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Battle of the somm: has Covid killed the sommelier?

With the pandemic having shuttered restaurants in England for a month, Lucy Shaw explores the shifting role of the sommelier, which many venues can no longer afford, and how a flexible approach will be key to their survival.

Has the traditional restaurant floor sommelier become an endangered species?

Last week The Court of Master Sommeliers Americas was embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal exposed by The New York Times that has led to the suspension of several of its members, an apology being issued, and an independent investigation into multiple accusations of sexual harassment and assault suffered by women taking the Master Sommelier Diploma.

The story highlights the drastic need for change within certain pockets of the wine industry, and how much work still needs to be done in order for it to be a sector that is celebrated for championing diversity and gender equality. The wine trade is having its own #metoo moment at a time when the role of the sommelier has never been more endangered.

With restaurants in England having been shuttered today for a month, every member of staff in the hospitality industry will have to justify their position in order to survive, and the traditional role of the sommelier entirely dedicated to fine tuning a restaurant’s wine list is increasingly being seen as a luxury few venues outside of five-star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants can afford.

Bert Blaize believes the era of the traditional sommelier is over

If the coronavirus crisis has taught us anything it’s the need to be able to adapt in order to survive. With restaurants around the world being forced into survival mode, the trade is having to rethink and refocus, and the sommeliers that keep hold of their jobs will be the ones that are malleable and willing to shape-shift into a new role that sees them taking on increasing responsibility on the restaurant floor.

While the role of the traditional sommelier still has a place in fine dining establishments, a number of forward-thinking London venues are recruiting general managers with a thirst for wine that take on both roles at once, while others are seeking out consultant sommeliers to put their wine lists together, happy to incur the initial upfront cost in order to save on having to pay the salary of a full-time head sommelier. At Noble Rot, which has sites in Bloomsbury and Soho, all of the waiting staff are so well versed in wine there is no need for a sommelier.

“The role of the sommelier has been changing for a long time. I think people are fed up of stuffy, out of touch, old school sommeliers. A lot of restaurant managers are taking on the role of wine buyer, which makes sense from a cost point of view,” believes Bert Blaize, who worked as assistant head sommelier at The Clove Club in Shoreditch then as head of wine The Mandrake Hotel in Fitzrovia before becoming a wine consultant. “Sommeliers were already endangered, maybe Covid is the final nail in the coffin.”

Blaize has seen a lot of his sommelier friends move into retail since the first UK lockdown in March. And, having had more time to spend at home with their families, and evenings and weekends off, many are seeking a better work-life balance than the relentless hours on the restaurant floor affords. Michael Sager of the wine-focused Sager + Wilde in Hackney thinks so. “A lot of sommeliers are no longer willing to work five nights a week. They’re into travel, food and freedom. Millennials want a work-life balance; money is not the key driver for them,” he says.

Blaize thinks the sommelier world may go down a similar route to the cocktail world, where the high profile names within the industry are recruited to curate wine lists in a similar way a top mixologist would put their signature stamp on a cocktail list. “I think we’re going to see the traditional role of the sommelier slowly disappear and be replaced with wine director positions and buying positions for restaurant groups,” says Blaize.

Consultant sommeliers like Honey Spencer are on the rise

Two such sommeliers who have pivoted to this new normal are Seamus Sharkey, the former head sommelier of The Ledbury, who is now group wine buyer for JKS Restaurants, and Clément Robert, formerly of 28°-50° and now the wine buyer for Caprice Holdings. Blaize believes it would be “incredibly sad” if the role of the somm did die out. With a smaller pool of people making buying decisions, it could strip the capital of the incredible diversity of wine lists it has become known for.

“If you get rid of all these grass roots sommelier roles it will be a bad thing. There’s a real art to recommending wines, and it will be incredibly sad if that skillset is lost. We need to empower young people to buy wines and put their own personality and expression into their lists. I’ve worked in restaurants where we’ve quadrupled sales of wine down to the sommelier – a good sommelier pays for themself and can be a reason to visit a restaurant,” says Blaize.

While he thinks the industry is changing, he’d like to see more diversity within the sommelier community, and for female sommeliers to be treated with the same respect as their male counterparts, which, he admits, isn’t always the case. “Kitchens have improved a lot in recent years but the sommelier community needs role models like Jan Konetzki to look up to. We need our own Ryan Chetiyawardana.”

Sager says he no longer has a sommelier at Sager + Wilde, with wine buying now looked after by the general manager. While the role of the sommelier is more embraced and celebrated in the US, France and Italy, Sager feels Brits aren’t so bothered about them. “In America they love tableside chat but British people don’t like to be sold at or sold to. I don’t know how most venues would be able to afford a sommelier right now,” he says.

Sager has seen the role of the sommelier shift at trendy east London venues like Leroy, Lyle’s and The Laughing Heart, where it’s down to the restaurant manager to buy the wine. “Outside of Michelin-starred venues and top hotels in central London, sommeliers have to multitask now, and are expected to take bookings, serve food and look after the front of house. None of us can afford to employ a sommelier that’s just a sommelier at the moment,” Sager says.

Michael Sager thinks GMs will become the wine buyers at many venues

Fine dining restaurants with troops of sommeliers now seem like a relic of the past, and a throwback to another era of dining. “When it opened, Davies and Brook at Claridge’s started out with seven sommeliers, they are down to four now,” Sager reveals.

While the outlook doesn’t look bright for sommeliers, Sager feels a shake up of the industry is overdue. “The sommelier culture is part of the chef culture that is quite military, hierarchical and driven by toxic masculinity. A breakdown of this system is a good thing, as we need a more fluid and malleable system. Sommeliers need to be curious and want to work hard or they’re at risk of becoming irrelevant.”

Like Blaize, Sager thinks we will soon usher in the era of the wine consultant, and see former restaurant floor sommeliers like Honey Spencer cherry picking wines for restaurant groups. “It’s all about access – to get the right wine, you need to know the right people and consultants can give you access to the right suppliers.”

While restaurants will always need wine buyers, Xavier Rousset of the Burgundy-focused Cabotte in the City, believes the role of the sommelier is shifting. “We’ve had to adapt as an industry during this crisis and I’ve seen a lot of sommeliers moving into consultancy roles and sommeliers on the restaurant floor taking on management roles. Spending all your time on wine isn’t realistic anymore,” says Rousset, who has seen a number of London-based somms move back to France to get into winemaking.

In tandem with the shifting role of the sommelier has been the shrinking of wine lists, as restaurants seek to streamline their wine offer to avoid their bottles gathering dust. Before reopening in July, Rousset reduced the wine list at Cabotte from 1,000 bins to around 750. Over the summer he noticed that people were playing it more safe with their wine choices rather than taking risks with unknown drops, reflecting the cautious mood brought about by the virus.

Before having to close again for lockdown 2.0, wines from classic regions and classic vintages were selling well, with producers like Henri Gouges, Ballot-Millot and Sylvain Cathiard proving popular. “I’m having to play it safe with my wine buying at the moment as I can’t afford to have things on my list that won’t sell just because they look good,” Rousset reveals.

Xavier Rousset has downsized his wine list at Cabotte

David Faber of wine merchant and restaurant supplier Connaught Cellars within Connaught Village near Hyde Park has found that restaurants are buying better value alternatives to classic regions from him.

“Restaurants are reducing the size of their wine lists and the number of suppliers they work with. We’ve been selling lots of Gatttinara as opposed to Barolo or Barbaresco. Wines from the satellite regions made with the same grape varieties as well-known regions are doing well with us, such as Puilly-Fume as opposed to Sancerre,” he says.

Charlie Stein, who looks after the wine at his dad Rick Stein’s restaurants in Cornwall and London, has dramatically slashed the number of wines on his lists. “Before lockdown we had 400 wines at our two main sites, which shrunk to 50 wines when we reopened in July, as we had a lot of stock that we needed to shift.

“The wine list was on a single sheet of paper and our sales mix ended up being a lot more broad as people were choosing older vintages of Bordeaux and Burgundy from our extended list that they wouldn’t usually get to,” says Stein, who has since built his wine lists back up to 100 bins.

He believes Covid has led to sommeliers having less freedom both in their role and their buying decisions. “When we reopened we took our sommeliers off the floor and moved them behind the bar in order to reduce their contact time with the diners,” he says.

While the role of the sommelier is becoming increasingly endangered, Rousset, Blaize and Sager agree that there will always be a place for big wine lists at specialist venues like 67 Pall Mall and Les 110 de Taillevent. “There will always be a place for beautiful, long, curated wine lists as there are wine lovers out there who will seek these places out and I don’t think Covid will change that,” says Blaize.

The role of the sommelier isn’t defunct, but in order to weather the Covid storm, somms will need to be open-minded, hard working and willing to adapt. “For sommeliers to justify their existence in a restaurant they will need to keep diversifying their role and be a jack of all trades. It’s survival mode at the moment until next summer,” says Blaize.

Rousset points out that it’s not only sommeliers who are having to take on more menial tasks, and the ones that will pull through the pandemic are those willing to muck in. “Head chefs are peeling potatoes and washing pans right now, so sommeliers will need to be flexible in order to survive.”

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