There's not much that fazes Caitlyn Rees. Since coming on board as the wine director of the Mary's Group (Mary's, The Unicorn, The Lansdowne) in March, she's dealt with delayed wine-fridge deliveries, trained staff with zero hospitality experience, and written the 20-page wine list for the group's latest Sydney restaurant, Mary's Underground.
"I've done restaurant openings before, like at Fred's," says Rees, who was awarded awarded Gourmet Traveller's 2018 Sommelier of the Year during her tenure at the Merivale restaurant. "You've just got to go with the flow."
Mary's Underground, the subterranean second chapter to Mary's Circular Quay is opening tonight. Expect rôtisserie duck and whole lobster on the mod-European menu, a "clam bar" with Australian-sourced shellfish and crustaceans, and Rees's antipodean-focused wine list.
"My background is very much in French wines, so I've had to push myself outside my comfort zone," says Rees. And it's not just any Australian or New Zealand winery that makes the cut – her selection is focused on small producers, and low-intervention wines made with grapes sourced from organic or biodynamic vineyards.
"This is a small pocket of the world I can influence," says Rees. "I can't stop big corporations and their effect on climate change, but I can support agricultural methods that are sustainable."
It's also a matter of taste – Rees has a preference for wines that represent the grape and the place it's made. "Some producers think: I want this pinot gris to smell like pears, so I'm going to add this strain of yeast," she says. "I don't find that type of wine reflective of the terroir, as opposed to a wine that's been fermented with the natural yeast present in the bloom of the grapes, for example."
Though the wine list will change from week to week, there are 25-ish wines by the glass and 250-ish wines by the bottle (the "Jurassic" heading groups oxidative whites from, or reminiscent of, the oxidative wines from France's Jura region, for example). Kick back with pét-nat sparkling rosé from Blind Unicorn in the Margaret River before proceeding to a pinot noir from Adelaide Hill's Manon Wine or a shiraz from Bindi in Heathcote. And though Australian wines are a brave new world for Rees, matching wine with food is not. "The style of wine I like is food-friendly wine, and this is European food – it's not a foreign concept to me," she says.
But for all of her careful vino-vetting, one thing could undo diners' experience – the volume levels. In February, when Mary's owners Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham announced they were taking over the former site of The Basement, they promised they'd continue the venue's live-music legacy, seven nights a week, with Foshe collaborating with Horatio Luna for the opening night. With veteran sommelier Charles Leong on pouring duties on the floor, Rees says they've had to pay equal attention to the drinks and decibels. "We have to have the sound levels right, and consider how large and bold the writing on the menus will be," she says. "It's not background music."
Mary's Underground opens today from 6pm. 7 Macquarie Place, Sydney, NSW, Mon–Thu 5pm–1am, Fri–Sat 5pm–3am, (02) 9247 3430, marysunderground.com