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The True Sommelier

Peter Bodnar Rod
I remember the story of a newly appointed food critic arriving with friends at a brand new, über high‐end restaurant in New York City and after pondering the menus, he felt certain he had uncovered the perfect wine to match the chosen dishes. When the selection was suggested to the sommelier as a possible pairing, the sommelier simply responded with a single word, "No". As rude as this might seem, the sommelier really did know his stuff and demonstrated as much by steering the group towards an even more appropriate selection, thus bringing their dining experience to another level.

Great sommeliers make no apologies for being confident and direct in restaurants of this caliber. The clients expect nothing less. Give us sound advice, don't beat around the bush and demonstrate your knowledge through actions rather than by trying to impress (and confuse) us with fancy terms and excessive information. In the minds of many, the word sommelier brings to mind images of uppity, tuxedo-clad wine waiters sauntering around the dining rooms of top European hotels and restaurants telling the wealthy diners what they should or shouldn't drink. They look down their precious noses at the clients. They wield their corkscrews and silver-chained tastevins as if they were medieval weapons rather than tools. It would be a lie to say these types of sommeliers don't still exist.

However, the truth is the vast majority of today's sommeliers are more accessible, dress less preposterously, and make for genuinely pleasant company. The other truth is that there are countless sommelier organizations across North America popping out graduates by the dozens year after year. The only problem is that far too many of these graduates couldn't run a restaurant wine program if their lives depended on it!

I tell my students in the International Sommelier Guild Diploma Program that in order to be considered true sommeliers, there are several steps they must be prepared to take. First, clearly they must excel in their studies. After that they should try to find work as sommelier assistants working alongside inspiring and passionate mentors in wine savvy restaurants. With every chance they get, they should travel the world to explore the various wine regions and immerse themselves in the cultures and traditions found there. Finally, they should taste as much wine as possible.

I also suggest entering, once good and ready, sommelier competitions so they can put their skills to the ultimate test against their peers. Then and only then, when their CVs demonstrate they have a rare depth of knowledge, have shed their proverbial pound of flesh working in several restaurants, and have become sensitive to the demands of the hospitality business, should they consider themselves sommeliers.  
 
Peter Bodnar Rod

A restaurateur looking to hire a good sommelier must be on the lookout for a broad range of skills and attitudes. Whereas knowledge of wines of the world, their manufacture, proper storage and service is of paramount importance, this study is a lifelong one. When interviewing sommeliers, a restaurateur should ensure candidates demonstrate that they are hard working, passionate about service, appropriately confident and even a little extroverted.

They should be excellent communicators capable of speaking about wine and food in layman's terms and even better listeners able to discern the needs of all manner of clients. In addition to wines, they should also have an above average understanding of other alcoholic beverages and possibly mineral water, tea and coffee, and they must be able to use the principals of pairing with food to bring out the best in these varied beverages.

A good sommelier is also an excellent businessperson and will be able to work within set budgets, achieve sales goals and generate appropriate levels of revenue and profit from their wine program. They must know how to monitor and maintain inventories so stock levels are always as close to ideal as possible and they should know how to work with suppliers, agents, retailers and their fellow staff members.

Good sommeliers are great mentors too, demonstrating excellent work ethic day in and day out, willing to bring service staff under their wing, advising, guiding and educating them about the vital role that beverage alcohol plays in the dining experience. Finally, a great sommelier understands that the wine program they are building and managing is not 'theirs', but the restaurant's at which they work. The wine list should mirror the styles and price points of products that will appeal to the clients of the restaurant, not exclusively to their own palates.

Liking a particular wine and knowing how to sell it are two entirely different things and a clear grasp of the difference is of vital importance in order to be successful. In the end, a sommelier who is both humble yet confident, knowledgeable but always keen to learn more, willing to work hard and one who can generate appropriate levels of margin whilst building an ever growing base of loyal, repeat customers, is one we might consider a true sommelier—just the kind of sommelier we will happily give our trust, our faith and our dollars.

  The International Sommelier Guild (ISG) is a wine education organization that has been educating aspiring sommeliers worldwide for nearly 30 years.

Peter Bodnar Rod, Director of Online Education and Industry Liaison for the International Sommelier Guild, is a 27 year veteran of the food and drinks business and a long-time instructor for both the ISG and WSET.  Certified in Toronto, Canada in 1991, Peter has been named top sommelier in both British Columbia (2000) and Ontario (2006) and finished 3rd at the national finals of the Grand Prix de Sopexa du Sommelier in 1997.



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