Ewan Proctor: In San Francisco you are almost overwhelmed with choice

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Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance. 

Ewan Proctor’s professional life has been devoted to promoting Australian wine around the world. Recently having relocated to San Francisco from Shanghai, Ewan continues to expand the extraordinary reach that Penfolds wine has into the lives of people all over the globe.

Describing his newly established relationship with San Francisco as one with a "slow-burning gentle curiosity", Ewan says the city offers limitless possibilities of how to spend what spare time he has.

If you’re looking for an industry expert's opinion on the best places to wine and dine in San Francisco and what makes it unique from a culinary perspective, Ewan Proctor has got you covered. 

How do the American and Australian wine industries differ?

There are similarities in the national obsession for homegrown wines, but given the transcontinental spread of Australian winemaking, I feel more Australians are able to develop a love of their local drops. In the United States, 80-90% of the attention domestically is on California, and the remainder largely on the other West Coast states, which means the majority of the country is gazing westward for wine. New York makes some great rieslings, but wines from there don’t get the equality of recognition that we see when comparing Margaret River and the Hunter Valley, for example.

What reputation does Australian food and wine have in different countries around the world? What makes it unique?

Australian food produce is highly prized worldwide, particularly in Asia where food security is an issue and our clean and green credentials are an inbuilt advantage. Wine is more of a patchy canvas, with some markets developing a genuine admiration and taking an interest in exploring the full diversity of wine from Australia, while other markets see us only through a lens of cheap and fruity reds. That’s a narrow definition that many of my colleagues in the Australian wine industry are working hard to shake, and I love being part of that effort.

What message do you hope to impart when educating individuals on Penfolds wine?

I seek to illustrate the resonance between the wines that we create now and the amazing people throughout the entire 174-year history of Penfolds who helped us get to this place. The history of Penfolds and the styles of wine that have been developed by people such as Max Schubert are intrinsic to the story of Australian wine. I also love to share insights into the regions and communities that contribute to the unique identity of our wines. Our network of growers, some of whom have worked with Penfolds for generations, is one of the great assets that contribute to Penfolds' continuing success.

How did you initially get into this industry? What makes a good sommelier?

I began as a trainee waiter in the late 1990s at the Bathers Pavilion restaurant in Sydney. It was a fantastic way to get exposed to the world of food and wine, great hospitality, and the people who put it all together. Good sommeliers keep their customers at the forefront of their mind at all times, whether they are writing the list or recommending a wine on the floor. The best sommeliers are also generous with their knowledge and help less experienced staff nurture their own interest. I’m here because of several people like that, among them Brendan Hilferty, Remi Bancal and Stephen Whitbread.

What’s the most surprising thing about your job?

The extraordinary reach that Penfolds has into the lives of people all over the world!  I have been to the ends of the earth in this job, even hosting a Penfolds event in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia in 2015. There are Penfolds fans literally everywhere, and they love sharing their stories of the bottles and the people who introduced them to Penfolds. I’m always humbled by the graciousness and generosity shown to me by the people who I work with in so many different countries.

Can you describe your relationship with San Francisco?

It’s quite new and shiny as I’ve only been here for about two months, but I’d say it’s a slow-burning, gentle curiosity - there’s so much to do here and in the limited time I get to spend at home (I travel at least half of the year) I’m almost overwhelmed with choice; to spend the day exploring different neighbourhoods in the city, or to hike a trail in Marin County to a perfect beach and stare at the sunset? It’s a very special place that I look forward to getting to know better.

What makes San Francisco unique from a culinary perspective?

While it has the influences from Asia and Latin America that you expect to find in California, San Francisco has a few unexpected twists. Take its large, historically relevant Russian community for example - it’s a great place for Pierogi!! I think a huge feature of the Bay Area’s attitude to food is the historical connection to produce – it’s well acknowledged that Chez Panisse in Berkeley has been celebrating farm to table connections for decades and has been influential in promoting that philosophy to an ever-expanding following across the world.

Where are your favourite places to dine in the Bay Area?

I love my neighbourhood around Telegraph Avenue and 40th street in Temescal, which has lots of options including legendary Eritrean and Ethiopian diners and our local pub, the Hog’s Apothecary. When we cross the bay into the city, my wife and I love to revisit our days in Asia by exploring the Richmond district, which is also where you can find those Pierogi. I’m a fan of The Punchdown wine bar in Oakland downtown for a drink and tapas, and finally that perfect walk in Marin county ends at a place called the Siren Canteen on Stinson Beach.