The Role of the Sommelier
My guess is that at some point or other, we have all been in the situation of having the often-dapper looking Sommelier greet us at the table and begin his escapade into what wine he recommends, what it pairs best with (the Cinsaut will complement Sir’s cravat beautifully actually happens) and, often, you have a price in mind that you are willing to spend. Often, too, this perfectly charming individual points your attention in the direction of a bottle that requires you to delve into your child’s University fund, hence the Somm can have people flailing their arms violently above their head to not approach the table.
Or perhaps this is the reputation they used to have.
The role of the Sommelier is, I believe, one that does not need to be overwhelming and one that is actually quite fascinating – and becoming ever more notable within wine circles all over the globe. In South Africa alone, the South African Sommelier Association (SASA) has been running as a non-profit, membership-driven organisation since 2010. It serves as an integral part of the wine and food industry aiming to promote a culture of service excellence within the realm of fine food and wine. On 20 January 2016, Higgo Jacobs, one of the founding members of SASA, was elected as the new Chairman, taking over from Neil Grant. With a strong and vibrant team at the helm, the Board will continue to provide training and mentorships and grow their presence nationally and internationally via education, communication, social media and industry events. One worthy of being mentioned is the inaugural Best Sommelier in South Africa competition, hosted at the Taj Hotel on 11 January 2016. Gareth Ferreira took first place and will be representing the country in the World Championship in Mendoza in April of this year. Somm say, we might just win. (I couldn’t resist).
Touching on the Education side, Sommeliers are not found within the borders of an eating establishment simply to hover over your table and irritate you – or deplete your bank account. Should you be dealing with a qualified Somm, you may feel safe in the knowledge that vast amounts of time and funds have been sacrificed to be able to stand before you and present their choice. Intense courses run through educational bodies such as the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), the Society of Wine Educators and, more over, the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), each producing individuals who warrant a few moments of your attention. Should you take on Level IV through CMS, the final exam is split into three parts: a theory exam, a blind tasting exam and a service exam – don’t think you can spill a drop during this. If you’d like to get your money’s worth at the table, shoot them a question about coffee, beer or saké as well.
Having said this, some clientele recognise when being served by an individual who they know not to be a Sommelier but rather the restaurant’s staff choice of Most Enthusiastic About Wine. Others may find it equally frustrating to make their own selection of wine and then have the server taste it for them first. Intertwined with this, palates are vastly different. You know what you like. Damp hay or sheepdog-prancing-in-the-rain aromas don’t actually upset everyone. At the end of the day, wine is only ever meant to be about enjoyment; allow yourself to be guided as little or as much as you like. Sommeliers are like condiments, they are there for your choosing. They may enhance your experience or do nothing at all. Use them or don’t use them, the choice is wholly yours. The only important thing to remember is: wine enhances the flavour of everything, chiefly Life. So savour it in free-flowing quantities and in the company of friends.
Daisy Knowles is a part-time wine writer and full-time wine drinker. She has been part of the Wine Extra magazine tasting panel since 2012 and is a member of the Wine & Spirits Board, both providing wonderful excuses for compulsory wine tasting. She has dabbled into the theory of the grape through the Cape Wine Academy, WSET and Stellenbosch University. As much as she idolises wine, she has a fervent interest in gin, whisky, films and travel.