WHAT MAKES A GOOD SOMMELIER?
A Sommelier is designed to take away much of the stress and guess work out of choosing a fine wine. As Ernest Hemmingway once said “Wine is one of the most civilised things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.”
To appreciate this truly marvelous natural drinking wonder, you need someone who appreciates it and can advise, educate and bring their own personal touch. This is not a structured sale, nor is it about ticking a few boxes but about developing a mutually beneficial relationship. Nothing beats experience and practical application as learning from a textbook has its limitations. A sommelier should be a bargain-hunter whilst remaining approachable and open-minded. A good palate accompanied by an encyclopedic knowledge of wine is great but not essential, the key to success is developing that rapport. You often meet salesmen that are extremely knowledgeable, but don’t have the customer service to compliment it. People like that leave you with a sense of inferiority rather than the satisfaction of getting a good deal.
Whether it’s buying a new TV, Kitchen or Car, we’d all like to think that the person we’re consulting has extensive knowledge of and passion for their product, but it must be complimented by good people’s skills. A good sommelier should never ‘upsell’ for the sake of it, no consumer wants to feel like they are having every last penny squeezed out of them therefore it is pivotal to establish the customer’s budgets and tastes pretty early on in the conversation. Sometimes they may suggest alternatives to the wine you’ve got your heart set on, not necessarily because the wine you want is not in stock, but because it may compliment your meal better.
That point about food pairings is key, as wine and food is a marriage made in heaven. Wine and good food go together like, Torvill and Dean, a horse and carriage, Marks and Spencer, Tea and Biscuits. Describing food in a similar fashion to describing wine, should help to merge the wine with the dish, for example: Fresh Oysters, Light, elegant flavour enhanced with a touch of lemon (acidity), medium after taste, clean palate. That description should help people understand the type of wine, which it can be served with.
As a general rule of thumb: white with fish, red with meat. The wine shouldn’t just tolerate the dish it’s served with but be collectively better than the wine and food eaten separately. It’s commonplace to see many Brits just drinking the wine on it’s own at a social function, this is less common in France where they only tend have wine with their meals.
Each should enhance the other whilst maintaining its fundamental vibrancy and character. The only way a sommelier can figure this out is through a simple but under-appreciated method: Taste the wine, taste the food and only then taste the wine and food together. Some combinations are well renowned classics: Sauternes with Roquefort, Chablis with oysters, Bordeaux with roasted lamb, champagne with scallops. Very few would dispute these combinations.
Third, a lifetime of eating and drinking will inevitably take the sommelier on a journey and there really is no substitute for good record keeping. A sommelier can dramatically deepen his or her experience of wine by maintaining a logbook and recording the wines they’ve enjoyed, with particular emphasis on the wine-and-food combinations that have tended to work best. This can be in conventional notebook form, or stored electronically on a Smartphone device. Hand written notes are the preferred choice as they are more easily assessable (as apposed to waiting for the Smartphone device to load up), more sophisticated and won’t lead to eye strain caused by squinting at a small screen. A hand written book of your own personal notes also looks more sophisticated and there’s no battery that needs constant charging.
An individual should feel refreshed after a chat with their sommelier and there is no better feeling than the feeling of having learnt something new. The best sommelier is an educator but doesn’t talk down to the customer. They could be advising anybody from long-time connoisseurs of wine to the nouveau riche ‘wine virgin’.
Finally many agree that a sommelier who involves the individual is the best kind. They provide the customer with an experience not just a discussion. There’s nothing worse than being interested in a product without sampling it. A sommelier should use their time with the consumer as an opportunity to pour, taste, compare and discuss. The meeting then becomes a miniature wine-and-food matching seminar, one which guests will treasure and remember as an intellectually stimulating evening. This could even be used it as a chance to experiment and try out new combinations.