The female sommelier behind Cape Town’s coolest new wine bar

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The female sommelier behind Cape Town's coolest new wine bar

Penelope Setti is no newcomer to the wine scene. Having made a name for herself as the general manager and sommelier for Chefs Warehouse, she’s now opened her own spot, Penny Noire. We chat to her to find out her journey into wine, how she dealt with the most recent booze ban and what she’s drinking now.

1. Start by telling us a little about yourself. How did you get into wine?

I first got into the industry through Chef’s Warehouse, I was the manager there for about five years. The sommelier thing only came later, as I originally viewed wine as a bit of a hobby. I ended up doing my WSET through Wines of South Africa (WOSA). They run a programme that approaches women in wine, and in particular women of colour. You have to write a motivation letter to one of the nine wineries involved in the programme, and mine was picked up by Radford Dale, who sponsored my level 1 and 2, which is what the programme is about. After that Alex Dale, who is my absolute hero and he’s become something of a big brother to me, saw that I was so passionate about the course and asked if I’d like to continue to do level 3. Of course I said yes, so they sponsored that too, which has led me to where I am now – currently doing my diploma.

2. You’ve recently opened a wine bar in Local at Heritage Square called Penny Noire. How did this come about?

Liam Tomlin is always trying something new, so when this space became available, he and Heritage Square’s landlord, Victoria, decided not to open one big restaurant space. Especially during Covid, it would have been too large a space for one restaurant to fill. So they had the idea of doing a shared space, almost like a mini market. One thing we noticed about other markets was the lack of a really good wine bar, and with the kind of food being served at Local, there was space for a cool wine bar. So Liam approached me and asked if I wanted to open up a wine bar, which sounded really interesting to me. What’s really funny is when I was writing my application letter for WOSA, one of the questions asked what I saw myself doing in a year or two’s time and I had said I see myself opening something like Penny Noire. So when Liam asked me about it last year, I just thought it was fate for me to open the bar.


3. How would you describe the concept at Penny Noire?

The times I did the wine lists at Chefs Warehouse, I always wanted to showcase the unsung heroes. I always wanted people to experience something new and different. I didn’t want to serve wines you could just find anywhere, so when people come here and taste something and say, “Wow, where can I find this?”, it means I’m able to start telling the story of the wine and winemakers. So, the focus is on small, independent and interesting wines.


4. There was obviously a bit of stop and start at the beginning with the booze ban, what were those first couple weeks like?

We opened on 17 December, and ten days later there was a booze ban. Those first few days were wonderful, people were walking in and loving the concept. It was great getting that initial feedback. Having to close after that was devastating, because we didn’t know how long it was going to go on for. Was it two weeks? Was it a month? There was so much uncertainty. Of course, it was heartbreaking but it also forced us to keep going until we could sell again. So because we had the rest of the space operating, it wouldn’t have made sense for the bar to sit empty. The day after the ban was announced, I sadly packed up all the wine and then started playing with non-alcoholic options. We experimented with juices and simple syrups and all sorts of things and made some fun mocktails. We hunkered down, did what we could and got through it somehow.

5. What’s your take on the South African wine industry? How do you find our wines compare to international ones?

I think South African wines have come a long way over the years. There’s been a lot of exciting change and some new blood coming in to shake things up. There’s also this understanding that work starts in the vineyards and as a result there’s been a big push for a more “organic” style of winemaking. As a result, wines are lighter, more delicate. In terms of how they compare to international ones, they can’t really be compared. Our wines are so different because our climates, weather and terroir are different, which is what makes everything cooler.

6. Which is your favourite local varietal and why?

Everyone knows I’m a Chenin girl, through and through. It’s so versatile. There are these incredible tropical flavours coming through. For me, drinking a glass of Chenin is like eating a bowl of pineapple or ripe stone fruit, or even a fresher one with crispy notes. I just love Chenin Blanc. It’s also a proudly South African grape too, and it was always seen as a workhorse used for spirits. And now things have changed, so winemakers have focused on the grape and there are some excellent examples of this now. It has stopped being overlooked.

7. What can we look forward to seeing you do next?

At this stage we’re still settling in, but we’re aware that this is already becoming a spot that brings people together so I’m excited to focus on that. Eventually, we’d like to add a retail option for wine, but that’s liquor licence-dependent at the moment.

To keep up with Penny, follow her on Instagram.

Photographs: Toby Murphy

Jess Spiro Article by: Jess Spiro

Jess Spiro is a freelance food writer, chef and restaurant critic based in Cape Town, who can often be found in search of the next great plate of food. Follow her on Instagram @jess_spiro to see what she's eating.

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