MEET Brian O’Connor, of Brian’s Wines. Brian is 30 years old and hails from Blarney. So where did his love of wine come from?
“When I was 14 or so, I started working with Arbutus Bread, and I travelled with Declan and Patsy to Midleton farmers’ market on Saturdays and learned a great deal about the culinary world.
“I developed a starry-eyed admiration for the growers, the cheesemongers, the butchers and bakers.
“The market sellers were part of a community that felt both old school and very present at the same time.
“With wine, it’s fair to say it was more of a side note to the food until much later when I was working in bars in Australia and experienced wines that were unlike anything I had tasted. They resonated with me in the same way that the naturally leavened breads and raw milk cheeses had at the markets.
“These were outside of the mainstream in wine and the precious few keyholders were calling them natural wines. They farmed without pesticides and herbicides and abandoned chemicals that cosmetically adjusted their wines. In the process, they reclaimed flavour and the old traditions specific to their particular region. These wines tickled me in all the right places. I was hooked and still am!”
So how did he begin wholesaling wine?
“I had dreams of opening my own place whilst working at the English Market for Toonsbridge and at the Black Pig in Kinsale.
“Gavin, of the Black Pig, had a very comprehensive wine programme which was a great education. Toonsbridge provided a fertile working environment and I learned how to execute ideas. I helped with wholesale at the warehouse and got to see how distribution worked. I began to notice how many of the wines I loved were still not widely available, so I set about connecting with producers and started an importing business.”
What is important when sourcing wine?
“Before speaking about the qualities of wine, it’s important to say that most growers you visit are trying to make an honest living and support their families as best they can, whether they farm in a conventional way with chemicals or the ‘natural’ way. The more people that drink what can be called natural wines, the more demand grows, the more you see farmers choose to work that way.
“I work with growers that farm without pesticides or herbicides – some choose organic certification, some don’t. These wines have had nothing added to them whatsoever, so it’s chemical-free fruit juice fermented into wine by the microfauna that exists on the skin of the fruit itself.
The cellars that produce these wines are independent outfits making small quantities of wine each year. The three most important things are the quality of the wine itself, the practices at the vineyard and cellar, and that relationship with the producer.
Brian said one of the real perks of doing this is getting to know the absolute characters who have “swum against the current to follow this path into making natural wine”. He adds: “Working among the vines all year means these people have an incredibly intimate relationship with their work and their dedication is just as compelling as the wines themselves.
“With the exception of Italy (Covid, damn you!), I have visited all the producers I work with and I hope I can return the hospitality here some day.
“Just as important, though, is the relationship with people I sell to. They are the vanguard of food culture on this island.”
At the moment, Brian works with producers in Italy, Spain and France.
“Down the line, there will be German, Austrian, and Slovakian producers, too. There are producers in Australia I would love to work with, but considering the distance it’s more complicated. There are so many producers on the continent, and further east, making wines that people here in Ireland would love!”
Brian travels a lot on his wine sourcing journeys.
“Usually, the starting point for any sourcing trip is perched on a bar stool tasting a wine for the first time. Often, I’ve been introduced to new producers by the people I work with when visiting them, or by some of the people I supply. Tastings are always mighty craic and a great opportunity to meet new producers that you haven’t come across before.
“I cycled part of the Route des Vins in Alsace (France’s oldest wine route) in July and met some really great producers. Afterwards, a delayed Covid result meant I couldn’t board the flight home from Carcassonne so I was stranded! I ended up visiting a winemaker in Limoux who is now coming on board in the new year. So travel is very important for sourcing. I spent September visiting makers throughout Catalunya and working the harvest in Galicia with Nacho Gonzalez of La Perdida.”
Brian is encouraging people to support small businesses.
“Independent retailers, restaurants, bars and cafes are an integral part of the cultural nervous system of this island. They provide an outlet for the incredible producers we have been spoiled with in recent times and employ people of rare passion.
“Where possible, it’s crucial to show our support for these small businesses. It can be taken for granted but there is so much we wouldn’t have access to without them. Pick up a bottle of wine while you’re at it!”
Brian posts updates on the journal section of his website - brianswines.ie - if anyone is interested in reading about his visits to producers.
For the run up to Christmas, he can be found at Mahon Point Farmers’ Market every Thursday, and at Douglas Farmers’ Market every Saturday.