Sommeliers are a specialist band of professionals who are highly regarded internationally and especially in wine producing countries. They can affect the profitability of a restaurant by their skillful and informed choice of which wines to buy, knowing the emerging stars before their prices also hits the sky and being up-to-date with tastes and trends.
Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting not just a Sommelier, but a most rarified elevation within that noble profession, a Master Sommelier, Dimitri Mesnard. Only 233 have ever achieved the distinction since the first examination was held when man first landed on the moon in 1969.
When interviewing people and producers in the drinks industry I give them all my questions at the outset so they can relax and focus on telling their story without being on guard for any unexpected surprises. It becomes more of a flowing conversation than an interrogation.
After carefully listening to my questions, Dimitri paused for just a moment and then his words flowed and I captured them to share, like a fascinating wine in a decanter.
What is the difference between a Sommelier and a Master Sommelier?
“The difference between a Sommelier and a Master Sommelier is distinct and evolutionary. A Sommelier works in the restaurant and is focused on all aspects of wine in that restaurant. While a Master Sommelier has completed the Master Sommelier Diploma course and has obtained the highest level of qualification. The role is to respect this qualification, to help to develop training Sommeliers and to elevate the professionalism of the industry.”
Full details on the Master Sommeliers web site: courtofmastersommeliers.org
What would you look for in a good Sommelier if you were employing one?
“If I was employing a Sommelier, the key characteristic I would look for is passion; passion for the industry; passion for food, for wine and above all, passion for hospitality and service. I would want someone who not only wants to learn but to learn continuously – from the countries and places they have visited, the people they have met and to update their learning from those experiences.
A young or new Sommelier can be taught and guided from one’s own perspective. Simplicity and integrity are very important to me. They are especially valuable when upselling. Upselling is not about selling a higher priced wine than the customer was originally contemplating. Pure upselling is all about enhancing the customer’s experience, by finding out what a customer wants, looking at their needs and respecting their taste.
A good Sommelier will make and manage the time to build a relationship with the customer. While the beginning of service with a customer is a particularly busy time, there is more time at the end of the service to develop and work on that relationship. A good Sommelier will regard upselling as a means to elevate the offering of the restaurant and to give a great experience to the customer. Knowing that upselling does not mean suggesting a more costly wine, but rather checking what the customer wants: a second bottle, a digestif, a dessert wine…
A successful relationship with the customer is the result of building trust where they are happy to say: ‘my wine is in your hands’. This trust can be earned by sometimes suggesting a wine at a lower cost or offering greater value for quality than the one the customer was selecting. Show interest and relate to the customer by referring back to their previous choices: ‘The last two times you had the Saint-Émilion and the Pomerol. Here is another Merlot-based wine but with more forward fruit and oak from Napa Valley that matches well with your smoked duck, star anise and plum sauce.’”
Dimitri on the challenges facing the Sommelier
“The challenges can be very personal in nature. As we become older and with a growing interest to form a permanent relationship and create a family, the hours of our business are not compatible with achieving this easily. We work in a love industry – that is to say we fall in love with the industry. The time others devote to pleasure and dining out is our busiest time. The hours are long and late and there is a very physical element in particular carrying cases of twelve full bottles of wine.
Also, one has to be disciplined and have a good life-ethic. With so much easy access to alcohol, there is always temptation present, so one has always to be mindful.
Another challenge facing the Sommelier is keeping knowledge updated. Because wine is a living organism, it is always evolving. A wine in the bottle has a life and needs to be understood and tasted to check for its development: immature, at peak, tiring or out of condition with a faulty cork. Each year brings a new vintage with its own personality and story to tell that can differ significantly within and amongst regions in the same country.
There are so many new products, gadgets and changes in technology. Keeping up-to-date with current and new information takes time and commitment. There is a consistent cycle of tasting, talking and visiting.”
In which direction or trend do you see food and wine pairing going in the future?
“Well, fashion is always a factor and it is often influenced by different cultures’ cuisines – for instance, contrast the food amongst Spain, Korea and France. Also, internationally, as in Ireland and the UK, as people travel overseas more, they want to reproduce that taste experience in their own home. This shows that the world is more open to new sensations, ethnic variation and exotic offerings. While food trends are ongoing, they tend to be cyclical.
The role of the Sommelier is to elevate the food by suggesting a complementary wine match that works, but not necessarily the best match. Considerations like price and value and above all, the customer’s personal taste must be respected and honoured.
When suggesting a wine match, a good Sommelier will look first at the dish and focus on the strongest flavour, smoked salmon for instance. Wine options will be to either match or to contrast the flavours. A suitable match would be a rich oaked Chardonnay from California to echo the smokiness of the salmon and the creamy buttery texture of both. Alternatively, propose a stark contrast with a young and dry Alsace or Australian Riesling to cut through the oiliness with crisp and refreshingly lemony acidity.
The current trend for customers is to be less formal when enjoying a dining out experience. People are attracted to a more casual atmosphere because everyday life can be very stressful. While the tie and jacket is dispensed with, the formality for the customer is now more focused on the story behind the wine and its maker.”
Dimitri’s top tips for selling wine
“I tell all my Sommeliers to be sure to use these three steps when selling wine to a customer. Firstly, locate the wine: ‘This Albariño is a white wine from the north-west Rias Baixas region of Spain on the Atlantic coast.’ Secondly, describe the wine in three to four words: ‘It is dry, crisp, lemony and medium-bodied.’ Thirdly, tell your own story with a connection from your personal experience: ‘I first tasted this wine when I arrived in Santiago after two weeks walking the Camino passing by its vineyards.’
Dimitri left me with a selection of Californian wines he would recommend and to taste later at my leisure. Here are the wines I tasted at home with the appropriate Riedel glasses. I include some suggested food matches with my own tasting notes:
Napa Valley, USA 14.5%
A waft of grilled hazelnuts highlights the partial fermentation in small French oak barrels but masks any apricot varietal character. Oak forward with white pepper and moderate acidity on the palate. Full-bodied alcohol warms the finish.
Food friend: focus on roast pork with dried apricot and sage stuffing or pheasant with a creamy bread sauce, heavy on the cloves.
Available at €27.99 at O’Brien’s nationwide
Santa Barbara County, USA 13.5%
Fragrant with old-fashioned roses. The taste buds are treated to concentrated flavours of smoky, berry and cherry fruits underpinned by gentle tannins, permitting pouring at a cool temperature.
Food friend: pair with pink fish – grilled salmon with a teriyaki sauce or roast turkey topped with smoked rashers and cranberry sauce.
Available at €25.45 at O’Brien’s nationwide
Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County, USA 14.5%
The deep purple colour highlights its youthfulness. Fresh plum and a ripe black berry fruity palate tames the full-bodied alcohol. Moderate tannins and fresh acidity with a long juicy finish.
Food friend: dine with duck in a black plum sauce.
Available at €24.95 at O’Brien’s nationwide
Napa Valley, USA 14.5%
Youthful ruby-purple colour belies its age and suggests many future years of continuous improvement. Very mature and complex bouquet of leather-bound books and black berries. Intense black tarry fruit flavours and a classic blackcurrant cassis tangy finish is supported by firm red-meat loving tannins. A serious red.
Food friend: roast beef after marinating in red wine and herbs.
Available at €42.95 at O’Brien’s nationwide
Liam Campbell is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers. His work has been featured in the pages of numerous publications, most recently as the Wine & Drinks Editor for The Irish Independent, as well as in Irish Homes, Easy Food and The Dubliner magazines.
Besides writing, his involvement in the world of wine goes deeper: he’s an approved WSET educator and holder of a WSET Diploma, and he has worked as judge in international wine competitions and as a wine consultant.