Super somms: Gerard Basset and Ronan Sayburn

Intense competition

Gerard Basset winning the World’s Best Sommelier competition in Chile in 2010

In the past year, intense competition and rising rents have forced many restaurants into administration, including Gaucho, Villandry and longstanding Soho haunt The Gay Hussar. Given London’s heavily tilted European workforce, a growing staff shortage because of Brexit is also a concern, especially when there remains a notable lack of UK sommeliers.

“In England people don’t always look at the catering industry as a long-term career, whereas on the continent, in Italy and France, they do,” says Sayburn. “That’s changing, with things like the MS and diploma, as it gives you a focus, but English sommeliers tend to work as a barman or waiter and then move into restaurant management. We have Dutch, Chinese, Spanish, French and Greek sommeliers – a large international and European staff. It’s a shame we can’t get more British sommeliers.”

Irrespective of ongoing commercial challenges, London remains one of the best cities in the world to work in wine, with the UK industry “the strongest it’s ever been”, according to Sayburn. “Until recently, we never made our own wine, so we had to buy it from everywhere. Cities like Paris are lovely, but you will only get French wines there. In London you have everything, which makes it an exciting place to work.”

What does it take to make it as a sommelier in London? A good knowledge of wine, of course, but also a head for numbers and commercial acumen, says Basset. “You need to know how to sell, and be good with Excel spreadsheets,” he says. “You need to have a commercial mind, and buy wine that will sell well at the right price. Sometimes sommeliers are either too commercial or not at all. Sommeliers need to understand what their guests want and not impose their tastes, or their idea of what the customer should spend, upon them.”

Exemplifying this unbecoming habit, Basset notes the need for sommeliers to be aware of wine trends, even if they are of a strange hue. “Georgian wines and orange wines are very trendy now, and I have also seen news of a blue wine. I wouldn’t rush to have one, but if more guests were asking you for a blue wine, you might start to think there was an opportunity there. If they want blue wine, I give them blue wine. You don’t open a restaurant for yourself; it’s to make money, and that’s based around making your guests happy and giving them a good experience. If you lecture them and say that wine shouldn’t be blue then they won’t come back – I’m not there to judge.”

Snooty sommeliers

Does the stereotype of the snobby sommelier still exist? Basset is frank: “It has changed, but with any profession you get nice people and stupid people. When you meet a snooty sommelier, and they do exist, it’s a shame because most people who become sommeliers are passionate about wine. Sometimes the problem is that they are too passionate about wine, and they think more about the product than the people.” Likewise, Sayburn is clear on the need to be able to impart wisdom in a way that is not patronising or condescending. “It’s about accruing knowledge but delivering it in a positive way. You hear about extremely rude sommeliers that have a vast knowledge and think that they are great at their job, but have no customer skills. It’s like having an amazing sports car with no tyres.”

Removing the snobbery around wine is something that 67 Pall Mall, despite its illustrious setting and high-end list, has sought to do from the start. It is filmmaker Ridley Scott that members have to thank for its policy of allowing “smart jeans”. Sayburn says Scott insisted the club allow denim in its premises, or he wouldn’t join. Today, the club, founded by ex-banker Grant Ashton, has 3,000 members and a 5,000-strong wine list that is set to grow. It’s the kind of place where you can order a burger with a glass of 1964 Latour or £7 Croatian Malvasia, and there are no prizes for sommeliers who get a member to trade up. “People have this perception that sommeliers work on commission and are trying to upsell,” laments Sayburn. “I have never known them to work on commission. There is no agenda.”

Keeping margins fair is also key at 67 Pall Mall. Taking a 1989 Haut Brion as an example, Sayburn posits that he might buy it in for around £1,000 plus tax, and sell it for £1,450, taking a 20% margin. “Most restaurants would add 75% as standard and sell it for £4,000,” he says. “We add tax then 20%, so that’s £1,450. Working on that model is the whole principal of this place. There’s only so much fine wine made in the world every year and that stock gets replaced every year. It sits in caves and waits for a special occasion. We wanted to have a place that was well priced where people could drink good quality wines on a regular basis.”

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