Home News > December 2023 > The Diversity Paradox


The diversity paradox

Boris Johnson, a divisive figure at the best of times, nevertheless hit a home run when he observed: “We should celebrate and embrace our diverse society, as it enriches us all.” Indeed, hospitality businesses have long relied on a significant portion of global talent  -  individuals who enhance our dynamic sector with their expertise, passion and unique insights.


Yet there is one group noticeable by their absence: British professionals. With the exception of a relatively small number of home-grown sommeliers, the job is seemingly not on the radar for UK school leavers. Meanwhile, our European neighbours have far less trouble attracting young adults into hospitality work.  So what has gone wrong?


“In terms of culture, wine was always significant in the UK, but it was never a country with great wine production, and few young people drink wine compared to the rest of Europe. This might explain why young people are less aware of the profession,” argues Julien Beltzung, executive sommelier at The Glenturret Lalique. “ Moreover, even though sommeliers exist in fine dining restaurants, there are only a few training institutions and there aren't many schools focused explicitly on wine; you'll find at least one or two hospitality schools in every French city.”


A European approach


His sentiments are echoed by many in the trade, who feel that the historical lack of British sommeliers is more down to a mix of sporadic and messy training routes and lack of early education/awareness than any inherent problems with the working conditions. “The hospitality industry has changed so much over the last few years, and the long shifts and long hours have decreased. The traditional ideas of working endlessly have changed and we continue to work towards improving it,” says Giovann Attard, executive head chef at Sicilian restaurant Norma.


Attard believes that while ability and experience do count (rightly) for a lot in the industry, sommeliers in Europe seem to benefit from a much more unified training and development process.  As celebrity chef Fred Sirieix once observed: “There are too many organisations and bodies in the UK that have a say on how we should educate professional students. What we need is clarity, one direction and fewer (but more meaningful) qualifications.” These bodies include the Court of Master Sommeliers and the Academy of Food and Wine Service;  two organisations that do not generally work together in the recruitment of young adults.


No such problems in Norway, for example, where the Norwegian Sommeliers Union (NSU)  has a centralised training system and infrastructure that is a model of clarity and focus and allows the organisation to catch the imagination of school-leavers before they enter the jobs market. But would such a scheme work here?


“Everyone should have the same access to a similar structure of training. I do believe that the right training will give a strong basic skill set, which will help massively in recruitment,” says Giovann Attard.


Of course, not everyone agrees. “It wouldn't be realistic to expect a unified approach as this is a very dynamic sector with people coming from many different cultures, backgrounds and skillsets,” replies David Martin, WSET business development manager.


He continues: “More than a unified approach I would suggest that organisations design a comprehensive training programme focused on their needs and helping people to develop within the company. For example, many will use WSET qualifications as the base for their personal development programmes e.g. Level 1 Award in Wines as part of the induction. They’re aiming to bring new members of the team up to the required standard and to be able to work as commis sommelier.”


Other solutions

Some professionals, however, believe that an overemphasis on qualifications is part of the problem. “I think the idea that you absolutely need qualifications is false and sometimes focused on too heavily,” says Bella Babbit, wine director, NoMad London. “It is a great way to get base knowledge, but there is so much more to being a sommelier that you can only really learn being on the floor. When I am recruiting, enthusiasm for knowledge, and a passion for hospitality is much more crucial than if you have your level three WSET.”


Meanwhile, a growing number of influential voices are calling for a complete reset in terms of customer engagement and wine service.


“The sommelier world traditionally had many rules for how things should and shouldn't be done. These are deeply ingrained and have become truths after so many years. At A. Wong, we try to break down some of these rules and encourage guests to question and discover what they like. There is scope to revisit, re-evaluate and go back to understanding the fundamentals of enjoying wine,” says Mickael Metayer, head sommelier,  A.Wong.


“School leavers need to understand what it brings to a dining experience. And it’s not just wine any more, but spirits, ferments, kombucha, craft beers and more. So while a more unified approach to sommelier training might help, first we need to have a deeper conversation and encourage more people to join in the discussion.  We need a bigger, more engaged audience before the professional level can take another step.”


In pursuit of balance


Yet there are many others who feel that a coherent framework for initial training, coupled with a concise effort to target school leavers would be of real benefit to the industry. “Surely it's crucial to have more training available, particularly with the surge in fine dining restaurant openings across the UK. Education must align with this trend with a growing number of establishments focusing on wine,” opines Julien Beltzung.


“A more unified approach to sommelier training will supply more wine experts to meet this rising demand.”


It is at this basic level that the situation in the UK diverges most markedly  from other countries. European markets, particularly France, Italy and Germany have, for decades, offered aspiring sommeliers a much more structured development, with exams and courses that are applied to each career level.  Young school leavers or adults, who may have little knowledge of even the most elementary basics, have been guided every step of the way. Simply put, they could not even contemplate calling themselves a 'sommelier' without a certificate from their national sommelier association.


Moreover, because the path to becoming a sommelier has been clearly signposted, the status of the profession has been assured: the job is on the radar for young men and women and, crucially, the standards have been set from the beginning.


Of course, we don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater; self-motivation and 'on the job' experience  are clearly as important as certificates and formalised training.  But at a time when businesses are struggling to attract enough raw talent, a European-centric approach could make a substantial difference to our recruitment woes.