Knowledge, manner and persuasion all come into play when a sommelier talks to your customers. So, how do you find a good sommelier? By Ben Canaider
When it comes to qualities that shout out to your customers just how serious you are about being the restaurateur’s restaurateur, there are three things you must have. The first is an open-plan kitchen full of tattooed young chefs all answering to your executive chef with just two words: “Oui chef!”
The second thing you need is a cutting-edge interior designed by architects—many of whom will frequent your restaurant with potential new customers and arts council grant providers.
Oh, and the third thing you need: a sommelier. So, how do you find one? You can do a bolt-on or you can pursue an in-house promotion. As sommeliers are now industry-standard-best-practice, both avenues have their own pros and cons. The first option: employ one.
I know this phrase might seem a little absurd to anyone in the hospitality game, but when it comes to employing an internet-ready fully functional sommelier, you need to carry out a sound, even rigorous, CV check. No, this is not something to designate to the acting manager or the bookkeeper. You need to check bona fides.
Qualifications are also important. There are many qualifications for sommeliers nowadays, and many are expensive to obtain, and require an Einsteinian knowledge of wine. Remarkably, however, few of them place much emphasis on customer service—or the human element.
This is where you can come in. Appoint a sommelier who’s as interested in bogan human beings as they are in unobtainable bottles of burgundy. Look for someone who can hand-sell bottles of wine.
And look for someone who is just a little off-dry when it comes to humour. A sommelier who is as automatic and precious about wine as a robot at the Emirates first-class check-in desk may not suit your restaurant’s ambience, or clientele.
When it comes to employing an internet-ready fully functional sommelier, you need to carry out a sound, even rigorous, CV check.
Any applicant worth taking seriously will be a registered member of Sommeliers Australia, an educative and professional body that endeavours to maintain and progress standards. The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) is another educative body, but perhaps on a bigger scale, offering nine different levels of course work on topics including that of spirits and that specialty Japanese drink, sake.
There’s also The Court of Master Sommeliers (Oceania) which runs courses that produce qualification certificates for successful attendees. Any of these courses or registrations cost money. So if your applicant has bothered to go that far, give them a bit of time.
Any quality sommelier would have a strong work record with positions that exist for more than, say, six weeks. I’d also avoid any contract deal with part-time sommeliers. Such a deal might see you save on wage outgoings, but you won’t get the service return. Outsourced sommeliers who consult tend to write wine lists full of mates-rates wines and tend to do little floor-walking.
Which makes the notion of promoting and training your own existing staff to sommelier status seem even more attractive. Enthusiastic, intelligent, motivated young people who are interested in the wine secrets tend to have that all-too mythical quality: a work ethic.
So, if you have a wait staff member who shows a keen interest in wine, offer them some in-house training, or let them undertake one of the introductory courses abovementioned. Sure, it is a capital expense but it is also your decision, and one which you can monitor. Helping aid the education of an aspiring wine professional will bring you short-term rewards, via duty and diligence.
Whichever path you take, however, there’s one thing that must remain prescient in what’s left of your mind. The line that good sommeliers tread is somewhere between wine geek knowledge and customer service.
You need someone who is 25 per cent Ringling Brothers (a showman or woman), 25 per cent boring accountant, 25 per cent reliable on-time worker, 24 per cent wine geek, and one per cent exotic and mysterious. For wine is a play, a theatre. It is an unscientific endeavour that creates illusion via would-be sophistication. That wine contains alcohol helps. Most customers, however, order wine from your sommelier when they are sober (sort of). Another line for a sommelier to tread.
Sommeliers can seriously add to your bottom line and to profit. They can hand-sell your posher more high-end bottles with a sincerity that great wines and informed, intelligent customers deserve. But it is your responsibility to manage all of that. Sommeliers are, undeniably, assets.