it.”

Penny says it’s interesting to see so many sommeliers as part of the program. “Since I entered in 2008, four of us have grown in our careers to become somms and senior management and that’s really exciting.”

Having grown up on a vineyard, Penny always knew she wanted to work in wine.

“My family had a couple of wineries in Bendigo so we grew up on the farm, picking and crushing. My mum has also always worked in wine on cellar doors and such, so wine has all been around me – a family trait I guess,” she says.

Penny worked at Circa for about eight months. With a team of five sommeliers and a 1600-bin wine list, it was a serious education and she learned a lot.

“When Circa closed for renovations [in late 2009], they moved me to Taxi Dining Room, where I met sommelier Lincoln Riley who became the biggest inspiration and mentor in my life.”

Lincoln, the 2008 Judy Hirst Australian Sommelier of the Year, moved to three venues within four years and Penny followed. “I stayed with him as his assistant through Taxi, Gordon Ramsey’s Maze, and Stokehouse,” she says.

“Linc was always there, and always pushed me to go a bit further. He was one of the kindest and strongest mentors; he taught me everything I know. He sent me to tastings, wineries, and over to Italy as well,” Penny explains.

Then, in late 2013, an opportunity beckoned to return home to Brisbane.

“My partner Jake [Nicolson, Australian Young Chef 2008] who I met on the program and worked with at Circa, was offered Executive Chef at Black Bird Bar & Grill in Brisbane. I then applied for the sommelier job.”

The opulently designed Black Bird on the riverside is part of the Ghanem Group and opened in February 2014.

Penny then spent a long six months painstakingly developing Black Bird’s 250-bin wine list. Mainly Australian, familiar labels such as Tyrells and Yalumba rub along with many smaller wineries including Lincoln Riley’s Foster e Rocco. There’s also a nod to Penny’s favourite Italian varietals. The list is carefully designed to complement the “heritage Australian” cuisine.

“I’m really conscious of making sure that the list is a good representation of vintage, variety and region. I also make sure that Jake’s food pairs with everything on the wine list and everything has a place,” says Penny. “It took a long time to create, about six months, and we developed and collaborated everything together. We are still developing and changing things – this is one of the hardest things but also the most fun.”

Penny’s ethos of hard work is the hallmark of her success, and her dedication pays off.

In 2014, Penny was awarded the Brisbane Times Good Food Guide’s Champagne Pol Roger Sommelier of the Year, while Black Bird received Drinks List of the Year. She was also selected as a finalist in the 2014 Lorenzo Galli Wine Scholarship, from hundreds of applicants. She had also been a finalist in 2010.

“Don’t be afraid of hard work to get to where you want to be,” Penny advises industry newcomers. “Always say yes to every opportunity. The industry is hard; long hours with sometimes smaller pay perhaps but it’s a really rewarding industry. Be the person who says yes to any bit of hard work and that kind of commitment will always go far.”

For now, Penny is enthusiastic in her role as Black Bird’s sommelier and the Ghanem Group Wine Manager. “This is an exciting time and we hope to expand and open more venues. And it’s nice to come home to Brisbane, we’re very happy here.”

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