Michael Sager, the London based Swiss restaurateur behind Sager + Wilde bar and restaurant, both in London’s E2, is now branching out into wine distribution with his latest venture Sager + Wine. We catch up with Michael to ask him about this new project, the values behind his business, the trends moving forward and of course, his lifelong love affair with wine.
How do environmental and social issues play a role in your work as a restaurateur/wine culture warrior?
As an importer we are trying to be the gatekeeper, making sure that we don’t buy anything we don’t stand behind if that makes sense. The vineyards we work with are organic or biodynamic, based on regenerative agriculture. We try and make sure that we work with people who add meaning to what we do. The only real change we can make as importers is by not importing stuff that we cannot stand behind.
For me, gender balance is very important. We make sure that women are equally represented in what we do. I think it’s sad that women don’t see it feasible to take over from their fathers as winemakers, so we really want to push that conversation. There are many great ambassadors for sustainable agriculture but sustainability connected to gender needs more attention. There are a lot of women fighting the fight and that’s very important, but the wine industry is really misogynistic and it’s important to try and eliminate that. This is something that I really care about.
Where did you grow up? What were the landscape and the mindsets like?
I grew up in a working-class family in an industrial area of Switzerland, right in the middle of the country. The landscape there is flat and foggy and agriculturally speaking is not very interesting. There’s a lot of manufacturing in the area; they produce parts for many different industries. When I lived in the US I realized how industrialized Switzerland is. It’s also the densest populated country in western Europe, not many people know that.
What music did you listen to as a teenager?
Mostly guitar-heavy music, 80´s new wave, old punk and a bit of hip-hop. My first ever CD was Wu-Tang Forever by the Wu-Tang Clan. I used to skate, so it’s the kind of music you listen to when you skateboard.
What music do you play at Sager + Wilde? Does anybody guest curate it?
In the beginning, I used to play my own music but that became repetitive so I´m now paying a friend who is a DJ and he puts together different playlists; every month new ones. The staff doesn’t need to think about it and the customers keep saying “wow! what is this?”. It’s a mix of unknown old music and new music that I´m excited to hear myself.
When it comes to music here is my thinking: you never know who walks in your bar; it could be an expert in architecture, they could know about toilets, they could know about music, they could know about lights… If you want them to buy your wine and they know nothing about wine, you need to make them feel comfortable that you know what you’re doing and music is an important element. If you have music that most people can listen to at home that’s not enough. We should all try to get help to have the best possible music to enhance the experience.
I moved to London because of music in the first place and hospitality only happened as an accident. I moved to London after seeing a Radiohead gig in 2004 and I decided not to go back; so as you can tell, music is really important to me.
Who were your early mentors?
I was always self-taught until I moved to San Francisco and I moved there to learn about wine. I wanted to work at RN74 by Rajat Par but I don’t like calling Rajat a mentor now, because he’s more of a friend. However, as a natural-born mentor, Rajat is patient, he has more curiosity than a child and he has a very generous spirit, he keeps giving. When I worked for him I probably learnt more in those two years than I did in the eight years before. Now we keep learning from each other and from the community.
Who inspires you now?
I’m inspired by people who have managed to change the conversation in their own market. For example, in the US there is an importer called Seth Rogen. He imports mostly natural wine and he’s been responsible for a lot of the change, alongside other importers, changing the conversation so people will demand more natural wine.
Gatekeepers are the ones who can make a difference, the ones deciding which products they bring in. I finally realized that importers can do a very respectable job, they are responsible for the relationship with the grower and they are responsible for making sure that the conversation keeps growing. If they decide to keep importing systemically farmed Bordeaux because they can make a lot of money with it, that’s something I´m not interested in, but if they are people willing to take the risk just to teach other people, that’s something inspiring to me.
You seem to be advocating for wine to reach new audiences, making it inclusive rather than exclusive, probably a more rock and roll approach than the uptight fine wine market that we are used to…
You need to connect with younger audiences; if you can do that, you have a business that’s future proof. That’s the business reason. The other reason is that it cannot continue the way it was. The fine wine market as such is not interesting to me because they are working in the wrong paradigms. They are working on the assumption that you can have fine wine produced on 100 hectares of land and chemically farmed. You can see that in the champagne market, where 70% of their margins goes into marketing.
Are we entering the era for innovative drinks? What is happening?
Sure, this is growing like crazy. You have NoLo drinks but also craft spirits from South America. We’ve seen a lot of growth in the last 5 or 6 months in both. It’s interesting, we also have a rum from Mexico produced at a 1,500 meters altitude and that rum is also going really well. We’ve just started working with Muri, so I have two NoLo drinks now. I want to build the NoLo drinks category, so people can have a frame of reference.
This is part of our business strategy. We see ourselves as modern generalists. With a wide range of drinks, minimum orders are no longer a problem and we don’t only diversify the opportunities, we also diversify the risks.
It works when we do tastings for potential clients. We think about the experience. The first impression and the last impression at a tasting are the most important, same as in the restaurant. We usually start the tasting with Ama pét-nat tea and we finish with one of the spirits, so subconsciously the client gets an idea of how the dining experience goes, and they relax.
What did you expect when confronted with Ama for the first time? and what happened when you opened a bottle?
I was expecting a simple drink I guess, but it’s much more complex than that. When I came to see you last year and I tried all the varieties, it was mind-blowing.
The one made with Sencha (BAT) is so specific to explain to people and it has so much umami, almost something fish-like, in a good way. It’s a completely unexpected drink. With the one made with lemongrass (BI) the expectation delivers exactly, perhaps it even surpasses; people go: “Wow! It’s incredible how the lemongrass comes through”. Myself? I was very positively surprised and I said to myself, I need to work with this.
Most kombucha in the market is not like what you are doing. It’s annoying because you are doing the best kombucha there is, but most kombucha is so bad. Kombuchas in the market are not even made with tea, they are fruity, so they are not seen as a serious drink, it’s seen more like a “health” drink, like kefir or something. Ama is meant to be drunk in a wine glass like champagne, it’s an actual gastronomic experience.
But you thought it was too expensive for your price range! What made you change your mind?
This was me being scared of a certain demographic that I didn’t think we were going to have. Now I know we have them, it’s the fine-dining sector. I hadn’t realized how many connections I have in gastronomy; and these guys trust me, they just go and ask: what do you recommend? This is really cool because I get to recommend what I want to see when I go there because I know their restaurants.
It’s been very helpful to work with Ama because it helps me as much as you; it shows my competitors and customers that we are not just another importer.
Thanks to Michael Sager for chatting with us! Find out more about his projects here:
Follow him on Instagram: @michael___sager