What is a sommelier?

I guess for many South Africans, sommelier is a word they’d have difficulty pronouncing let alone pinning down to a specific meaning.

Indeed, in one sense what it means depends on where you look. Chambers Dictionary sommelier-cup-banneroffers ‘a butler’ or ‘wine waiter’, while The Court of Master Sommeliers (www.courtofmastersommeliers.org) gives a wealth of detail, variously: a Master Sommelier (the highest qualification) is a professional beverage manager able to control an efficient, profitable beverage service. When choosing wines and other drinks, customers know they can follow your advice with confidence. A Master Sommelier is also a wine expert, a qualified taster who can pass on knowledge to colleagues. He or she is committed to the very highest standards of service and quality customer care and to help others achieve the same levels of excellence. Importantly, too a Master Sommelier is a salesman; under his or her guidance, wine service improves and helps to raise standards of food service throughout the hospitality industry. And so on.

An MS might be the pinnacle of qualifications, but the steps there – Introductory Sommelier Certificate, Certified Sommelier, Advanced Sommelier – also embrace such objectives.

As a very young, evolving body, the Sommeliers Association of South Africa (www.sommeliers.org.za), founded in 2010, identified education as a key priority from the start. Two sommelier training courses of an eventual three have been developed and run with the third due to be held in 2017. In conjunction with these courses, SASA applied for and was accepted for observation membership with the International Sommelier Association, meaning their courses will be internationally accredited and the standards set recognised. A small step but an encouraging one in the right direction.

But what I particularly like about SASA is their vision as declared on their website: ‘The Sommeliers Association of South Africa is dedicated to the discipline, art and love of Wine and Spirits. The aim of the association is to ensure that South Africa has it’s (sic) own professional board who shares the joy and energy of wines and spirits.’

‘Love’, ‘joy’; ah, at last, how encouraging to read those two words. After watching the three finalists going through their paces at the Wines of South Africa Sommelier Cup last week, I wouldn’t have automatically associated ‘love’ and ‘joy’ with their performance, though to be fair they were under intense pressure and, to be fair again, the image of the sommelier has changed for the better over the past 10 to 15 years. In various parts of the world, I’ve come across some very supercilious sommeliers, rather keener to show off their skills and knowledge than interact with me as a wine loving customer. Today, all the way up the scale and even at Michelin star restaurants, there’s a more relaxed approach and helpful interaction between sommeliers and customers. Today, one gets the feeling they actually want one to enjoy the wine (and the evening, or lunch).

Eight finalists in WOSA Sommelier Cup 2016
Eight finalists in WOSA Sommelier Cup 2016

If I have one, perhaps carping comment of Germany’s Marc Almert, the individual winner of the Sommelier Cup, it is that he could have been a little less intense. He’s frighteningly confident, efficient and knowledgeable, still only 25 with the Certified Sommelier Certificate already under his belt and a bright future ahead. He’s currently employed by Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten and responsible for the wine programme of a dozen outlets including the two star Michelin restaurant Haerlin. His accomplishments are undeniably worthy of such positions.

Very few local restaurants, even when they compile their own wine list or it’s done for them by an independent (rather than one of the big companies, who throw in the all the extras), have the space or finances to create a library of vintages. Good service, let alone sufficient knowledge of wine and pairing it with food has long way to go, despite the ongoing efforts of SASA.

We don’t need Master Sommeliers, at least not as the immediate goal; we’ve got excellent self-taught sommeliers (however one wants to interpret the term), at many of South Africa’s top restaurants: Tinashe Nyamudoka at The Test Kitchen, one of the San Pellegrino’s World Top 50 Restaurants; Tongai Joseph Dhafana from La Colombe, regularly top restaurant in South Africa and Gregory Mutambe at The 12 Apostles another in the top ranks. It so happens all these gentlemen are from Zimbabwe, but ladies and locals are also finding a home in the hospitality industry and joining SASA.

The point was made at the Sommelier Cup that Marc Almert might be the individual winner but that but South African wine is the overall winner; there was a total of 280 entries from the eight countries or regions where the event was held; in other words South African wine now has a further 280 ambassadors working in the hospitality industry.
By including just one of the sommeliers from the top local restaurants mentioned above, it could have had a similar ripple effect as those 280 new ambassadors for South African wine. Something to think about for next time.

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L to R: Joe Yang (Macau), Ronan Sayburn MS (j), Jokaim Hansi Blackadder SASA (j), Higgo Jacobs SASA (j), Neil Grant SASA (MC), David Clarke SASA (j), Will Predhomme (Canada) (j), James Tidwell MS (USA) (j), Nathan Morrell (Canada), Marc Almert (Germany)
L to R: Joe Yang (Macau), Ronan Sayburn MS (j), Jokaim Hansi Blackadder SASA (j), Higgo Jacobs SASA (j), Neil Grant SASA (MC), David Clarke SASA (j), Will Predhomme (Canada) (j), James Tidwell MS (USA) (j), Nathan Morrell (Canada), Marc Almert (Germany)

The WOSA Sommelier Cup is held every three years, with the marketing body focusing on specific areas or countries from which sommeliers are invited to enter. This year, Kenya, where Geoffrey Kariuki was the first ever semi-finalist from Africa; Netherlands (Marijn Smit); Sweden (Erik Grödahl); Erik Simonics (UK); Cheron Cowan (USA), the first lady semi-finalist, as well as the three finalists: Joe Yang (Macau); Nathan Morrell (Canada) and Marc Almert (Germany).
Three international judges – Ronan Sayburn MS (UK), James Tidwell MS (USA) and Will Predhomme (Canada, the winner of the previous Sommelier Cup) – were joined by local SASA members Higgo Jacobs, SASA chair; David Clarke and Joakim Hansi Blackadder.

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