His approach may appear cerebral at first, but within minutes he’s brimming over with enthusiasm about wine. “I’m fascinated by the history, geology, geography and science that go into making decent wine,” the founder of Phnom Penh’s first wine club says. “I enjoy the story – how the personality of the winemaker can be tasted in the glass, how the complex flavours can be carefully identified and how conversations can flow, inspired by a few sips.”
Over a glass of aromatic gewürztraminer he confesses that he’s a bit of a geek, but Shute believes that he is part if a new generation of wine enthusiasts: a group for whom wine is not about showing off what’s in the cellar or demonstrating status, but about the enjoyment of discovering new wines, tasting new flavours and sharing this with friends.
Before moving to Phnom Penh last August, Shute worked in the wine industry in the UK. When he discovered there was no wine club established here, nor a ready-made crowd with whom to appreciate good drinking, he posted adverts for a wine club on expat websites and spread the news through word-of-mouth. “We thought we might have six people at our first meeting,” he recalls, “but we were packed out with 24 people.” He now runs the events weekly on Thursday evenings at Café Living Room, and they’re proving so popular they’re often sold out.
Shute’s ethos and passion is about bringing people together to appreciate quality wines and to learn about viticulture. The events are far from the stuffy, staid stereotypes of a wine club: His attendees reflect the diversity of the expat scene. At an event two weeks ago a US marine was sat next to a German NGO worker, a Slovakian lawyer from the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and a British politician.
“Everyone’s like-minded,” Shute insists, “there are no show-offs, there are people who know something about wine and those who know nothing.”
He laughs when he explains that you can typically identify a drinker’s nationality by their choice of wine though. “The Brits will go for a ubiquitous pinot grigio, Australians like a big jammy red and the French will always chose something French.”
He hopes that through the wine club, he can introduce drinkers to something they might not usually try and help them explore their tastes and preferences. His tastings range from a simple session dedicated to a particular region, to a cruise on the Mekong or a “wine-a-long” where participants watch an iconic movie and sample the wines the characters are sipping on screen.
Not all his events go to plan however. One Spanish-night nearly ended in disaster when a mix-up in the kitchen resulted in the evening’s dinner, a classic paella, being mistakenly blitzed and turned to mush.
“We ate the pureed paella anyway,” Shute tells me ruefully, “with a side dish of freezing cold prawns. It was funny though”.
He is deeply impressed by the range, quality and price of wines available in Phnom Penh and says that it rivals the choice available back in the UK. Like elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Cambodia’s wine market is booming. Shute recommends checking out the variety available at the Red Apron, the Warehouse and the Pantry.
As the club goes from strength to strength, Shute plans to increase the frequency of his events and can’t wait teach more tastebuds in Phnom Penh about the virtues of tannins, the sophistication of sweetness and why one shouldn’t be snobby about Chardonnay.