A mutual passion for imbibing non-ubiquitous wines, working knowledge of quality service and an eye for comfortable bar-room aesthetics led two friends to Think Wine.
Late last year, two French residents of Hong Kong with experience in top local and international restaurants as managers, sommeliers and wine procurers launched a relaxed wine bar in Soho, with an intriguing list of bottles and accompanying nibbles that go beyond charcuterie and fromage, designed to make good pairings.
The story of how they met and had their bar-venture Eureka moment is a curious one, full of coincidences. Romain Loriot, managing director of Think Wine, came to Hong Kong with Alain Ducasse’s restaurant group to help close Spoon restaurant and open Rech Hong Kong; he then became the sommelier and wine buyer for the 12 restaurants of Le Comptoir Group – six were high-end, notably the two-star Écriture. The face of Think Wine is Jean-Benoit Issele, former head sommelier of the one-star Belon in Soho (number 15 on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 list) among other establishments.
“It’s funny, we’re both from the South of France – I’m from Montpelier and Jean-Benoit [JB] is from Nîmes,” explains Loriot. “They’re a 20-minute drive from each other but we never knew each other. JB arrived two days after me in October 2016, and a week later we were both in the wine bar LQV, got talking and decided to play the game ‘blind tasting’: I gave him a glass from my bottle, he gave me a glass from his – and they were both the same wine! From 1,200 bottles on the list, we’d both chosen the same one, from Jura, from Ganevat: La Zaune à Dédée [a white, 80 percent Gewurztraminer, 20 percent Sauvignon]. “After that, we decided to meet every Sunday and go to a wine bar for blind tastings. After three or four months, we felt we’d seen all the interesting wine [in Hong Kong bars], so we imagined opening a wine bar together, and finally we really said, ‘Let’s do it!’”
The duo, however, aimed for much more than presenting a list of talking-point wines. “Quality of service,” was another factor, adds Loriot. “There are plenty of wine bars we liked, but they didn’t have the kind of service that JB and I knew in Michelin-star restaurants where we’d worked: a conversation with the waiter about the background of the wines, good recommendations and serving techniques, and comfortable seating – something most wine bars lack. We wanted to have all this, at a good price.”
Think Wine’s 1,800 square feet of floor space is divided into distinct zones: a cellar room with a central counter where up to 12 can gather; a private room with a long table; a bar counter and adjacent tables with barstools; a lounge graced with armchairs and sofas that incorporates Christian Lacroix fabric and wallcoverings; and the balcony – a mix of tables and chairs and deck cushions. “We were blessed to find architect Bruce Ng to work with all our ideas,” says Issele. “He helped us include a lot of personality, including my grandfather’s Michelin-star-chef menu collection, Romain’s family champagne-cap collection and Riya Chandiramani’s mural in the middle of the bar to tell our personal life and stories about wine.”
The bar has held winemaker masterclasses, private tastings and had private parties for up to 70 people in the main area. Weekly masterclasses have included introductions to champagne houses, as well as wines from other regions when visited by the likes of Nicolas Raffy, winemaker from Mas Amiel, in Maury in the Roussillon; Hervé Bizeul from Domaine du Clos des Fées in Roussillon; and from Alsace, Eddy Leiber-Faller – winemaker at Domaine Weinbach. Additional regular wine events are held without visiting representatives, and there was a recent champagne and caviar event.
Wine bars often have a limited selection of snacks but the Think Wine duo know their market and haven’t neglected hot dishes. Warming dishes feature hot tartines, truffle risotto and baked camembert, and “our cheese-platter choices change once a month”, adds Loriot. “All our food service is focused on what matches the wines that people are drinking.”
Unusually for a wine bar, Sunday brunches are served too. “We have oysters and signature dishes – like a mixed platter of cold cuts and cheese” explains Loriot.
“We needed something with eggs, so we put on a Mediterranean quiche – making it vegetarian, as many people we know prefer that. We’ve known chefs at [restaurants like] Belon, Écriture and Caprice for years; they helped and suggested ways of making our signature brunch dish the Dragon Dog, which has lobster and truffle in it.”
Monthly pop-up chef collaborations started recently, first with Nordic restaurant Frantzén’s Kitchen, where JB had worked previously. Guest chefs from popular restaurants present four to six casual dishes; some reflect items they serve, others are concocted especially for Think Wine.
This month, Roganic restaurant is offering among its selection a fried-chicken sandwich, which isn’t on its regular menu. “It’s fun,” says Loriot. “JB and I see the chef’s items and then pair them with wines between us.”
Think Wine has been received positively by guests: “Some are surprised by the amount of wine and the diversity we have,” says Loriot. “They like some of the big bottles we get, too, such as the [fortified red] Mas Amiel 1985 that we serve with a pipette – like in a winery. People like the experience, and they often take pictures and videos.”
Of the 600 varieties on offer, 80 percent are French. Thanks to Loriet’s connections in France, half of these come directly from producers. Not wanting to ignore wines from further afield, countries such as Australia, Italy, Germany, Spain, Lebanon and Morocco have also featured so far.
“We had to think, ‘What’s good for a wine bar?’” says Loriot. “Not all work if you’re not having a restaurant meal – they can be too full-bodied – from North America or from Cahors in the South of France; you want a nice steak with these – or too sweet, like a great Yquem for example, which people only enjoy with a dessert in a restaurant. So we had to think about what can be enjoyed on their own and to pair with our food.
“We have some amazing wine from Australia. Before I came to Hong Kong, I didn’t really like Australian wine,” Loriot confesses. “I’d always tasted the big wineries’ offerings, but some small winemakers that make just 2,000 to 5,000 bottles are really special natural wines.”
In homage to the way the Think Wine founders met, the bar holds its regular Blind Tasting Challenge – challenging patrons to guess three out of four qualities about a wine they taste after stipulating a white or red preference – and three “yes or no” questions are allowed. It’s a tough ask, and for the few who succeed the reward is determined by a lucky draw, with prizes ranging from a corkscrew to lunches for two at upscale restaurants. It’s all part of the disarming fun vibe here – as Issele puts it, “We hope to educate guests about wine, and provide them with a nice environment and service for them to relax, enjoy and have a good time.”