Life lessons with Michael Sager

The London restaurateur is now also turning his hand to importing wine. Here, the Sager+Wilde owner talks of his passion for scent, his artistic sensibilities, and of selling his cellar in lockdown

Words by Adam Lechmere

Michael Sager of Sager + Wilde sitting on a bar stool next to a wooden bar

Michael Sager is one of London’s most-recognised restaurateurs, and a particular favourite of the wine world because of his imaginative approach to wine lists. Over the past decade, he’s followed a trajectory common to many who came of age (in restaurant terms) in the fast-moving, shape-shifting London restaurant world. He first unfurled his knife-roll in a pop-up, opening Sager+Wilde with his then partner in 2012 in Shoreditch’s The Foundry, serving traditionally difficult-to-find wines by the glass.

There followed a series of openings in and around the hip eastern edges of the City of London financial district. Each restaurant provides the same reassuring combination of simple, well-prepared and properly sourced dishes along with a wine list as interesting as it is eclectic, with Rhône and Loire classics rubbing shoulders with pungent Weissburgunders, exotic Saperavis and seductive Traminers – all calculated to have the most jaded palate salivating. Crucially, he has always understood that wine lovers like to be challenged. “I think you have to give the guest credit for being knowledgeable,” Sager has said.

Based in Paris with his partner and one-year-old son, he is overseeing the transition from pandemic trading to more-or-less full opening of his three east London restaurants. Sager+Wilde has two sites, one along Hackney Road and the other in Bethnal Green’s Paradise Row, and then there’s Fare in Old Street. All three have outside spaces and so have been trading for the past four weeks, and from this week, diners have been allowed inside again. “I’ve been lucky,” he says. “We’re not making a huge profit but we’re breaking even.”

Sager + Wilde wine and food platter
Sager + Wilde wine bar
The original Sager+Wilde wine bar on Hackney Road, London, famous for difficult-to-find wines by the glass paired with cheese toasties
© Sager+Wilde

Sager, who grew up in Aargau in the German-speaking part of Switzerland – “It’s really foggy and industrial and ugly, but only half an hour to the pretty parts” – started his career in San Francisco, working with the dynamic sommelier-winemaker Rajat Parr at RN67 and touring the vineyards of South America before arriving in London to work at places like Soho’s Quo Vadis and Hoxton’s trendy Happiness Forgets (“high-end cocktails, low-rent basement”).

He’s found lockdown stressful, he says, but he hasn’t let that stand in his way. He has recently bought out his business partner and is now sole owner of the three London restaurants. He pivoted his way through the pandemic by first of all selling off his entire private cellar (his inbox was groaning with requests from the London wine cognoscenti, chequebooks in hand), and then setting up a wine import business, Sager+Wine, bringing in wine from Spain, France, Italy, Austria, the US, Mexico and Georgia. When restaurants are fully functioning, he expects to have 100 clients on his books – hopefully by the end of the year. There’s also a spirit brand, El Destilado, bottling mainly agave-based spirits from Mexico “that fall outside the normative categorisation,” as the website puts it.

Sager reckons he’s prepared for the aftermath of the pandemic, working on the assumption that many retailers will find the online model suddenly losing its lustre. “Many people have diversified into online, and that might disappear now that things are opening up again. I have the network of producers and I want to be the one who supplies the wines.”

That appears prescient, despite coming from the man who claims one of his favourite words is “myopic”, and that to be short-sighted isn’t necessarily a handicap. “Sometimes that can be a good thing, figuratively. I don’t like to look too far into the future.”

Sager+Wilde Paradise Row
Sager+Wilde Paradise Row
Sager+Wilde Paradise Row in London’s Bethnal Green, where the food menu plays as big a part as the wine list
© Sager+Wilde

What was your childhood ambition?

To become an archeologist. My father had a library full of history books on how, for example, the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered. It’s always been something I would have loved to do.

What do you know now that you wished you’d known when you were 21?

There’s so much pressure to know what you want to be when you grow up, but you don’t need to know what you want until much later. Most of us are in careers that have nothing to do with what we studied in school. We’re taught to pick a career and stick with it forever, but that’s an antiquated view.

What exercise do you do?

A bit of light running, and playing with my one-year-old son.

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?

I guess even the most annoying traits make me who I actually am, which in turn is why I have the wonderful friends I have. But if I could change one thing, it would be to always be on time. No more of that “late by one minute” stuff.

Michael Sager photo of The view from Eglise St-Pierre, atop of the hailed Chaillot vineyard in Cornas
Michael Sager photo of Chateau de Béru, Chablis
Photography by Michael Sager, taken using his Leica camera collection: Left, the view from Eglise St-Pierre in Cornas; Right, Chateau de Béru in Chablis

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?

I wish I had bought property. The only luxury item (if you can consider them that) that I own is my collection of Leica cameras and lenses. I have a 1953 Leica M3 and three digital cameras, one of which is the black-and-white Q2 Monochrom, an amazing thing. I really like working on film; it’s a hassle, it takes time, but it gives you lovely shots. Everyone is a photographer nowadays, but not everyone knows how use a manual focus. It’s just a hobby – I have been paid for pictures, but getting paid for it reduces the joy.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?

I’d live in the Mission District in San Francisco. It’s a foggy city, but the Mission District is always sunny. I love the restaurant culture in San Francisco. It’s so diverse, and they can connect with the food-and-drink supplier base much more closely than any other city. You can be in farming country in half an hour and buy direct from the farmer, whereas in New York or Paris or London you have to buy from a broker – there’s a disconnect. In San Francisco, they also have capital coming in via the tech companies so they can afford to spend money on good food. So if I had to live anywhere else it would be there, as I care about my body and eating organic is important to me.

San Francisco's colourful Mission district
San Francisco's colourful Mission District. "It’s a foggy city, but the Mission District is always sunny," says Sager

What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island?

My 1953 Leica and a limitless supply of Ektachrome film. Then I would need a lab too, of course, to develop the film.

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?

There are so many things, but I don’t really set myself goals. I guess returning to being a vegetarian would be a good one.

If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?

To make it compulsory to practise kindness.

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

Definitely someone from a time long ago. Maybe Thomas Jefferson – he loved wine.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

I love Piedmont hazelnuts – more than I’d like to admit.

Nocciola Piemonte hazelnuts
Sager says he has a predilection for Piedmont hazelnuts

What’s your secret talent?

I speak six languages. I’m from Aargau in the north of Switzerland so my mother tongue is Schweizerdeutsch. Then we learn German for writing – we don’t speak it, but we write it. I also speak Italian, Spanish, French and English, all to more or less the same standard. My French was the weakest, but since living in Paris it’s gotten much better.

When were you happiest?

Probably as a child, before starting school. I used to love playing in the forest where we grew up. As a little boy – I’ve just remembered this – I was obsessed with making perfume. I’d take flowers and put them into water; it was a tincture rather than a perfume. I’ve always been into smells. I have about 25 perfumes – I hardly ever wear them (it’s very bad form in the wine business), I just like the smell. My favourite from my collection is Blackpepper by Comme des Garçons.

Who do you most admire?

Rajat Parr [sommelier and winemaker] for his knowledge of wine, his kindness and his never-ending curiosity.

Winemaker Rajat Parr
Sommelier and winemaker Rajat Parr, who Sager names as an inspiration of his

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“Optics”: as in, how things are going to look to other people: “How do the optics on this look?” It’s a good word. I also like the word “myopic”. In a way, it’s a good quality: I don’t like to think too far into the future.

What’s your greatest regret?

I have close to none. Regrets are pointless. Everything you do is part of your journey.

What time do you go to bed?

Normally at midnight.

What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?

Almost always Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert [performed in 1975 at the Cologne Opera House], which he completely improvised.

What’s your favourite thing in your wardrobe?

Probably my dark-tan Red Wing Iron Ranger boots.

What’s your favourite restaurant?

Magnus Nilsson’s Fäviken, but its closed now. After that, it’s Elkano in Getaria, Spain.