A Breakdown of 'SOMMELIER' (part 2)

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Following his last column, Chinese sommelier LU Yang continues to talk about the abilities and qualities that needed to be a professional sommelier.

Medal of the Best Sommelier in the World Award 2010 won by Gerard Basset MW MS OBE
Image: Medal of the Best Sommelier in the World Award 2010 won by Gerard Basset MW MS OBE

E – Education

If providing service and operating the restaurant is the basic of being a sommelier, then pursuing academic progress to be more competitive is an important step before becoming a more successful sommelier. The world of wine is so vast, profound and constantly updating; the sommeliers need to have the desire for new knowledge and to keep studying.

Moreover, the sommeliers need to frequently practise their tasting skills in order to better understand the wines. They also need to have some knowledge about other beverages, such as spirits, cocktails, sake, coffee and tea. The catering industry is another area the sommeliers need to pay attention to: they need to learn the basic knowledge of different cuisines and catch up the latest trends.

Many sommeliers aim to acquire the title of Master Sommelier. In the wine world, Master Sommelier is one of the two top certificates (the other one is Master of Wine). It is arguably the highest academic achievement a sommelier could possibly achieve; and in a few decades. it has been granted to only 200 people in the world.

There is a reason for this: in order to achieve this goal, you would need to invest a huge amount of time, money and energy, treat the study process as a ‘full-time job’ in your spare time, and sacrifice personal hobbies, family life, friends gathering and more. However, even if you accomplish all these, the chance for you to pass the exams is still slim. The process, of course, is much more important than the result. So the knowledge and skills one gets from the preparation of the Master Sommelier exam is definitely more meaningful. And I hope one day we will have our own Master Sommelier in China.

L – Leadership

The sommeliers have a rather special status in hotels and restaurants. In most cases, the sommeliers are the ‘one-person’ team in the wine department; their positions would normally be manager level, but their salaries would be a bit higher than their fellow colleagues. And because sommelierie is such a new occupation, many colleagues do not understand its significance, nor what the sommeliers are doing, and even question the meaning of their existence. I think many of my fellow sommeliers had encountered such problems.

We cannot change other people’s minds, but we can do our best at work. Therefore, the sommeliers need to show leadership – working conscientiously, helping colleagues, providing more enjoyable dining experience to the guests, bring real economic benefits to the restaurants and hotels. These efforts will help the sommeliers show their importance and particularity to the catering industry.

Chinese sommelier LI Meiyu
Image: Chinese sommelier LI Meiyu

Building the internal wine team and offering staff training are also crucial to the role of sommelier. It is not just a part of the leadership, but also an essential precondition for increasing the service quality and the beverage revenue. LI Meiyu at Park Hyatt Beijing is a very good example in this respect. I remember once I was having dinner at the hotel, and overheard two of the head waitresses asking each other wine questions when they were not busy. I said to Niki, the head waitress who was serving me, ‘you two study really hard.’ She replied, ‘Meiyu always works and studies hard and is conscientious. We would feel guilty if we don’t.’ If all the sommeliers could lead their team like Meiyu did, we will have the best sommelier in the world in ten years’ time.

I – Innovation

The sommeliers need innovative ideas, open-minded and divergent thinking and even some spirit of adventure. With the innovative ideas, they could humbly try different styles of wine, accept and try to understand the diverse wine concept. It works the same in the area of food and wine matching, especially Chinese food and wine pairing. This is a new topic to anyone; we, as the first generation of Chinese sommeliers, should make more effort, and develop our own originality. Innovative ideas and styles are also essential at work, for they could help us to make rational yet characteristic wine lists, to design distinctive wine events, to propose new ideas for the business, thereby to bring better selling points and benefits to the hotels and restaurants.

E – Ethics

The sommeliers must obey the code of ethics and persist in honest professional quality. When dealing with the suppliers and importers, the sommeliers are at the buyer’s position; and in a highly competitive market like China, the buyers are always at an advantage. But this doesn’t mean the sommeliers could put forward unreasonable requests. Due to the pressure coming from the market, some suppliers might offer benefits that are against the code of ethics – could be money, gifts or something else, but the sommeliers absolutely can’t accept them.

The longer you work in the industry, the more suppliers you would meet; some of them would be your friends, others wouldn’t because of personality clashes, but we shouldn’t let private friendship affect the interests of the company. Please remember, as the sommelier, we should always put wine in front of ourselves. When facing the guests, there are also codes of ethics for the sommeliers: we should not deliberately cheat the guests, or overcharge them, or secretly replace the beverage etc. – these actions might bring high profit to the hotels or restaurants for a day, but in the long term, these are definitely self-destructive actions, and will harm the reputation of the employer and the sommelier industry.

R – Respect

As a sommelier, we provide a kind of service, thus we should respect our guests: respect their preferences, rights and privacy. ‘The customer is God’ is not just a saying. Moreover, what sommeliers do is just bring the guests the wine under its most perfect condition; in other words, the sommeliers are just the transmitters of the wines, so we should respect the creators of the wines – the wine growers and winemakers.

Also, the sommeliers do not exist independently in the wine and catering industries; we receive a lot of help and influence from our colleagues, thus we should respect other colleagues at the hotels and restaurants, the suppliers, the press and fellow sommeliers. And as a sommelier, we all love the delicious and complex beverage – the wines – therefore we should respect the wines, give them good storage conditions, and use our skills to present their best conditions. Furthermore, we have all experienced pride and joy from this job, and have obtained many opportunities, so we should also respect the title of ‘sommelier’, and make our own contribution to the development of this occupation.

The above nine words, in this column and my previous column, are my understanding of what it is to be a ‘sommelier’. As one of the first generation of Chinese sommeliers, I love my job, and study and grow with my peers. We all hope there will be more professional sommeliers in China, the profession will have more impact in the society, and have a bright future in the Chinese wine scene.

Translated by Nina Fan Feng / 冯帆

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