While wine bars reacted to Covid-19 emergency lockdown restrictions (relatively) easily, sommeliers in restaurants have dug deep to continue connecting diners to wine and other drinks. Many establishments are only open for delivery, while others in more advanced recovery phases are operating with limited capacities. But beyond the obvious difficulty of sampling vintages while sporting a surgical mask, where do sommeliers stand in the 'new normal’?
Still operating in delivery mode, Diego Vásquez of Central in Lima, Peru, relies on his phone to recommend clients ordering a Virgilio Martínez and Pía León takeout a vintage from the 600-label cellar. “We have two direct ways of contact. Either giving our client an assessment on the phone or presenting a wine face-to-face, given that the same five-sommelier team now undertakes delivery,” said the head sommelier.
Around the world, restaurants have started resuming service with safety protocols and limited capacity. Fine-dining restaurants in particular depend on sommeliers as key front-of-house workers to create a seamless link between the kitchen and the table. Paz Levinson, cheffe sommelière exécutive at Group Pic’s ten establishments, continued training her teams during lockdown via online tastings and virtual visits to wineries. Then she had to quickly adapt to serving the public in France’s next recovery phase.
“We’ve reopened some restaurants and there’s lots more al fresco dining happening on Paris’ streets,” she said. “We still leave a physical wine list on the table, but it’s also available online or with a QR code, should diners prefer not to touch it. And while we wear gloves, we avoid touching everything as much as possible. Anne-Sophie Pic worked with a perfumier to create a more appealing hand sanitiser.”
Paz Levinson, photo by Alys Thomas
Gaggan in Bangkok is also operating with limited capacity, and sommelier Vladimir Kojic has commandeered the emoji menu, for which the Indian chef is known, for his wine list. “We want to keep people entertained because it’s not easy to speak through a mask, so we created a new interactive menu. Each guest receives a pen and paper to write down their menu, whatever they feel like eating and drinking, and each course has an emoji sticker. For example, we start the pairing with bubbles so ✨ matches the first wine,” he said.
A key function in service is opening and sampling a wine at the table. So how is that possible in a surgical mask? Pablo Rivero, owner and sommelier at Don Julio in Buenos Aires, whose innovative online wine store La Cava categorises vintages according to the Winkler Scale, said: “Ordering wine in a restaurant implies trying and accepting it, reaching an agreement with the sommelier and approving their recommendation. I think a new protocol will be applied, but let’s not forget that service itself is a protocol; it’s a question of adapting it to these exceptional circumstances.”