Four Great British sommeliers share their experiences of the job: the highs, the lows and the impact their nationality has had on their role. Fiona Sims listens in.
How did you all get into the sommelier business?
Ronan Sayburn “I’ve been doing it for 20 years now. I first got into it as a restaurant manager, and my job was to oversee the rather dodgy 40-bin wine list. But I found that I was enjoying that far more than being a general manager. I wrote to Gerard Basset after I saw him featured in a magazine and he told me to go and work for Henri Chapon at Le Manoir.
“I did my Wine and Spirit Education Trust exams and was halfway through my diploma when I was thrown in at the deep end at Le Manoir – the only Englishman in a sea of Frenchmen. Chapon eventually made me his assistant. The reaction back then was hilarious. He would take me to tastings and introduce me and it was like ‘Mon Dieu! An English sommelier!’ I felt like Henri’s chimp sometimes – the token oddity. I was often the only English sommelier entering sommelier competitions. But I was accepted – though I think mainly through association, because people respected Henri and Gerard.”
Jason McAuliffe “I first became a sommelier in the mid-1990s. I had been a restaurant manager in a country house hotel, and got interested in wine while I was there. Then after some time off travelling, I came back to a job in London at Harvey’s, which became Chez Bruce, and started on the waiting side, but the passion for wine ignited again. The owners, Nigel and Bruce taught me a lot, and I went to a lot of tastings.”
Christopher Cooper “I always knew I wanted to get into wine. I did an environmental sciences degree in Australia and got into microbrewing, then wine.
“I wanted to find a job working with wine, so with no formal training I contacted Ronan, while he was at Royal Hospital Road. The Gordon Ramsay empire was expanding fast and I thought: ‘These are some of the top restaurants in the country with some of the greatest wine lists; surely my wine knowledge would rocket if I could work with them?’ I also concluded that, since Ronan is English and so am I, if he can do it, so can I.’ And I think he saw something in me that reminded him of himself at a similar stage in his life. So yes, I learned on the job like Jason.”
Louise Gordon “In my gap year I worked in a wine shop in Calais. It was a bit of a laugh at first, and then I got really into it. I’m doing my diploma of wine right now, but at that time I had had no formal training to begin with. Then I went into the Civil Service, to the Foreign Office, because my mum thought I should get a proper job, but I hated it, and wanted to get back into wine.
“My first job was with the London Wine Company, which I did for a year, and then I got a job in Harvey Nichols in Kensington, London, on the fifth floor where I started as a wine shop assistant. But what I really wanted to do was be a sommelier.
“The problem was you needed some expertise, and restaurants wouldn’t take me on without any experience – it was a bit chicken and egg. I made it eventually, though.”
What tips can you share for the budding sommelier?
Jason McAuliffe “You’ve got to be dedicated in this business – all those tastings you go to have to happen in your time. You’ve got to be self-motivated.”
Ronan Sayburn “If you are coming from another part of the wine business, and you get a job in a Michelin-starred restaurant as a sommelier, you have to be aware of how nerve-wracking it can be. You might be a confident person, but on the floor it can fall apart. You have to be the right character for this job. And I say, they’ve already made a mark by writing to me – that shows that they are keen. It doesn’t matter if they are inexperienced – Gerard Basset always used to say that it is better to have a blank sheet. Sometimes if they have already gone through rigorous training, they are set in their ways.
“And one more thing: never be tempted to go down the bullshitting route. The customer may know more than you do. Say you don’t know, but you’ll find out – Google is invaluable during service!”
Louise Gordon, “I was terrified the first time I went out on the restaurant floor. In fact, I avoided it for a few weeks. I think it’s also a matter of knowledge. Make sure you have the basics to give you confidence.”
Christopher Cooper “Yes, it doesn’t matter what background you have come from as long as you have the confidence.”
Do you think British sommeliers can bring something else to the table, over other nationalities?
Jason McAuliffe “I do, actually. We don’t have an agenda – no region or country to promote. Walk into any British supermarket and we’ve got wines from all over the world to choose from – we just take it for granted.
“Sometimes you go to a restaurant and the sommelier will sell you Loire Valley wines whether you want them or not – because that’s where he’s from, and that’s all he knows. Some foreign sommeliers think that just because they’ve grown up in a wine region they know it all. Though that view of the narrow-minded French sommelier is certainly not what it was. Now what’s happening is that the French sommelier comes over here to speed up his career path, and then sees the opportunities, and the diversity of wine that we have here, and they don’t want to go back!
“You also need to be a bit of a performer. I think that’s our trump card – that combination of sparkling personality, professional approach and knowledge that we have. I think Brits make great sommeliers because we can sell the wine well: we know how to construct sentences; we’re not brash, abrupt, or overbearing like some foreign sommeliers. You just have to know how to pronounce the names properly – you don’t want to sound like Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses.”
Ronan Sayburn “I think we’ll see more British sommeliers coming through the ranks now that gastropubs have upped their game on the wine front. There’s just more knowledge out there about wine. And the role of the sommelier is better understood these days – most people at least know what it means now.
“As a British sommelier, you just have to be prepared to hit the wall a few times, but stick with it, it’s worth it.”
Louise Gordon “Well, I still think people hear the word sommelier and just think you are a glorified waiter. I trained up a girl last year who had spent only six months of her hospitality course in food and beverage and only a tiny part of that was focused on wine – it goes over most people’s heads. Hospitality students should be spending a few months at least in the wine industry.”
Christopher Cooper “I agree. I think the reason that we haven’t seen many British sommeliers so far is that it’s not trumpeted enough as a career. Certainly no one told me at school that this is a good career option. That needs to be addressed.
“I went and did a lecture recently at Thames Valley University for third-year hospitality students and this was the first time they had been in contact with someone like me, talking up being a sommelier. They get chefs shoved in their face, but not sommeliers.
“I do think that you progress quicker being an English sommelier – I think we are better at talking to customers in general.”
What do your mates think of you being a sommelier?
Ronan Sayburn “Well, I’m from Scarborough, and there aren’t many sommeliers in Scarborough.”
Christopher Cooper “I’m from Corby and when I say I’m a sommelier it doesn’t even register. If I say I’m a wine expert, that’s a different matter. They love that. And when I go to parties with my photographer partner, I always trump her, so yes, people do get excited about the job.”
Louise Gordon, “My mother doesn’t understand what I do – she’s never been to see me in the restaurant. And my sister is more likely to say, ‘Please don’t complain about the wine at a party’.”
Jason McAuliffe “I think most of my mates and people I meet perceive it as a glam job. Ray Winstone once called me the wine governor – that’s when I knew I’d arrived.”
Do you see being a sommelier as a job for life?
Ronan Sayburn “Yes, to a point. I don’t want to work until midnight for the rest of my life. I’d like to work for a generic body of some kind, take an ambassadorial role, perhaps for a château.”
Jason McAuliffe “I want to open a wine bar one day. I already have a name for it – the Rogue Palate. OK, so it’s an obvious choice for a sommelier, but some have done it very successfully – look at Matt Wilkin at the Princess Victoria. I think we would all like to open our own place one day.”
Louise Gordon, “I’d like to buy wine for a while. When I was little, I always wanted to buy wine for Fortnum & Masons. Don’t ask me why. But I’d also like to open a little wine bar in my home region of Dorset.”
Christopher Cooper “I want to launch a sommelier roadshow – tell people how good this job really is. I do a lot of teaching in my job, training up staff – for people who know nothing about wine. And that can be difficult, but it has its rewards, especially when you get them hooked. We all like to spark and motivate people.”
Do you have any mentors in the media?
Ronan Sayburn “I’m bored with the eternal quest to find the wine version of Jamie Oliver. Surely, it’s just better to have more TV programmes about wine, rather than some gump standing there spouting nonsense about what a wine tastes like? In fact, why don’t more food programmes feature wine?”
Jason McAuliffe “I’m not sure James May and Oz Clarke would encourage people into the industry. In fact, Hell’s Kitchen, where people were ‘demoted’ to front of house was just damaging for the industry.”
The best and worst bits about the job?
Ronan Sayburn“Best bits are the travelling. One of the best smells in this business is new oak in the cellar, and you can’t compare getting into the vineyards. You can read all you want about Burgundy, but you won’t understand it until you go there. Worst bits? I suppose it’s the hours. You work late and get in early.”
Christopher Cooper “The long hours are the worst. And yes, travel is the best bit for me, too. Everything clicks into place. And teaching people about wine – it’s great when they are enthusiastic.”
Louise Gordon, “I love many aspects. Interested customers are always good, but I also love training people up. I can do without the glass polishing. My pet hate is male customers who don’t get that I’m the sommelier because I’m a woman.”
Jason McAuliffe “I hate stocktaking. You also need to have an understanding partner. Great wine is all about sense of place, and the easiest way to see that is eating the food of the region with the wines of the region. That’s what it’s all about.”
Christopher Cooper, age 30, head sommelier, St Alban, London
Ronan Sayburn, age 40, head sommelier, the Greenhouse, Mayfair, London
Jason McAuliffe, age 43, head sommelier, the Dorchester Grill, London
Louise Gordon, age 28, head sommelier, the Westbury, Mayfair, London
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Published by: The Caterer