From curiosity to empathy, here is a list of the essential characteristics a sommelier should have.

The contemporary sommelier

The role of the sommelier is rapidly evolving. The role is changing, as is the definition and the context in which the somm moves. In fact, the typical formalism of hotel dining and a certain type of restaurant that is now unpopular worldwide, is disappearing. Today’s figure is a fully trained professional, who’s not only agile among the piles of wines in the cellar, but also able to communicate choices inside and outside the restaurant, attentive to the taste of others. We have drawn up a handbook to deepen some essential aspects of the profession today. These are are 10 key points that we consider when we deliver the Villa Sandi Contemporary Wine List Award in our Top Italian Restaurants guide.

1 Curiosity. It is at the base of many professional figures but today more than ever a sommelier must be equipped with a high amount of curiosity, to expand the wine list, to update it, to choose wines that attract customers’ attention in an increasingly competitive market. Today the consumer has access to a portfolio that has never been so large, the sommelier must be able to draw a passionate synthesis of it.

2 Empathy. For years we were exposed to the sommelier-penguin, endowed with curious and ingenious tools at the table, crammed into the stereotype of a character who plays a formal script. The sommelier, also considering the evolution of restaurant dining, must be in tune with customers, read the person, get on a new level, below and no longer above. A smile and an appropriate joke do more than lengthy explanations.

3 No more red marker. We have often observed in the figure of the sommelier a certain obsession with teaching, instead of telling the story of a wine, there was almost always an explanation of what one should and shouldn’t taste/smell, do or not do with the glass. The sommelier is not a professor but someone who must add value, an emotion to the wine that is being served. Lessons are held in another location.

4 Markups. Today more than ever consumers are not willing to accept 500% markups from the ex-cellar price, in an instant customers are able to know information about the wine. In short, it takes common sense and a careful study of the market to understand the opportunities and what room there is for maneuver. Especially when making wine suggestions at the table, always give complete information at least by price range: the final surprise on the bill is nothing more than a boomerang.

5 Technical yet accessible verbiage. This also applies to the entire trade press, a challenge that is anything but easy. But nowadays it’s necessary to articulate precise information in an understandable, fun and concise way. Most of the people you will find in front of you will know very little about that wine, it is up to the sommelier to steer choices with a few comments or anecdotes.

6 What’s with the alcohol obsession? Sharing the alcohol content as part of the initial information is a real obsession for some sommelier schools. It’s as if it were a synonym of quality or something. This wine has 13.5% alcohol: so what? We do not become better people if we know the percentages, tell us something else, rather: a metaphor, a quote from the producer, a case in point example!

7 Pairing. First of all, people at the table want to feel good and have fun. And who cares if sometimes the food-wine pairing is not perfect. Better a pairing that makes you discuss, but also laughs, over something that has been seen, read and tried a thousand times!

8 The bottle. It is very good to maintain the rule of showing the customer the bottle before serving, and indicating the vintage. But sometimes it’s also fine to leave it on the table and allow customers the pleasure of serving their loved one/dining companion directly. We’ve witnessed scenes of sommeliers who forcefully remove the bottle from the table, as if they were the only ones qualified to touch the bottle: but why!!?!! In short, just a little common sense.

9 Wine by the glass. Pouring wine by the glass is the driving force behind a wine list, it shines a light on its character and its rhythm. In many restaurants wine is furthermore not poured at the table or at the counter (in bars), rather brought to the table already in the glass: nothing instills more skepticism and doubt in the customer. Wine by the glass must always be served in front of the consumers’ eyes and the choice to let them taste a test sample is always a much appreciated gesture.

  1. Serving temperature. We left this aspect as the last, precisely because of how fundamental it is. Remember: room temperature does not exist!! Reds at room temperature are no longer acceptable, serving them should be punished by law. Some whites, structured or more so macerated, cannot be served icy straight from the refrigerator. These are details that make the real difference. In short, the sommelier today must be all in all a wine thermometer!

 

by Lorenzo Ruggeri

 

 

You can find out more about the Villa Sandi Contemporary Wine List Award here

Read previous installments of the series:

How To build a contemporary wine list

Everything you need to know about the Italian Method

Bubbles as a lifestyle

How to cook with wine

The real enemies of wine at the table

Find out more about the Italian method

The Villa Sandi Contemporary Wine List Award

The Villa Sandi Contemporary Wine List Award is the prize we reserve for the most current, brilliant and user-friendly wine lists in our Top Italian Restaurants guide, dedicated to the best of Italian dining in the world. While waiting to resume awarding venues around the world, we’re offering an educational journey through the multi-colour ‘Jurassic Park’ that is Italian viticulture. We’re proposing a series of themes, with practical advice and suggestions, published every week on our international website www.gamberorossointernational.com