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Gerard Basset on how to become a sommelier

22 July 2009 by
Gerard Basset on how to become a sommelier

As master sommelier, Master of Wine and owner of Hotel TerraVina in the New Forest, the UK's "Godfather of Wine" Gerard Basset has impeccable credentials and his advice on becoming a sommelier is essential reading for anyone considering a move into wine service.

Wine is such a varied and fascinating product that it is easy to see why so many people who are interested in hospitality are attracted by the function of sommelier.

So how does someone train to become a fully operational sommelier capable of running the wine department of a restaurant? Perhaps, the first thing is to assess the role of a sommelier and, from there, to consider the best way for a person to acquire all the skills needed to fulfil the position.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Recommending a wine to a guest to complement a dish is an important aspect of the sommelier's function, but it is only the tip of the iceberg.

Having a great wine knowledge is essential because speaking about wine to both customers and suppliers will demand a genuine and serious understanding of the topic. An aptitude for wine tasting is also vital to assess the quality of the wines when selecting them for the list, describing them to the customers and spotting if they are faulty, corked or oxidised. The tasting expertise will allow the sommelier to appreciate the interaction of savours and flavours during a food and wine combination, which a sommelier will have to suggest on many occasions.

VITAL SKILLS

Great organisation is also crucial as, during a busy service, wine must be served in time and some tables might require several additional glasses. Finally, they must be passionate about wine and be a great people person. Indeed, sommeliers must sense the preferences of their guests, ascertain their wine budget without embarrassing them, and be so keen that their own wine enthusiasm becomes contagious - making sommeliers great sales people!

TRAINING COURSES

A good level of wine knowledge and tasting ability can be gained quite rapidly by enrolling in courses provided by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust and the course programme of the Court of Master Sommeliers. The Academy of Food and Wine Service regularly runs short seminars that can be very helpful, too, and it organises the UK Sommelier of the Year, which is a complementary way to develop the skills of sommeliers.

We are privileged in the UK to have access to all these courses and sommelier activities; I cannot recommend them enough. They will provide wonderful tools to acquire wine knowledge and develop tasting ability. Of course, it will not make students into experts overnight but if they follow the courses seriously it will point them in the right direction and give them a strong base to carry on improving and developing their aptitudes.

ON THE JOB

However, all these courses will need to be backed up by a strong personal input. Hours will need to be set aside regularly to read wine books and wine magazines. Frequent trade wine tastings will need to be attended on the sommelier's days off, but these are enjoyable so it should not be too difficult.

In the UK, serious wine merchants hold tastings annually and some more often. Almost every wine country - even down to wine regions - will have a promotional body dedicated to furthering the awareness of their wine country or region. They hold free generic tastings for wine professionals.

If the sommelier works with a talented head sommelier they will have regular opportunities to ask about aspects of the job and information on the wines listed in the restaurant, and they should pay great attention to their head sommelier. This permanent shadowing will be particularly beneficial.

ADMINISTRATION

Admin competency is an important aspect of the function but not really vital until the person reaches the position of head sommelier. Until then, it is the head sommelier who will do most of the ordering, check the invoices, enter the stock-take figures, price and type the wine list, answer eâ€'mails and any other administrative tasks. Therefore for the people who are learning there will be plenty of opportunities to gain knowledge and develop their clerical skills if they get involved by both assisting and shadowing their head sommelier.

However, it's important that the apprentice sommeliers don't shy away from getting involved with the admin. It is the best possible way to learn the ropes and unlike restaurant service, the apprentices can hone their admin skills at their own pace and with the comfort of knowing that their immediate boss is on hand to recover any lapses. Furthermore, if a serious weakness in a particular area needs to be corrected urgently, there are courses available to obtain the necessary level of understanding. There might also be a willing and capable friend on the team to help.

SERVICE AND SELLING

Basic wine service skills are not difficult to acquire. Learning to open a bottle of Champagne or wine properly and even to decant a bottle of red wine will come with guidance and practice. Rehearse with samples or inexpensive bottles of wine.

However, what is much more complex to master is service and social skills. By that I mean a keen sense of timing and, vitally, a deep understanding of customers' wishes.

Great timing is crucial, as a bottle served too late or too early might create problems. If it's too late and the bottle is corked, the food could go cold while it is replaced, or the sommelier will have missed the occasion to softly upsell a second bottle; too early and if the kitchen is slow, the bottle could be finished long before the food appears.

Getting the sense of the occasion, the like or dislikes of the customers, appreciating if they are adventurous, cautious or more traditional in their taste and, crucially, what their wine spending budget is, requires some experience and a bit of psychology. All these factors will take time and close observation. Sommeliers should copy what successful sales people do and adapt techniques to their style.

Being a great salesperson is a noble activity - and it is certainly not about pushing customers to over-spend, but rather enabling them to enjoy their purchase and return more often to see you because they like what you're selling them. Many sommeliers don't always see themselves as sales people but they are wrong; they should enjoy selling in a positive way and gaining the trust of their diners. There are some great books and excellent training courses that can help with selling techniques.

LEARN BY WATCHING

In the same way that aspiring young chefs save their money to eat at the restaurants of their idols to pick up tips and important ideas, sommeliers must experience these wonderful places and see how the wine service is delivered. They will learn immensely by watching what is done in the best places. Furthermore, it is a superb opportunity to talk and ask interesting questions to the sommeliers of such restaurants.

Training to become a sommelier is not so different in the principle as that for a chef. Just as there is an incalculable number of recipes, there are an unimaginable amount of wine producing methods and millions of different wine labels. In both cases it does require a constant thirst for learning. It is a long, but fascinating, journey.

"Sommeliers must sense the preferences of their guests, ascertain their wine budget without embarrassing them, and be so keen that their own wine enthusiasm becomes contagious"

WORKING WITH CHEFS

Sommeliers and chefs should form a working partnership. One way is to help develop each other's skills. Ask the head chef for permission to allow a chef to regularly set aside one ingredient, such as chopped parsley or cinnamon powder, in a dark glass or a dish covered with a muslin cloth. The sommelier then practises recognising the ingredient by smell alone.

In return, the sommelier can give basic wine tuition to the chefs and occasionally provide small wine samples for them to taste.

This helps to develop a strong rapport between the two sides of the restaurant, which is vital when designing a tasting menu with wines.

JOIN A WINE GROUP AND LEARN TOGETHER

An effective way to develop wine expertise is for sommeliers to form a learning group of similar-minded people. Membership could be fellow sommeliers at the restaurant, others working nearby or even wine lovers. Try to avoid the group growing too big, as this can be difficult to organise.

Each time you meet, choose a wine topic (such as a grape variety), taste related wine examples and talk about the findings from your research. This can be highly beneficial if all the members of the group are fully committed.

"Being a great salesperson is a noble activity - and it is certainly not about pushing customers to over-spend, but rather enabling them to enjoy their purchase and return more often to see you because they like what you're selling them"

Basset says sommeliers must experience the restaurants of their wine idols

LEARN BY TRAVELLING

An indispensable way to develop an understanding of wine is to visit wineries in the wine producing regions of the world. It is time-consuming and costly, but it is worthwhile and enjoyable. Nothing can replace walking in the vineyard, touring the winery, tasting direct from the barrel or the tank and talking to the wine maker.

The level of wine information gained is invaluable, and most wine regions are beautiful places with superb sceneries, great restaurants and wonderful to explore. Just think of the Napa Valley, the Stellenbosch district, the Douro Valley, the Barolo area or the Alsace region.

Sommeliers should treat these necessary, but exciting, travel adventures as a busman's holiday. However, they must be disciplined and all this wine research has to become part of an on-going routine, not dissimilar to a top-level athlete keeping his body in great shape. It is surprising how quickly progress can be made with hard work and dedication.

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