Raised in London with Irish and Scottish roots, Emily O’Hare made a name for herself as a wine buyer and head sommelier at The River Café, London. That was before she fell in love with Italy and decided to make it her home. She now runs wine and yoga retreats at Castello di Potentino, a medieval castle in Tuscany. Her longterm goal, in addition to growing her retreat business, is to style peoples’ cellars with a good range of Italian wines and bring clients to Italy to meet winemakers and try wines on site.
Tell me about your Irish heritage?
My maternal grandmother is from Portarlington, Co. Laois. My paternal grandparents are both from Glasgow, but their parents were from Ireland – Newry and Antrim – not considered Northern Ireland at that time, explains my dad! Many of my school holidays were spent in Bantry Bay and Barley Cove – in the rain – so generally in the car, or under a brolly eating barmbrack.
How has your lifestyle changed since the move to Tuscany?
I have never felt so well as I do here in Italy. I moved here two years ago to do the grape harvest for three months, and never returned to London.
The quality of my life here is so good. I got into yoga here, in Florence. I never had the time, or energy to do yoga back home, but in Italy it was a means of exercise and opportunity to socialize and make friends. I have since taken my teacher’s certificate in Ashtanga Vinyasa. I really fell in love with the practice.
And here in Italy, I drink, for sure, but never as much as I used to back in London. I drink not quite like an Italian (they are enviably moderate) but much less, and hence I feel the benefits of a good glass of wine but not the downside of downing an entire bottle. Over a meal in the U.K., I could so easily manage a bottle!
And the way of eating here so works for me – a light breakfast of fruit, good coffee, maybe a piece of cake, and then lunch is always fresh veg, good cheese, a bit of focaccia. Dinner is long, at least three courses, antipasti, primi, secondi, but the portions are not enormous, and you eat slowly, enjoying the momentum of the meal. I love knowing there will be another course, followed by another course, and sometimes the main course might be a simply cooked piece of fish, and that is it, no sides, nothing – but you have already had an antipasti of veg or carpaccio of meat and a pasta or risotto so you’re not searching the table for spuds. There were always spuds on the table back at Nan’s.
It’s about finding the right balance?
Yes. Health for me means combining yoga, wine, and food. It is I think, a very balanced lifestyle, and no need for binging because nothing is forbidden fruit.
Is it hard to stay on track?
It absolutely is. I get this [healthy combination], and I love it when I can feel things in equilibrium, but I find it bloody hard to maintain. As soon as I recognize I’m balancing, I get over-excited and fall out of the pose so to speak. It’s not easy to balance: fun/frustrating trying, fun/frustrating falling out, too.
How did you come to move to Castello di Potentino?
I was brought to the castle on a work trip with Armit Wines; one of the wine suppliers to The River Café – a tasting trip. Usually on these trips you visit the winery, the barrel room where the wines age, you taste the wines, you eat an enormous lunch and then leave, which is all pretty great. However at Potentino as soon as we arrived, Alex, one of the owners, took us straight down to the stream to jump into the waterfalls running by the castle. We were all boiled after a long drive in the mid-July heat and it was heavenly. Afterwards we sat to dinner on a long table in the courtyard under the stars and drank the beautiful wines made by Alex’s sister Charlotte, and listened to stories about spies and rare perfumes. Not surprisingly, I never forgot Castello di Potentino. When I was thinking about what to do with my Italian life, how to stay in this incredible country, I thought it would be cool to combine all the things that I enjoy, wine, food, and yoga, and to give normal people, I mean people not in the restaurant trade, the access to the amazing food and wine experiences that you are exposed to when you visit wineries and restaurants as a Sommelier or chef. With The River Café I was taken on amazing trips. Castello di Potentino immediately sprang to mind when I thought about a place to host the retreat.
Who do you cater to and what can a guest expect to experience?
The retreat is open to everyone, we just held our first in June and we had the loveliest group of people; a brilliant mix of nationalities – Portugal, New Jersey, Holland, U.K., and even a tiny Russian island off Japan that I had not known existed, but thanks to Twitter, Tanya arrived at Potentino for the inaugural retreat. Guests can expect to have a most magical time in an enchanted area. In Monte Amiata four days can feel, in the most positive sense, like four weeks. You feel so separate from the concerns that normally nibble the conscience. Nature is so impressive, it always is, but up on the mountain you feel so aware of it. And oh my gosh, the wines we taste, the winery we visit, the meals we eat, the yoga overlooking the olive groves and the feeling of the morning sun warming up the skin within the hour class, it is all exquisite. And if the guests wish to take the wine classes after yoga they can take their WSET Level 1 certificate during the weekend. It’s a globally recognized wine qualification and to my mind the best introduction to wine. If you are a wine drinker then this is a dream class. It’s important to know how to drink well.
Tell me some more about your childhood vacations in Ireland.
My holidays in Ireland always, always followed the same format. My grandad (“Pop”), dad, my cousin Jenny and I would drive from our home near Heathrow to Wales to catch the overnight ferry to Cork. Then we would meet mum and my grandmother (“Nan”) at the airport. They always flew over as Nan wasn’t into the long car journey. We would drive to our hotel, the Seaview House Hotel in Ballylickey – Jenny and I squashed in between mum and Nan – Nan smoking a lot of Woodbines out the window. Nan and Pop had been going to this hotel since it first opened in the seventies, when it was a small B&B. The daughter of the couple that ran the hotel took it over from her parents and grew it into a Manor House, and Nan and Pop would go every year. I love this place. I believe it is at Seaview that I began to understand the concept of good cooking and hospitality.
Do you have an Irish passport?
No, not yet; I am looking into it – Irish or Scottish. I think Scotland might leave the U.K. now, in which case perhaps I can still be part of the E.U. I would like to be.
What’s your favorite piece of music or musician?
Ermmmmm, well ermmm, right now, if I am honest, it would be Justin Bieber! I wondered about saying something that might make me look a bit smarter. Should I pick some obscure piece of classical or an opera aria? But it’s always best to be honest. But if I had to listen to something long term, not just on a loop, right now it would be an Elvis album. I love Elvis. I watched all his films, well, most of them – there’s a lot to get through. I ended up getting tattooed with his profile at 4 a.m. in New Orleans on a road trip across America when I was turning 21. I regretted it a few hours later when the frozen margaritas had worn off, but now I love it. It reminds me of a very funny time with three great girlfriends.
I love Four Weddings and a Funeral. I have had a lot of excruciatingly embarrassing moments in my life and it is a relief to watch and re-watch other people experiencing the same thing. I also love The Wizard of Oz. Before wanting to be a doctor when I grew up; I wanted so much to be a witch, and Margaret Hamilton was the best wicked witch ever.
Your earliest memory?
My dad bringing home treats for my brother and me from work. He worked in Aer Lingus cargo and managed some incoming flights from Kenya. I’m pretty sure he was allowed to bring these things home. He would come in from his night shift while we were having our breakfast with little wooden animals, sometimes cartons of guava juice, or a crate of passion fruit which was so exotic to us, and once he brought home boxes of what looked like pretty pastel colored tissue paper, but it was sugar paper that you could eat! I thought it was the best thing ever. It dissolved on your tongue, all sweet and superficial. I must have been about four or five, which I suppose is quite late for an earliest memory.
Your favorite quality in friends?
Generosity. I just looked for a definition to clarify that this is really my favorite quality, and after reading this – “the virtue of not being tied down by concerns about one’s possessions, to provide help to others by giving them an item, usually precious. Without thinking twice” – I am sure it is. I recognize a lot of my family and friends in those lines.
Your favorite place to visit?
The ice cream machine at River Café. I really love ice cream – chocolate and roasted almond – all of them. I would hover around the machine around cleaning time, always armed with a spoon. I think it is a good idea to have a spoon always at the ready.
Your favorite meal?
A long one, Italian style – four courses. The thought of a long meal in good company makes me so happy.
When did you first become interested in wine?
The first time wine really truly made an impact was at wine school in London Bridge. I was 25 and in my first year of the diploma course. I didn’t know much about wine until then. I only drank whatever was three for a tenner from Wine Rack as a university student, but on this course, we were studying the wines of Burgundy. We had four wines in front of us that were poured blind, and we had to taste them and put them in order of their cru, which was the Premier Cru which was Grand, which was Generic, which was Villages, and one of these wines, sitting in a horrible little glass was so mesmerizing – the smell, the taste, the texture, somehow this wine seemed to have muscle definition. It took me away from the clinical tasting room, it was so toned, so poised, so balanced. I felt like I was front row of the ballet. I kept thinking this wine is so on its tip toes, everything is so lifted and light and yet strong. It was Armand Rousseau Charmes Chambertin 1999, the Grand Cru. I couldn’t believe that this bottle could take me to the ballet. I’d always wanted to go, and that’s what the great wines do. They take you to the ballet.
How do you relax and clear your head?
I usually need to take everything out of my bureau and then put everything back in again in order. I’m not very tidy. I quite like a mess, so I call my friend Pippa, whom I met at Edinburgh University who is amazing at helping me figure out what needs to go back in and what should stay out. Left to my own devices I get distracted, probably thinking about lunch, and just chuck it all back in again.
What is on your bedside table?
Back at home, at mum and dad’s, in the room I grew up in and still go back to, is a reading light and a plastic snow globe with Mary and the baby Jesus inside. I don’t know who gave it to me or where it came from, but it’s been there for as long as I can remember. It is pretty tacky I suppose, but I really love it. I was raised Catholic, and although there are a number of things I struggle with regarding my faith, it is something very valuable to me.
What is your current state of mind?
I’ve just met somebody, a French weightlifting yogi. He is really super. I’m feeling totally giddy.
I’m currently in the process of tempting a Champagne house, Billecart Salmon, to come to Valentines night at the castle! We are hoping to get the chef to stay and put together a Tuscan meal matched with Billecart Champagnes. That should spark up February. ♦