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Gerard Basset MW MS OBE, Hotel Terra Vina

Published:  11 August, 2011

The hotel owner's view


The speed in which changes are taking place in the restaurant industry is staggering. It is at once scary but also greatly exciting. Every restaurant employee is concerned but I would say that sommeliers are probably more concerned than many other "actors" of that sector.


Indeed, it was long ago when the black-aproned sommelier would almost exclusively inhabit a world of classic French cuisine, to be matched from a traditional list and dominated with wines agreed by the likes of Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator.


First of all, sommeliers now less often wear the traditional costume - and that is not a bad thing. More importantly, the array of cuisines on offer makes the recommending of wines much more demanding. Understanding the work of masters such as Escoffier, Bocuse, Robuchon and Ducasse is still useful, but so is the appreciation of Mediterranean cooking, authentic Asian dishes, the many different spices, fusion flavours and even molecular creations.


The wines are changing, too. Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator are still important points of reference, but there is a new generation of wine commentators coming via all of the social media networks voicing relevant and even thought-provoking opinions. Gary Vaynerchuk and the many wine bloggers are certainly influencing younger consumers (often with seriously big spending power) and sommeliers cannot afford to ignore this phenomenon.


Thanks, in part, to the Chinese market, the top wines of Bordeaux are still leading the way. However, because of their now stratospheric prices, one can seriously wonder if they are really just relevant to the collector/investor market, and therefore of little interest to sommeliers. On the contrary, sommeliers need to be au fait with wines such as those made with organic or biodynamically grown grapes; wines from the thousands of boutique producers appearing from all parts of the world; as well as those wines produced from indigenous grape varieties of little notoriety. Neither can they ignore the growing interest for the unofficial movement for natural wines (loathe them or love them).


If the emergence of many new styles of cuisines and the incredible diversity of wines were not enough, sommeliers are also confronted with amazing new technology. Wine lists on iPads are already commonplace in quite a few restaurants and new gizmos have given all sorts of opportunities to present and market wines.


Having said all that, it is also crucial to remember that the most important aspect of the role of the sommelier is to make customers welcome, happy and give them a wonderful experience that will make them want to come back time and time again. While the need to embrace changes has never been greater and sommeliers should relish this exhilarating challenge, there are fundamental aspects of the job that will never change.