I often wonder why we Indians, especially in the media, hospitality and wine industry, are so obsessed with the word Sommelier. Whether it is a wine related analysis in a national newspaper, an article in a lifestyle magazine or myriad of profiles on social media and professional network websites, it seems to be omnipresent. Not that there is anything wrong with this obsession but the way it is frequently used is the contentious part.
With a few genuine exceptions, it is an inappropriately overused term which often overlooks the specialist nature of a Sommelier’s role in the contemporary wine and hospitality business. Why is this so? Is it because it comes across as a ‘posh’ (as one of my friends recently suggested), in-vogue and highly saleable jargon or simply because its blatant and rampant use as a tool for self-branding has struck a positive note with the masses and media in large? In my view it is a mix of all these plus an easy way of influencing a young and nascent wine culture. The fact that it is a French word makes it more chic, probably!
Mind you, when used correctly and thoughtfully, the usage of the word Sommelier should only be reserved for wine professionals with requisite credentials and/or training. It shouldn’t be an honorary title but a professional designation. Also, one has to earn a Sommelier’s position, not just claim to be one. I have come across many instances where the concept of a Sommelier is awfully misrepresented – whether it is to describe anyone who conducts wine sampling sessions to even untrained F&B professionals in five-star hotels who pour wine on the table. Whilst they may not be able to perform any other tasks expected of a professional Sommelier, a capable Sommelier on the other hand will be able to carry out both the tasks effortlessly, in addition to all other specialized roles he/she is trained to do.
I have also recently come across another media speak used for describing Sommeliers, and once again it is not representative of a Sommelier’s complete profile. I am referring to the term ‘Wine Taster’. Whilst tasting a wine to deduce information about it is just a part of a Sommelier’s overall repertoire, it is amateurish (and misleading, to some extent) to use the term to portray professional Sommeliers.
So, who is a Sommelier?
First of all, a formal training is a must which can be acquired from professional Sommelier organisations like the Court of Master Sommeliers. This is a vital differentiator which separates the wheat from the chaff. Engage in a serious wine talk with the wine guy during your next dinner out and you will know what I mean. A genuine Sommelier will be authoritative, confident and most importantly will be highly knowledgeable (but modest) about the world of wine and beverages.
Those who do not have a formal qualification can also be in the league of professional Sommeliers provided they have undergone an extensive training and mentorship program under a duly certified and experienced Sommelier, and are directly responsible for influencing the wine program of their hotel/restaurant.
Apart from the mandatory training and qualification, a professional Sommelier should also be able to skillfully perform the following:
- Offer expert wine advice and service to customers in a fine-dining environment
- Pair wine and food thoughtfully and ensuring perfect harmony between the two
- Conduct effective wine sampling and training sessions
- Create effective wine lists
- Conduct profitable wine promotions
- Be at ease with inventory management, wine storage requirements and cellaring techniques
- Be efficient in costing, forecasting and ordering and other beverage control specifications
- Be abreast with the latest trends in the wine industry, especially vintage conditions in different parts of the wine world
- Be adequately informed about other beverages and cigars (if it is a part of the establishment’s offerings)
I am often referred to as a Sommelier and as much as I like to be called one, I have to be honest in admitting that there are occasions when I feel more comfortable to be known simply as a wine professional. This at least ensures that I do not fall into the category of media created and self-proclaimed Sommeliers.