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The Art of the Sommelier

Published:  23 January, 2020

Vincent Bouin is head sommelier at The Rubens English Grill in Victoria, London. Having studied catering and hospitality in France he has worked in the wine trade as a sommelier for 15 years at Coq D'Argent, Thyme Restaurant and Hong Kong Jockey Club.

He’s passionate about the customer and offering the best experience he can for each and every person who sits at one of his tables. A charming man with plenty of advice to offer he believes there is a true art to being a good sommelier and that this doesn’t always stem from imparting wine knowledge or ‘educating’ the customer.

It’s as much about being a brilliant multi-tasker as anything else. “Being a sommelier is, by essence, a multitasking job. On one hand, it means organising cellars, carrying cases, controlling stock levels, and supplying all-round expertise on wine. But it requires confidence and personality, too,” he says.

Sometimes this is about having confidence not to offer advice and to go with the flow of the table. “Wine is a social, element, so don’t judge anybody on their taste,” says Bouin, who has over many years in the trade crafted a unique outlook on what sommeliers should and shouldn’t be.

“Sommeliers are not any more part of ‘oiling’ the people relation at the table,” he says. “A sommelier should never appear ‘too knowledgeable’ as this can appear to be ‘ego satisfying’ and kill the social interaction at the table.”

Bouin believes that above all wine is about feelings and is a very emotive subject. “As a sommelier you need a good understanding of human nature and to be able to read micro-expressions,” he says. “Customers might say that they like a wine, so as not to disagree with you, but facial micro-expressions and body language don’t lie. If you notice that people don’t feel completely comfortable with the wine, as a sommelier, you can be proactive and find the perfect wine for the guest to really create an experience for them.”

Much of this can be imparted to new and young sommeliers through training, a process which Bouin believes is crucial in the on-trade, and not just for sommeliers but for all restaurant staff. “Waiters are sometimes intimidated by wine. It is not about turning them into sommeliers; it is about helping them to understand that there is nothing to fear. Wine is about sensation; there is no right and wrong. Personally, I learn a lot by training staff,” he says.

Bouin’s top tips for being a successful somm are rather more prosaic than most, but speak volumes about his approach to the ‘art’:

• Don’t be miserable - Always find the happy part in you, people are here to enjoy their moment

• Don’t judge

• Keep learning

• Be curious of anything

• Adapt and adjust - Be ready to change your mind

• And finally… Learn to apologise. We all make mistakes, every day