Home News > November 2023 > The Evolving Sommelier

The evolving sommelier

Few would deny that the hospitality industry has taken quite a battering of late. Quite apart from the ongoing inflationary crisis, businesses are struggling to recruit and retain staff in the post-Brexit, and post-pandemic, environment. That fact, combined with a rapidly evolving cultural framework – multi-beverage pairings are becoming de rigueur – is keeping sommeliers on their toes.

“The combined shock of Covid-19 and Brexit had a dramatic impact on the industry,” says Beatrice Bessi, head sommelier, Chiltern Firehouse. “One major change is that direct hiring has become such an issue. Good staff are in high demand and restaurants are competing fiercely to recruit the best and brightest. So it can be a real struggle to fill our positions – the number of applications we receive has fallen quite a bit since the UK left the EU.”

Glen Montgomery, sommelier at Eòrna restaurant, adds: “The biggest post-pandemic change has been in the staffing of restaurants. Many people took jobs in other sectors and discovered that they could receive similar pay and enjoy more sociable working hours than before, so they didn’t return to hospitality. I understand that, but now we have a much smaller pool of people to run these businesses and it has made things pretty difficult.”

According to Bessi, the UK's labour shortage has forced a paradigm shift in terms of training and time management. “We needed to accelerate the training process to allow people to progress quickly and fulfill key roles,” she says.

“It is becoming harder to mentor staff, although we manage at the restaurant. Nevertheless, I find myself spending more time engaged with office admin due to staff issues. The job is undoubtedly more taxing that it used to be.”

Finding the positives

Indeed, the hospitality sector has been forced to contend with myriad economic and geopolitical shocks in recent times. But sommeliers are a robust crowd; dynamism, flexibility, and diversity have become fundamental to success, and people are welcoming an ongoing cultural realignment. “The wine world has become more egalitarian. It was once the sole domain of the elite restaurant-diner or snobby sommelier,” says Montgomery.

He continues: “Now it’s a much more accessible and inclusive world. A developed interest in food and dining has brought a much wider variety of people to the wine world, and it’s (thankfully) become less stuffy. I’m so delighted to see people ignoring the old “red-trouser brigade” and getting out there smashing bottles of brightly labelled trendy wines, even if I am still partial to the odd glass of claret myself.” Consider also the pioneering work of the Gérard Basset Foundation, creator of the Golden Vines Diversity Scholarships. The charity was founded in 2021, with a governing body composed of professionals from various backgrounds, including Jancis Robinson MW.

Indeed, sommeliers are not only working harder than ever before, they're also taking risks and embracing the world of alternative drink pairings: beer, cider, cocktails and spirits. But is it realistic to think that consumers who strongly associate wine with food will suddenly switch to non-wine alternatives whatever the context?

“My job is to give advice on a range of drinks – not just wine,” says Bessi. “I have learnt a great deal about sake and how it can really complement different food pairings – spirits and beers too. At the moment, people are requesting tequila and gin quite a lot during the meal.”

Consultant Stefan Neumann MS agrees. “Spirits can absolutely provide the same harmonious partnership to food as wine. It's great to see that this is getting more traction in the press as it has been happening for a while now. From kombucha to Blanche d’ Armagnac, good sommeliers always have a non-wine alternative up their sleeve.”

The subject of alternative pairings, however, is a thorny one, with figures like Neumann and Montgomery travelling in different directions. “Certain spirits may have enough complexity to suit food, but too often the very high alcohol is just too aggressive for me. I got into beer over the past few years, and some of them can be excellent with food, but they don’t (generally) have the acidity or tannins that add extra texture for food-matching,” argues Montgomery. “I am, however, very impressed by some of the non-alcoholic juice pairings that are happening, often in conjunction with a restaurant’s kitchen. It’s really cool to see chefs and front of house pulling together to make something bespoke.”

Maximising revenue

Meanwhile, as inflation continues to devour margins, businesses face difficult choices about who can shoulder the burden of inevitable price rises. At the same time, more and more restaurants, especially in London, have moved away from lengthy “wine bibles” in favour of shorter, quirkier lists. But the fact remains that a well-judged – and intelligent – wine list can boost much-needed income, and this has never been more vital.

“Certain regions and appellations are becoming borderline unaffordable: we need to look at new styles and countries,” opines Beatrice Bessi. “I now have three Crémants on my lists, however, six months ago I didn't have any at all.”

Stefan Neumann advises restaurants to “give guests an opportunity to spend”. He adds: “Capping your wine list at £100 for the most expensive bottle can only push your bottom line that far. Plenty of suppliers offer next-day delivery so buy smaller quantities of the £55-£85 range and invest in a couple of bottles of more premium wines.

“Investing in your staff has never been more important,” and by no means is this meant solely in a financial way. Some of his suggestions include investing in a good staff canteen, as “everyone works better when well fed”. He also notes: “If there is one thing I have learnt in hospitality over the years, look after your employees and their happiness will reflect on your guest satisfaction. This naturally yields better sales without you trying too hard.”

In this difficult zeitgeist, the invaluable expertise of a top sommelier has never seemed more relevant. They have become restaurant kingmakers, generating essential revenue from an increasingly diverse palate of beverages.