The wine list, sir?

Right, who can tell me what is wrong with that title?

Today, it’s not unusual to find women hosting dinners in restaurants; in this case, it would be a bad slip-up to offer the winelist to a male in the party, simply because of his gender.

Much has changed – and for the good – in the world of sommeliers, so it’s dangerous to pre-suppose ‘sir’ is the correct person to ask whether he’d like the wine list.

How do sommeliers or wine service staff (they are not one and the same) approach this sometimes delicate matter? This was one of the questions I asked Neil Grant, an executive member of South African Sommelier Association and one of three members judging the finals of this year’s Bollinger Exceptional Wine Service Award.

The safe answer, unless it is very obvious, is to enquire who would like the wine list.

Even though the stuffiness and snooty superiority has disappeared from the sommelier scene – well, I guess most of it has – that doesn’t mean standards have been lowered. Far from it, as I witnessed during the three finalists’ practical wine service part of this award.

But first a bit of background. The award, now in its third year, was established by Vinimark, distributors of Bollinger Champagne in South Africa and sponsored by that company with infrastructural support from Riedel glassware. Quite simply, the goal is to encourage high standards of wine service to match the quality of our food and wines and to reognise ‘the achievements of the growing group of professional wine waiters in South Africa’, as the website explains.

Among the criteria for entrants is ‘the ability of those selling wine in the hospitality industry to relate what is produced in South Africa to the expectations of international visitors more familiar with the major wine producing regions of the world.’ They have to have worked in the hospitality industry in the service of food and wine for three years, have a substantial knowledge of local wines, also adequate knowledge of international appellations and styles of wine. So not a competition for chancers. In fact, Ginette de Fleuriot, Vinimark’s Marketing Manager, tells me the number of entries has decreased over the three years because aspiring entrants didn’t realise how high are standards.

Finalists, Kayetan Meissner & Xolani Mancotywa (Barry Scholfield had to get back to work)
Finalists, Kayetan Meissner & Xolani Mancotywa (Barry Scholfield had to get back to work)

The upside of this is that the quality of this year’s 50 entries was much higher but looking at the three finalists, there is a common thread in the establishments they work for. Kayetan Meissner is sommelier at Paarl’s Grande Roche, Xolani Mancotywa is sommelier at The Saxon in Johannesburg and Barry Scholfield is assistant sommerlier at Rust en Vrede Restaurant in Stellenbosch. All three are fine dining places, focussing on European classic dishes.

Given South Africa’s culture of foods from around the world – Italian, Chinese, Thai, Malay, Indian – and restaurants devoted to them, sommeliers from such establishments are notable by their absence. The previous two winners of the Bollinger Wine Service Award were from similar fine dining restaurants as this year’s finalists. Of course, the sommeliers need the support of their employers, but broadening the spectrum of dining places represented on this competition can only benefit South African diners and our quality wine producers.

In the same vein, a wider spread of areas need representation; Cape Town and Johannesburg dominate in terms of all finalists and probably of entries generally.

That interlude, before going on to the practical wine service, represents the delicious lunch at Ellerman House, where the finals were held. This is a guest house/hotel where class comes naturally, as does unfussy yet well prepared food. I think I and the other guests probably enjoyed it more than the contestants; Barry, sitting next to me, was notably quiet!

Their wine service task was to greet four ‘guests’ (judges, Neil Grant, Higgo Jacobs and Kent Sheermeyer executive members of SASA and Ginette de Fleuriot), open a magnum of Villiera Brut, pour four glasses for the ‘guests’ then a further 12 glasses for guests yet to arrive – all to the same level and leaving an empty bottle (try it, it’s not easy!) – then transfer the extra 12 glasses to another table. All the niceties, such as showing the host the bottle, were also required. At the same time, they were asked about the wine, Villiera Estate and food and wine matching; oh, and Neil dropped his napkin. This had to be noted and replaced with a clean one. The whole task had to be completed in a maximum of six minutes! The judges were very careful to keep to the same routine for each contestant, so each could be judged on the same criteria.

Taking nerves into account, I was impressed with the aplomb with which each sommelier greeted the four, offered information on the wine (in Xolani’s case, he’s a walking encyclopaedia!) and food suggestions, including vegetarian for Ginette. Each had positive points in their service, each had slip ups – it’s not necessary to remark on those, as much can be put down to nerves, as these gentlemen are, after all, already in service in very smart establishments.

As this was only one, albeit the most important part of the competition (theory and blind tasting had been held earlier in the day), it would be unwise for those of us who attended merely the wine service to judge the winner on that. This must wait until 31st October, when the winner will be announced at the Queen Victoria Hotel.

I cannot sign off this story without saying a bit about the South African Sommelier Association. Established in 2010 by a group of sommeliers with international as well as local experience, their goal is to uplift and promote the service of wine in South Africa. They are, thankfully, uncompromising in their standards (very high), as I witnessed at the judging but are also a bunch of genuine enthusiasts. It is really good news for South Africa that they have both formed this association and are so closely involved with the Bollinger Exceptional Wine Service Award.

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