Easing into a red velvet couch at Bacchanalia on a Thursday lunchtime in December, I’m struck by how buzzing the place is just weeks after opening. It looks like the restaurant has dropped from the skies into Berkeley Square fully formed, complete with greeters, maître-d’, wait staff and two hundred clattering diners. ‘We’ve done a lot of publicity,’ says the quietly charming Terry Kandylis, wine director of the Caprice Group.
Owned by Richard Caring, the group boasts some of the highest-profile restaurants and clubs in London, from Annabel’s and J Sheekey to Scott’s of Mayfair and Sexy Fish, Daphne’s, Noema, the Ivy Club and its satellites around the country, Harry’s Bar and its siblings… then there’s Miami and Mykonos. ‘There’s a huge range of clientele. Sexy Fish is totally different to Scott’s, for example,’ Kandylis says. The latter has a strong emphasis on Burgundy, in keeping with its conservative clientele, whereas Sexy Fish, a favourite of footballers, is heavily weighted towards Champagne and the flashier blue chip Bordeaux and Tuscany.
Occupying the old Porsche showroom on the corner of Berkeley Square, Bacchanalia has been done over in a style that the emperor Nero might have rejected as profligate. The venue is dominated by four vast Damien Hirst statues – Medusa, Psyche and Eros, a winged lion and other figures from Greek mythology – that fly out over the tables. Around the walls are Roman busts from Caring’s private collection.
It’s dramatic, breath-taking even, though the decadent effect is rather spoiled by the wait staff, who are dressed in Roman tunics and sandals and look like extras from a student production of I, Claudius. Coming into all this out of a bitter December morning is disconcerting. Five minutes ago I was walking past a homeless man sitting on a freezing pavement; now a skinny bloke dressed as a first-century slave is handing me a wine list on which the £4,800 Giacomo Conterno Monfortino Riserva 2010 is by no means the most expensive bottle.
The Fat Duck was the best service I have done. It was like a Swiss clock
In the midst of this multimillion-pound saturnalia sits the unflappable, fresh-faced Kandylis. At 39, he’s been a figure of the UK wine scene for over a decade. Born on the Greek island of Evia, he studied physics in Athens before making the move into wine.
‘I had no real dreams of working as a physicist; I just felt natural working in hospitality and I had fond memories of my grandfather making wine,’ Kandylis says. The bug had got him. He went on to win a string of awards, including 2016 UK Sommelier of the Year, which propelled him to the best jobs in wine: The Fat Duck with Heston Blumenthal, then he went to The Ledbury and from there to 67 Pall Mall as head sommelier.
The disparate characters he’s worked for – the showman Blumenthal, the driven Nigel Platts-Martin at the Ledbury – appealed to him in different ways. ‘The Fat Duck was the best service I have done. It was like a Swiss clock. Then when I went to The Ledbury for my interview, the first thing I saw was the owner carving a deer. Here was somebody who knew every aspect of his restaurant.’
Now with Richard Caring he’s landed the sommelier’s dream job: the chance to create a wine list with a more-or-less unlimited budget. Caring asked him if he could put a good Greek wine list together. ‘That’s the easy part,’ he told his new boss. He’s as keen on Italy as Greece and has indulged his passions with a list that’s imaginative and deeply informed. We start with Fine de Claire oysters and a glass of bitingly fresh Assyrtiko from the super-modern Volcanic Slopes on Santorini. This is £220, but Kandylis has made sure to list some good accessible wines.
So you can go from a £60 Alpha Estate Malagousia to the 1985 Sassicaia at £9,000, with the wealth of Greece and Italy in between, from Elena Walch in Alto Adige to Gaja’s IDDA from Etna, and a fine range of Greek whites and reds. Then there’s the headline event: Kandylis has sourced every Italian wine given 100 points by Robert Parker (he’s got two left to find). It’s a testament to the excellence of the wider list that it eclipses this gimmicky – and very, very expensive – collection.
My grandparents were farmers on Evia, and my memories of their village and the freshness of the countryside are the best of my life
As if running a dozen top-end wine lists isn’t enough to occupy his time, Kandylis is also a winemaker. A few years ago during a trip to Ribera del Duero with a friend, Spanish sommelier Guillermo Cruz, the pair stumbled across a patch of old bush-trained vines in need of attention but still viable. They found the owner, persuaded him to sell a 2.14ha parcel and started making wine in 2021.
Ribera del Duero has a mixed reputation among wine cognoscenti due to its predilection for extravagant use of oak – ‘a lot of my friends were surprised I was making wine there’, says Kandylis, but he and Cruz are following a much gentler regime, using only 500- and 600-litre barrels and hardly any new oak.
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A dish of fried squid arrives and Kandylis breaks off to explain exactly why he loves the black garlic aioli it comes with. Throughout our long lunch, the conversation revolves around details – from the wines and the sauce to the provenance of the dishes. All the best sommeliers are locally-obsessed and Kandylis is no exception. Where would he like to make wine next? He reels off an Italian bucket list – Tuscany, Sicily, Piemonte – but settles on Greece. ‘My grandparents were farmers on Evia, and my memories of their village and the freshness of the countryside are the best of my life. I want to get back to that, to the island life that I love, to do something there with focus and purpose.’
What was your childhood ambition?
To become a fighter pilot. I always liked the idea of flying fast – as a teenager I used to make model planes
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were 21?
To buy Google or Amazon shares. Apart from that, I wish I knew what I wanted to do earlier. I was a bit lost at 21. I discovered I wanted to follow a career in hospitality later in life. That’s probably why I admire young people that know exactly what they want to do.
What exercise do you do?
I used to run a lot. I’ve done the Bordeaux and London Marathons. My best time was 4:35 in London. I was going well till the 35th km when I hit a wall. I did 35km in 3hrs and the last seven in 1hr35. I don’t run as much now but trying to stay active in the gym. I like cycling to work too.
What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?
I have many ideas or thoughts that can either distract me or confuse the people surrounding me. Maybe organising or writing down these thoughts and ideas might be better.
What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (apart from property)?
A couple of bottles of Petrus 1998, which I bought four years ago for £2,700 a bottle [current value £3,900]. I store them away from home to avoid temptation.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
On an island in Greece, like Ikaria or Naxos. I miss living by the sea, going to the beach and having my own garden where I can grow veg. Tuscany would work too.
If you could do any other job what would it be and why?
I turned my passion into my work, so I’m happy with what I’m doing. The pandemic was challenging for everyone in hospitality; hence I felt the need to diversify my income with the Ribera del Duero project, which is based on what I know and love, but from a different perspective. If I wasn’t into wine or hospitality, I would have loved to have worked in sports coaching for children.
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What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island (apart from wine, whisky or spirits)?
Chocolate and cigars.
What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?
To design and build my own house. My father was a builder, and there was a moment in my life when I thought of becoming an architect. I think the appreciation of beauty when it comes to design and construction never faded away.
If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?
That all rich people would have to contribute to feed and educate the poor. It’s absurd that there is so much wealth in the world, yet people are starving and have no access to education. In ancient Athens, the rich had to pay for the theatre so everyone was able to go.
Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party – and why?
Socrates and Nelson Mandela, to speak about life and philosophy; Burgundy icon Lalou Bize Leroy because I think she’s one of the best living vignerons (and also because she would bring wines to spark the best of conversations); and Salvador Dalí and virtuoso Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher: the former is my favourite painter and the latter the best guitarist most people haven’t heard of.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Chocolate – I can’t resist cakes and sweets.
What’s your secret talent?
I make my own wine.
When were you happiest?
I have fond memories of our time as a family my grandparents’ village. We would ride out to the olive groves in the back of my grandfather’s pickup. He made his own wine too and it’s a shame that he’s not around to try mine. My time there truly shaped my life.
Who do you most admire?
My mother, who has always been my hero.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
‘Actually’, ‘Basically’ and ‘To be honest’.
What’s your greatest regret?
That I didn’t manage to connect better with my cousin who passed away a few months ago.
What album or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?
For music, Leonard Cohen and Pink Floyd. For podcasts, Brian Cox speaking about the universe, as my favourite subject was astrophysics.
What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?
A tailor-made Burberry suit.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Asador Etxebarri in Spain for precision charcoal cooking.
What time do you go to bed?
Late, around midnight or 1am.