Blog | March 1, 2023

The wine life with Simone Ragusa

There’s a new face in Cricket Square!  The Brasserie is excited to welcome new Food & Beverage Supervisor, Simone Ragusa to the team. We caught up with Simone, a Master Sommelier, at The Brasserie over a glass of Dr. Loosen Wehelener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese from Mosel, Germany to find out a little more about the new face behind the Brasserie’s wine list.

Simone Ragusa has left behind Winter in Lugano, Switzerland for the sunshine of the Cayman Islands. New to the island, he brings with him quiet charm and modesty, a warmth synonymous with Caymankind and a wealth of knowledge of wines from around the world.

Tell us about Simone Ragusa!

I was born in 1984 in Luino, near Lake Maggiore, Italy.  Food and wine are at the heart of Italian culture and serve as the testament to each region’s culture, so a great love for both is in my blood! I studied at the Higher School of Tourism and Hospitality in Bellinzona and graduated as a Sommelier In Ticino before working in Paris for Enrico Bernardo, one of the world’s best sommeliers. I then worked in Monaco, and have been settled in Switzerland for the last ten or so years, with Hotel Beau Rivage and then Hotel Splendide Royal, both Leading Hotels of the World with Michelin star restaurants.

Before moving to the Cayman Islands this year, I was Head Sommelier at the historic Hotel Splendide Royal in Lugano, Switzerland. I spent my days in the “Il Forziere del Vino” winery which is housed in this very special hotel. Il Forziere holds 500 of the world’s best wines, and I am proud to say I know every story and every anecdote of those bottles.

I am very excited to be in the Cayman Islands, I love to travel and experience new cultures. I am enjoying trying new sports here, trying the delicious local food and meeting new people.

What inspired you to become a Sommelier?

Wine has always been a big part of my life. I have very fond memories of wine during my childhood. I remember very clearly when I was an altar boy at Sunday Mass and was assisting the priest during liturgy with wine, and also playing “making wine” with neighbourhood friends where we could pick grapes and crush them!  

I really found my passion when I worked at Il Vino of Enrico Bernardo, a Michelin star restaurant in Paris, which sparked my curiosity. Enrico Bernardo is one of the world’s best sommeliers, and he always challenged me with different questions, so research and study became a pleasant routine and a way to share my two greatest passions: food and wine.

I love the fact that every bottle of wine has a story behind that you can tell the guest. I love also to study the grape, the region, the traditional food which matches with wine. In the end, I chose to become a sommelier, because I knew that I would never get bored with wine. I have always had a curious nature and wine is one of those things where there is always something else to learn, another aspect you haven’t thought of or another wine you haven’t tried. After twenty years in hospitality, I am still learning every day.

My greatest pleasure is working with a team to ensure 100% guest satisfaction. A meal with wine should be a very special experience, and I pride myself on attending to guests needs and always improving what we can do to delight the guests. I enjoy hosting private tastings for guests, sharing my knowledge, and helping wine lovers build their private collections.

How does it feel to be elected the best Sommelier in Switzerland?

In 2014 I was elected Swiss Master Sommelier of the year for ASSP and in 2015 I was awarded Swiss Sommelier of the year for Hotel & Gastro Union.  These were very proud moments in my career and very exciting for me.  I went on in 2016 to become a semi-finalist in the Best World Sommelier competition for Association Sommellerie International in Mendoza, Argentina.  

Competing in wine events is wonderful and I have been doing this for a long time! I was a finalist in the Best Young World Sommelier in 2012, a semi-finalist in Best European Sommelier in 2013, in Monaco, Monte Carlo, and achieved the score of the biennium 2014/15 for the Best Federal Sommelier Diploma.  It takes a lot of preparation for these tournaments, many sleepless nights, a lot invested in rare bottles, travel through different regions and very little time for a social life as you study so hard to take part. There are a lot of rounds and tasks to the competitions and the hardest part is not to feel the pressure.

It is great fun to be with others who are so passionate about wine and food and you learn a lot from being with the best people in your industry. I am very lucky to have spent a lot of time with two of the world’s best sommeliers, Paolo Basso and Enrico Bernardo who are both a true inspiration to me. Enrico encouraged me to train and Paolo and I have collaborated on many tastings and private collections, traveling to the world’s best producers to master our art.

How does one become a Master Sommelier?

It is a tough but fascinating qualification. There are just 269 Master Sommeliers in the world, so it’s a pretty exclusive club.  Of course, you must have a great passion for wine and put in a tremendous amount of study or several years, and then there are four stages of the exam covering verbal theory examination, a blind tasting of six wines in 25 minutes, with both written and oral examination,  and a practical restaurant service component. Candidates must pass all sections to earn the diploma. On average candidates sit the exam two or three times and only a very small handful ever pass.

It was very hard but I knew I wanted to be at the very top of the wine industry. Being exposed to the depth of knowledge and skills required to pass the Master Sommelier exam intrigued me and it seemed like a great way to push myself to grow.

It is one of the most exclusive titles that a person can append to their name and I am very proud to be among the most qualified in the industry and to be able to share my skills and my passion for wine with others. 

If you sat down for a quiet dinner, what dish and wine would you enjoy together?

I would choose Captain Jason’s Wahoo Ceviche, red onion, local peppers, java apple, blood orange, cilantro, passion fruit bilimbi and island crisps. I would pair this with a crisp Louis Jadot Chassagne-Montrachet “Morgeot 1er Cru” 2019 from Burgundy, France. 

This prestigious Chardonnay is intense at the nose, with fruity and floral notes but complex buttery and oaky scents, given by the barrique ageing and structure.  The wine is soft in the mouth and the harmony and salty mineral persistence of the Chardonnay grape works with the refreshing nature of the dish, the sweetness of the Wahoo, the intensity of the blood orange and java apple, and the piquant of the red onion.

Are there any food and wine pairings you’re particularly fond of at the moment?

Joining the Brasserie team during the Cayman Harvest has been a very special experience.  The restaurant’s farm-to-table approach means the menu changes daily, using seasonal herbs, plants and fresh produce that are in peak season.  The ingredients entirely guide the menu, using coconuts from our Coco Bluff Plantation, honey from the Brasserie bees and fresh catch caught on our fishing boats. Choosing wine pairings for these new flavours is exciting.

I am working now on pairings for the March Harvest Dinner, which features Greek and Italian dishes with guest chefs Panno Karatassos and Pierpaolo Premoli. I must find wines that truly enhance the flavours of Greece and Sicily and peak Cayman Harvest produce. Guests can expect a journey through the gardens of Greece and the best growing regions of Italy.

How can budding oenophiles learn more about wine?

It is easy to gain wine wisdom!  Practice tasting every time you pick up a glass of wine; identify the origin and vintage of the wine you are drinking and try different wines. Often, we just drink what we know and like, but if you seek out new wines you will expand your wine knowledge and discover new favourites.  

At our monthly Swirl wine tastings at The Brasserie, I teach the basic wine traits, such as how to identify tannin, acidity, sweetness and alcohol, and train your palate. We explore different style of wine, and we visit the many top producing regions of the world and learn together about growing conditions and climate, to gain an understanding of wine as a whole by trying different wines. We journey from sparkling to light and full-bodied whites and reds, dessert wines and aromatic wines. We pair the tastings with canapes prepared by our Chef de Cuisine, Artemio Lopez. Chef Arte selects fresh seasonal ingredients to match each wine’s intensity and character.

What’s planned for the Brasserie Purveyors?

I am excited to join the Brasserie Purveyors and grow our list! We will be adding wines from the best growing regions around the world and also from some excellent, lesser-known makers in “Old Europe” so guests can enjoy wonderful wines at The Brasserie or order from us for delivery to their homes.   I am looking forward to helping many wine lovers on island start their own collections and cellars, and to hosting many tasting events and classes to share the wonder of wine with people here.

You can enjoy a glass of Simone’s favourite wine, Barolo, made with the indigenous Italian grape, Nebboilo, with lunch or dinner at The Brasserie or order a case from Brasserie Purveyors. Or join him for a masterclass in wine at our monthly Swirl series. March Swirl takes place on Thursday 16 March at 5.30 pm. Space is limited. For reservations call + 1 345 945 19815.