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Sommeliers get a Taste of the 'New Normal'

10 July, 2020

Wine economics

Despite 2020’s gloomy headlines, it’s a good time for aficionados to bolster personal cellars, and it was a no-brainer for wine bars such as London’s Sager + Wilde to start releasing collectibles. While purchasing cases from a restaurant might not ordinarily be your first port of call, these are not ordinary times, and many sommeliers are converting prized cellars into wine shops. Snapping up bargains might sound ruthless, but buying enough cases of Rías Baixas to see you through summer actually creates a virtuous circle, helping establishments to shift stock and stay afloat.

Such purchases help to manage fixed costs, said Laura Hernández-Espinosa, sommelier at Bogotá restaurant LEO. “We needed to generate a way of covering our overheads, so first, we created Mi casa en tu casa, an Asian-inspired delivery-only menu, and second, I’ve put a fantastic selection of wines at the disposal of our clients at very accessible prices, many at cost.”

Although a ‘bargain’ Château Latour 2000 might still be beyond most people’s means, it’s worth checking out markdowns across the spectrum, especially if you’re feeling the pinch. Jonathan Charnay, beverage director at Manhattan’s Masa Restaurant, said of the trend he’s seeing in New York City: “The type of wines people are buying has shifted from middle and high-end to the entry level category. Many wine directors have come up with lists with heavily discounted options, keeping in mind lots of guests are receiving unemployment benefits and are anxious about their financial stability.”

So, how will the sommelier’s role change? Don Julio’s Rivero believes the profession will become more human. “Sommeliers can help diners travel to places, via aromas and flavours of wines – and that’s important, as people will probably fly less. We have the opportunity to present a more human point of contact to clients.”

Looking to the immediate future, sommeliers’ knowledge, impressive service capabilities and the personal touch will continue to conquer, harmonised with hand sanitiser and a corkscrew. Continued education is key, and while the WSET wine institute rather frustratingly postponed Diploma exams for a year, there are other ways to keep learning. Vincenzo Donatiello of Piazza Duomo in Alba, Italy, appreciated working from home to cook the books and uncork vintages from his personal collection. He said: “This situation gave me something that I had been missing for years: time. I discovered I had accumulated a huge library on wine and today I can say I had the necessary time to enjoy it.”

But the scarce opportunities for travel also weigh heavily. Central’s Vásquez adds: “I hope we can get back to travelling like we did because it’s important sommeliers travel and keep learning about what’s going on around the world.”

While some restaurants have taken unexpected moves – such as 106 in Copenhagen, which ditched its harmonised tasting menu to offer a more relaxed dining experience including by-the-glass options, and Madrid’s La Tasquita de Enfrente, which reduced its 200-strong list to just 17 in a bid to encourage clients to BYOB, ensuring minimal table intervention – Jonathan Charnay is convinced sommeliers have a future. “It’s important for upscale restaurants to have sommeliers, and the most obvious reason is the need to create a beverage list that is balanced in terms of styles and pricing. In addition, it’s crucial to work with the chef to offer beverages that will honour the food being served.” 

Jonathan Charnay sommelier

Jonathan Charnay, photo courtesy of Jonathan Charnay.

But perhaps most important is the personal connection and relationships sommeliers generate. “Sommeliers can connect with guests who are passionate about wine, such as collectors who are interested in specific vintages and producers. A good sommelier can provide all that information and accurately describe the state of the wines. Sommeliers earn the trust of wine enthusiasts, providing guest satisfaction and creating loyal customers,” Charnay added.

Rivero is in agreement: “I think the ‘new future’ will benefit sommeliers more than ever as we will be more intrinsically linked to service, working closer with runners and bar staff and being in closer contact at the table. Being a sommelier is about being a wine waiter and that art is often lost – it’s a step forward to be on a par with their waiter colleagues. Perhaps sommeliers are viewed as more professional than waiters, but it all adds up to better service, because the best sommelier is the best waiter.”

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