Grape expectations

sommelierIn a land where BYO is considered the majority rule, just how does the sommelier fit into the modern restaurant business strategy? By John Burfitt.

When it comes to the need for a sommelier in the modern Australian restaurant, there is some dilemma over just how essential their services really are. Sommeliers Australia defines the role of a sommelier in fine dining as, ‘strategically on a par with that of the executive chef or chef de cuisine. A professional sommelier also works on the floor of the restaurant and is in direct contact with restaurant patrons. The sommelier has a responsibility to work within the taste preference and budget parameters of the patron’. Which is why a sommelier is an essential in fine dining restaurants like Manfredi at Bells and Balla at The Star, says Julie Manfredi Hughes. “It is a very hard, very comprehensive job,” she says. “You need a good chef to look after the food and create a menu and a good sommelier to look after the wine and create a wine list. It really is that simple. “If wine is an important part of what you do and you want to create interesting taste matching experiences for your guests, then you need a sommelier.” While needing a staff member with knowledge to tell the difference between a pinot grigo and pinot gris and who knows their cabernet sauvignon from their sauvignon blanc, industry consultant Ken Burgin of Profitable Hospitality isn’t convinced the need for the services of a sommelier is a straightforward decision. “Australia is very much a BYO country, which means a wine list of breadth and depth is not often needed in mid-scale or casual restaurants, and that limits the opportunities for sommelier work,” he says. “A sommelier will be of benefit if the business has made a solid commitment to having their wine list as a point of difference. Otherwise, I am not so sure of their importance.” For Chris Pye of Best Western Premier’s Terrace Hotel restaurant in Perth, it comes down to having a sommelier, Antonio Vilaca, who knows exactly what is on the menu, and to advise the staff on how to sell that to customers. In terms of needing a sommelier, Pye believes appointing a consultant can be a good move for smaller and mid-range businesses. “All restaurants that serve a reasonable number of different wines need a sommelier, even if they cannot afford to have someone full time,” Pye says. “They should spend what they can afford to get a sommelier to visit their venue regularly to train them and their wait-staff and encourage one of their people to take an interest and to eventually become a sommelier.” For small businesses, Julie Manfredi Hughes suggests combining sommelier responsibilities with another staff role can be a good way to approach division of duties. “It can easily be amalgamated with another role, like the manager or the maître d’,” she adds. “When we were just starting out, Stefano took on that role and as we grew, we were able to create a sommelier position and build a wine team.” Making such a staffing investment always needs to be a part of a bigger business strategy. For Gemma Gange of Melbourne’s Woodland House, having their sommelier, Roman Jaen, on the team is part of such a plan. “Obviously, there is the sales point of view in having someone with specific product knowledge to both drive sales and enhance the customer experience,” Gange says. “There is also the move to develop and build a cellar and wine list that is in harmony with the cuisine. Most industry people with a basic knowledge can select wine for a list but we feel it requires expertise to be in sync with the chefs cuisine and philosophy.” A commitment to better training and knowledge of staff is always a smart move, agrees Ken Burgin. “Any business that sells wine can do better if staff are knowledgeable and confident in their recommendations. Their training skills might be more important than even cellar selection in mid-sale or casual restaurants.” So whether the sommelier is a stand-alone role, part of a staff member’s portfolio or a casual contractor, their worth seems invaluable. But for the manager or owner who only has general wine knowledge, understanding what is happening within the wine department can prove to be one big grey area. Not to mention measuring just how effective the sommelier really is. Knowing what the figures were before the sommelier started and after they came on board is one good way to work, explains Ken Burgin. “If there’s a pre-sommelier benchmark of wine sales per head, that would be useful,” Burgin says. “The per-head spend is one of the most critical figures. “Profitable wine events, including those funded or subsidised by suppliers, also show areas of development.” Julie Manfredi Hughes says it needs to be a matter of keeping a close eye on the spreadsheets at the end of each quarter. “When you look at the P&L [profit and loss] costs, the sommelier is the one whose reputation is on the line to answer to all those beverage costs,” she says. “But in business, do you measure the bottom line or the smaller things? The way the sommelier has to answer that should be no different to the way the head chef or the manager does.” In any areas of confusion, nothing more complex than asking direct questions should be the best procedure, adds Gemma Gange. “Our owners may not have the knowledge of our sommelier, but a simple question of why is that margin low should resolve any concern,” Gange says. “Full disclosure and strong communication is vital to maintain the right balance between owner and sommelier.” As with any relationship with staff, it is all a matter of trust, says Terrace Hotel restaurant’s Chris Pye. “The owners need to have a relationship with the sommelier that is built on trust, and trust is improved by knowledge of the wine product,” Pye says. “For restaurant owners, understanding the true cost of a good quality wine is important to maintaining a strong and mutually respectful relationship between the owners, the suppliers and the sommelier.” And when the day is done, Pye adds, reputation is priceless. “If the sommelier is doing well, then the comments over social media networks and websites such as Urbanspoon and TripAdvisor will speak for themselves,” he says. “You also know by full restaurant occupancy and happy, returning customers.” 

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