Dom Sweeney: "There's great diversity in the way people drink and dine in Sydney"

Dom Sweeney. Photo courtesy of Dom Sweeney.
Helen Arnold
By Helen Arnold
Published 28-March-2024
Interview / Sydney

Dom Sweeney – former editor and journalist, now heading up marketing and communications for national importer and distributor Saint Wine – is Star Wine List's new Sydney ambassador. Now he is also adding eleven new Red Stars to our guide to the city.

"I feel great about it! I was very fortunate to help inaugurate the Australian Star Wine List Awards back in 2021, and the entire Star Wine List concept is much needed here. I'd just love to be able to direct more and more wine-savvy punters to the best venues in Sydney. There's so much to explore here," says Dom about his new role.

Dom initially studied music at university, a career he pursued in his 20s until deciding to retrain, either in winemaking or journalism. Being city-based with a keen interest in writing, politics and storytelling, he chose the latter. But as fate would have it, a part-time job for a small wine distributor during the final year of his degree – and recognising wine’s ability to act as a conduit between people, place, and time – he decided to redirect his political journalism aspirations to the more convivial pursuits of wine and travel writing.

A staff writer gig at Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine provided a coveted opportunity to connect with all facets of the industry, both locally and internationally, and Dom eventually took over as digital editor and then editor, before leaving in 2022. He now heads up marketing and communications for the national distributor and importer, Saint Wine.

Dom Sweeney. Photo courtesy of Dom Sweeney.

How would you describe the drinking and dining scene in Sydney at present?
"There's great diversity in the way people drink and dine in Sydney. Being such a wonderfully multicultural city, Sydneysiders are subject to an incredibly broad spectrum of cuisine – so whether dining on a budget or at the higher end, you're pretty much guaranteed a high level of quality at every level. Australians being generally quite worldly and explorative, we're often open to new and interesting flavours but also appreciate familiar classics, especially when it comes to wine and being able to reminisce on experiences we've had abroad."

How much has it changed in recent years, and what have been the main drivers of that change?
"There has definitely been an improvement since the pandemic. What were once notoriously strict licensing laws have become somewhat relaxed in the past few years, meaning there are more opportunities for punters to do civilised things like enjoying a glass of wine outdoors, or share a bottle with friends a bit later in the evening."

What do you think that the hospitality sector does particularly well in Sydney - and where do you think there is room for improvement?
"The hospitality sector is just so open to great flavours and new experiences. That's kind of the crux of it: if it's good, people will love it. The only area for improvement is promoting Sydney's most local wine region: the Hunter Valley, whose unique Semillon and Shiraz are world-class but don't quite get the attention they deserve."

Dom Sweeney's new listings:

ESQ at the QVB
Infinity at Sydney Tower
Kipling's Garage Bar
Redbird Sydney
Shell House

What are the key drinking trends you are noting in Sydney?
"In terms of cocktails, there has been a lean towards the classics of late: martinis are in, with some bars dedicated to showcasing how great and versatile a good martini can be. On the flip side, people are increasingly opting for low and no-alcohol options, and locally produced beer and spirits, especially in this space are proving you don't need alcohol for a great tasting beverage."

"Generally speaking though, there's an emphasis on drinking less but better, and people seem to be seeking quality over quantity, especially when it comes to wine."

What about wine? How popular is imported wine compared to that domestically produced?
"It really depends on who you're with and where you're drinking. Australians are generally well-travelled, and there's a strong market for imported wines, especially from the usual suspects like France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and New Zealand. There's also plenty to satisfy – albeit in more niche quantities – those interested in countries such as Austria, South Africa, Portugal, Argentina, and Georgia. But of course, it's difficult to look past our incredible local wine industry: there's unmatched diversity in terms of styles and varieties, but also a quality benchmark that has increased out of sight in recent years. It's an exciting time for Australian wine."

What styles/varieties are trending at the moment? What are people asking for?
"Our once habitual preference for sweet, full-bodied reds has almost defaulted to lighter and medium-bodied red wines – Pinot Noir, Grenache, Gamay, cooler climate Shiraz/Syrah, etc. Of course, that's not to say there's no place for a timeless Barossa shiraz or Coonawarra cabernet (far from it), but some of the more traditional producers have responded to the shift in preference by producing wines that are harvested earlier, have less extraction, and less new oak – mostly for the better."

"This shift lends itself to both natural and conventional wine styles, and there's demand for both. Alternative grape varieties – many of the Italian/Sicilian, plus some Spanish and Greek varieties – have proven themselves highly adaptive to our warmer (warming) climate, offering not only an environmentally sustainable choice but also plenty of exciting diversity, and many punters are happy to order a glass of fiano over, say, sauvignon blanc for instance, or Sangiovese instead of Shiraz. That said, Sydneysiders are also quite obsessed with Champagne."

Australian wine offers incredible value compared to imports

How price sensitive are drinkers and diners in Sydney?
"Sydney's not a cheap place to live, so people are reasonably conscious of what they're spending. But while drinking and dining costs may have risen, so too has the quality. Australian wine offers incredible value compared to imports (in fact, it's pretty difficult to get a bad bottle of wine), and we're very fortunate to have access to equally wonderful local produce."

What do you think the future holds for the city's hospitality sector?
"I think it's just getting better. We're a bit notorious for overdoing it when it comes to alcohol but that's changing. There seems to be growing interest in a more casual, moderate approach to drinking and dining, perhaps more reflective of European culture. Whether that's due to rising costs, greater focus on individual health, or simply mindful appreciation of an experience – or a combination of all those – the future is looking very positive."

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