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Psychologist, Counsellor, Artist, Performer - the Making of a Good Sommelier

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16/01/2019 Few jobs require deeper knowledge across a broad range of products, services and so many character traits.

‘Sommelier’:  a word whose current dictionary description doesn’t reflect what it is to be a sommelier today:… few jobs require such deep knowledge across such a broad range of products and services… and so many character traits

Before looking at what makes a good sommelier, let’s take a moment to look at what the English dictionary definition of a sommelier is.

A Poor Definition

Actually, there are several, depending on the source (Merriam-Webster, Collins, Oxford, Cambridge, internet-based and not, and American and British English). The surprising thing is they really do not do justice to what it is to be a sommelier, the scope of the job, the learning involved – and they certainly contain no hint of what it takes to be a good sommelier: to excel at the job.

See if you agree whether these definitions fall short of not: “a waiter in a restaurant who has charge of wines and their service a wine steward”… and “someone whose job is to serve and give advice about wine in a restaurant”… and “the person in a restaurant, club, etc. who is responsible for the selection of, and for serving, the wines, esp. with a French cuisine; wine steward”… and even just “a wine waiter”.

Inadequate or what! So let’s try and give a real dimension to what being a sommelier is all about and set out the attributes needed to become a sommelier in 2019.

What I think we can say today with a certain degree of confidence is that the days of the arrogant, unhelpful man (it was always a man in those days), hiding his ignorance of  world wine styles behind his tastevin badge of office, and often barely concealing his contempt at what he took to be a diner’s ignorance, are, thankfully, long gone.

Performer

The Good Sommelier

So, avoiding the mistakes of the past – and the attitude of what we’ll call the ‘bad practitioner’ – today’s good sommelier, man and woman, will be proficient across many areas, not just wines, but a range of other alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.

Gastronomy gave birth to wine – or perhaps it was vice versa – so teamwork, the ability to bring together the various elements that go to creating a venue that people want to visit and spend money in, is important. As such, the good sommelier will have a real understanding of foods and cuisines and be open to creating new gastronomic experiences working with the chef to provide the most appropriate – and exciting – food and wine combinations.

Playing their part in what should be seen by guests as a seamless hospitality-focused team, the good sommelier will be totally focused on providing a service that heightens the level of satisfaction for each and every guest at every occasion and for every visit.

Listener

The good sommelier is a listener, caring, interested in, and sensitive to, every guest’s needs and wants. This also means the good sommelier recognises they are part of a service industry and that no one is more important than the customer. It’s about putting people at ease, recognising that guests will often be relying on the sommelier’s knowledge and technical skill and this will play an important part in ensuring the guest experience is as pleasant as possible.

Engagement

The good sommelier isn’t simply an impersonal technocrat – whilst knowledge of the world of drinks may be a prerequisite, you’re not simply selling a product in a bottle, rather it’s about the aspiration and lifestyle that it represents. To do your job properly, therefore, you really need to be able to engage with guests on a human level. Going out to eat and drink is, for most people, and on most occasions, special – call it a bit of theatre if you will – and you to act to ensure you play the part to make it so. This will almost always mean you need to go beyond wine and food and be able to demonstrate a wider experience. Customers come from all walks of life and from many backgrounds and it pays to have at least a modicum of general knowledge, to be interested in the outside world, to allow you to interact most appropriately and effectively with your guests.

People-Facing

Yours is very definitely a people-facing position, so the good sommelier needs to be personable and enthusiastic, yet able to combine this with a well-developed sense of diplomacy. Then add a little bit of psychology to the mix so you can work out what will please your guests the most by helping them make the best choices to suit the occasion, who they are, what their expectations are and, of course, what their budget is.

Communicator

The Workings of Mind

Throw in the role of communicator and the good sommelier, no matter how well prepared, will be better able to deal with situations when things (regrettably) go wrong. Guests sometimes do get angry, or don’t like the wine(s) you presented, or get upset about something that might seem insignificant in any other situation or setting – or are just plain disagreeable (it happens).

This is where all the characteristics of the good sommelier come into play: psychologist, diplomat, counsellor, listener and communicator – with common sense acting as the glue – to help avoid misunderstandings in the first place, and certainly to take the heat out of any situation that develops.

Common sense might simply be a matter of changing personnel – and it’s not that often that a poor situation can’t be resolved in some way by listening and doing what you can to let the guest know that you’re working hard to understand their needs and doing what you can to meet them.

Business Person

There’s one further requirement in this list of the traits that go into the making of a good sommelier: the role of a business person. In today’s climate of rising business rates and labour costs and the pressure it puts on business viability, no matter how seemingly in demand your venue, it pays to think in business terms and outside the box – or, rather, the case of wine! – and play your part with owners and other management, working as a team, on the ways to generate extra income through more covers, and/or healthier margins or some other carefully considered and costed plan: management will thank you and you’ll make your job that little bit more secure.

I think it may be worth lobbying all these learned dictionary types to suggest that, certainly in the 21st Century, the description of a sommelier simply as a “wine waiter” really doesn’t hack it!

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