Uncorked: Daniel Illsley

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Daniel Illsley director of wine at London restaurant Maison François

Related tags Daniel Illsley Maison François Wine Sommelier French cuisine Uncorked

The wine director at Maison François and the owner of wine shop Theatre of Wine on Hugh Johnson, Clos de Crappe and Champagne Marie Courtin.

Tell us about the moment you first became interested in wine
I didn’t grow up around wine. It came much later. I am a theatre person who wandered into wine. When I was acting I encountered people who knew a lot about wine and I started to realise what a big universe it was. Learning about the stories of the vineyards, the makers, the grapes, gave me access to such a rich world of characters that I became enchanted and decided to make a career out of it. In the 90s Oddbins was such a great, creative place to discover  wine, so things started from there. I eventually worked for them for a couple of years in my early 30s before deciding I would rather work for myself and start a wine shop. It was a bold move but I was soaking up wine like a script at such a pace that it felt natural, and the right thing to do.

Tell us about your wine list at Maison François and its bar Frank's
The wine list at Maison François is a love story about French wine, and how its history and winemakers have been an inspiration all over the world. I have been very lucky because François (O’Neill, the West End restaurant's founder) gave me free reign to create something unique. I took the view that most people don’t know much about wine so I would make the list more like a story book and take them on a journey. The illustrations and texts, as well as the organisation by region and terroir, baffled some people at first but even the more sceptical seem to have got used to it. 

Over the course of your career, have you had any wine-related disasters?
It is very important to make mistakes and happily I have made quite a few. Watching a bottle of 1946 Climens smash on the pavement wasn’t a great moment.

Name your top three restaurant wine lists
I researched extensively before writing the list at Maison and got a lot of inspiration by looking outside the UK. I love lists that really engage the imagination of the drinker and don’t take things for granted. Dear Sainte Eloise in Sydney for its passion, Balthazar New York for classic brasserie style and Verjus Paris for its elegance, are just a few that come to mind.

Who do you most respect in the wine world?​ 
Hugh Johnson. He was the first person to really spark my passion, and his Pocket Wine Book is still the most indispensable wine book of them all. When I saw him sitting at Maison eating oysters and drinking a glass of Chablis I swooned.

What’s the most interesting wine you’ve ever come across? 
There are too many to mention, but creating Clos de Crappe with Dirk Niepoort (the pioneering Portugal-based winemaker) was a landmark. I wanted to satirise Burgundy, and he wanted to make a faulty wine. I came up with the name and wrote a poem for the label and he created a stinky wine. It sold out in five minutes and it was a privilege to be part of it.

What are the three most overused tasting notes?
All tasting notes are an effort to capture an ineffable subjective experience so I sympathise with anyone who attempts it. We should be expanding the vocabulary of wine and I much prefer descriptions that reference shape, rhythm, texture and personality over vague terms like mineral, elegant, or fruity.

What’s the best value wine on your list at the moment?
We strive to find value and there is still plenty to be had if you know where to look. Wines produced outside the famous regions are a gold mine when crafted by bright, intelligent makers.  

What is your ultimate food and drink match? 
Pessac Léognan whites with artichokes is a splendid combination. Otherwise I am pretty easily pleased as long as there is food and wine on the table.

Old World or New World?
Both. I think the terms are meaningless now.

What is your pet hate when it comes to wine service in other restaurants?
Lack of knowledge is a bugbear. And arguing with me when a wine is out of condition never ends well, for them. I am fortunate to work with a very talented head sommelier, Nora Kausinyte, who continues to develop what I started and sets a high bar for knowledge and execution on the floor. 

Who is your favourite producer at the moment and why? 
Champagne Marie Courtin surprises me every time I taste it. It is also the only Champagne on our Frank’s wine bar menu. It proves you don’t need to have vineyards in the northern part of Champagne to make profound wines.

As a director of wine, what question do you most get asked by customers?
How did you get to know so much about wine? It is a great source of wonder for people. Ironically, anyone who works in this business for a long time realises they know less and less. The key is stay curious and challenge your prejudices.

Which wine producing region or country is currently underrated at the moment and why?
There are quite a few, and Theatre of Wine is known for being a pioneer in showcasing less well known countries like Greece and Bulgaria. Portugal is full of potential, and regional France is an endlessly fascinating treasure trove of surprises. 

It’s your last meal and you can have a bottle of any wine in the world. What is it and why?
There was a time when I wanted to taste all the icon wines but those days are over. The market for fine wine has become very shallow and soulless. I would be happy with a homemade wine, grilled fish straight off the boat with a salad, in the sun by a beach in Greece, probably Chios. 

Related topics Fine Dining

Related news

Show more

Follow us

Hospitality Guides

View more