The Art of the Sommelier
It sounds a little pretentious—but the word sommelier is actually a French word meaning "wine steward". It’s a specialised role within the industry and I know that from my experience of talking with sommeliers, they are super passionate about what they do.
Sommeliers can be an interesting bunch and are generally only found in our better restaurants and those restaurants that specialise in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food pairings.
The role is much more specialised and informed than that of a wine waiter, and in the finest restaurants, the role can be as important as that of the executive chef.
Most people's dealings with sommeliers are limited to a brief conversation at a restaurant table while trying to select a wine or finding a wine to go with their meal, but there is a lot more to the sommelier's job than pulling corks and describing wine.
The most important work of a sommelier is in the areas of wine procurement, wine storage, wine cellar rotation and providing expert service to the restaurant's clientele.
A sommelier's duties may also include taking responsibility for the development of the restaurant's wine list, which in itself can be a complex process and requires constant research and an excellent knowledge of wine and wine varietals. Rather than selecting a number of wines that take the sommelier's fancy or are his (or her) personal favourites - the restaurant's wine list must fulfil several important criteria, such as provide a balance with the food offering and also meet the affordability of the restaurant's patrons.
Apart from the long hours, the role can also be quite physical too with the sommelier having to receive incoming stock, check it against the order, and then move it into secure storage – either in boxes or into wine racks. A busy fine-dining restaurant could receive up to 30 boxes of wine and other beverages in a week, all of which have to be physically handled until its ultimate sale.
A sommelier may also be responsible for the training of other restaurant staff in the handling and serving of wines to the restaurant's customers.
Working with the culinary team, they also pair and suggest wines that will complement each particular food menu item. This necessitates a good knowledge of how food and wine, beer, spirits and other beverages work in harmony.
Every time a new wine is added to the list, the waiters and bar staff have to be introduced to it and learn what foods to match it with and how to describe it. Most wine lists are constantly evolving, so the training aspect of the job never stops.
Top sommeliers tend to be very talented people who have built up an enviable knowledge of the wines and vintages of the old and new worlds.
It takes several years to develop an accurate wine palate and to be able to identify the various wine varieties confidently.
In modern times, a sommelier's role may be considered broader than working only with wines and may encompass all aspects of the restaurant's service, with an enhanced focus on wines, beers, spirits, cocktails, non-alcoholic beverages and coffee.