Top sommelier Gérard Basset MW explains the role of the sommelier, and hopes to take out the fear factor so often felt by diners.
Not so long ago, British diners did not always feel comfortable dealing with sommeliers. They often appeared aloof and unapproachable in their uniform of black shoes and socks, black trousers, a long black apron, white shirt and a black jacket decorated with a silver or gold brooch in the shape of a bunch of grapes. They were often French, and behaved in a haughty manner as if only the French could possibly know about wine, and that only French wine deserved special attention. Apart from a few exceptions, their behaviour would seem stiff, and at worst, veering on arrogant. It is hardly surprising that those restaurant customers with a less-than-impeccable wine knowledge felt intimidated.
Fortunately, things have changed. A better calibre of sommelier (with many British ones now) has appeared in many top UK restaurants. They have great wine expertise, a much friendlier approach and are open to tasting and proposing wines from every wine-producing country. Even their uniform has softened. In addition, customers are more confident in their wine knowledge. But do they really understand the role and work of a sommelier? Let’s look at what the job of an experienced sommelier entails.
The chief function of the head sommelier is to ensure that diners are served the correct amount of the wine they have ordered at the right time, in good condition and at the perfect temperature. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg.
A fundamental feature of the head sommelier’s role is to compile the wine list, that is, actually selecting and buying the wines. A good sommelier should have a wine list that is made up of wines that match the taste and the finance of its clientele, and that the restaurant can afford to carry. Hence, the sommelier must have a discerning palate but also a good understanding of finance. They will go regularly to tastings and will compare the wine list of many wine merchants before finalising the selection.
Pricing wine is crucial. Most restaurants will aim to achieve a gross profit (GP) of 60%–70%. Restaurants have huge overheads, and it is imperative that the wine section of the business produces the right return. However, a shrewd sommelier will not mark up each wine by the same formula. Instead, the overall GP should be achieved by giving a lesser mark-up to the expensive wines, but a much higher one for the everyday wines, thus encouraging wine lovers to trade up.
The sommelier is also in charge of the overall value of the wine stock. Monthly stocktakes will allow them to calculate the GP and check that all wine sales have been recorded properly, and that no pilferage is taking place. They must also ensure that wine breakages, or complimentary wines occasionally offered to customers are properly registered. Invoices must be matched with their corresponding wine deliveries, as well as the prices quoted by suppliers.
In addition, the sommelier must choose how to write their wine list. The wines can be organised either geographically (as is often the case), by taste or style, by grape variety or under other categories, such as price or food recommendation. Even a list with a few hundred bins must be easy to navigate for the sommelier, as when advising a guest they might only have two or three minutes per table.
Sommeliers rarely see themselves as salesmen, but it is very much part of the job. For many customers, wine is a complicated topic, and the sommelier must reassure them and direct them. They will take into consideration the dishes ordered but also the budget, which is not always easy to assess. If unsure how much the customer is prepared to spend, the sommelier should err on the side of caution. Great wine recommendations, within the guests’ budget, and delivered with assurance, in a friendly and attentive manner, will make people come back for more. That is great salesmanship!
Last but not least, the sommelier must be in total control of the wine service and all other drinks served at the table. Wine fridges and the red wine cellar must be filled up. Glasses, decanters, ice buckets and all other wine equipment must have been cleaned thoroughly and placed correctly on the tables and service stations. The wine list will be checked thoroughly and updated. Time will be spent in the kitchen with the chef trying new dishes. The sommelier must be available for recommendations, and must ensure that customers do not wait for their wine. Glasses must be refilled. The actual service is akin to being on stage, but for each service, the script is different.
The job of sommelier is varied. Of course, it has its problems, like unsociable hours for instance, but not more than other professions. Overall, it is very enjoyable as it involves learning, tasting, trading, advising and serving a wonderful liquid which presents itself in so many different flavours. In addition, it offers the possibility to meet and interact with so many interesting people, both suppliers and customers. It is a very rewarding feeling to see guests enjoying a wine you have recommended.
Gérard Basset MW