Years ago Costeau was fortunate to meet the legendary sommelier Georgios Kassianos, the so-called Godfather of Cyprus Wine. He took me through all the things you must do when gauging a vintage: how to swill the glass, how to check for sugar and salt content, and then how to taste it properly.
Then came the coup. “Now, once you’ve done all that,” he said, “nobody can tell you whether you’re right or wrong.” I found that liberating, feeling that it effectively meant that my ignorance in the matter of wine didn’t matter at all.
And yet, Kassianos’ assessment, if it’s true, hasn’t stopped the profession of the sommelier from growing up over the years. It’s both an interesting, and reasonably lucrative profession with the median salary in the US being $62,000.
Gabriel Veissaire is the head sommelier at the Le Meurice in Paris and couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the route he’s taken. So how did it begin? “I interned to a supervisor who was awarded the title of “Meilleur ouvrier de France”,” he tells me “I had the chance to travel all over the French vineyards with him. It’s a profession that is above all one of humility and curiosity.”
So what attracts him to it? “It’s a passion above all which brings together a certain history of the vineyard, the mystical character of the vine which is the oldest plant in the world, the complexity of the soil and the geology where the vine grows, the oenological techniques and the principle of alcoholic fermentation and the microbial world and above all the pleasures that can be derived from the wine and food match.”
That sounds like more than enough to keep you going for a very interesting career.
I decide to talk to other sommeliers, and ask James Shaw, the sommelier at the Conrad St James in London, how a typical day goes: “It often starts by checking in with social media and seeing what everyone has been drinking the night before – always good to keep a finger on the pulse. Once I’m in the building, I will prepare our ‘wine of the day’ for our team briefing – it’s something we do each day to share the stories and styles of each of the wines on our list.” Then people arrive. “Once we are in service, it is full theatre time where we look to share the great stories behind the bottles, pour tasters for our guests to try and explain the thought behind our pairing recommendations.”
It can sometimes be a hard road being a sommelier. Shaw recalls: “I left a background of Chemistry and Physics to work with food and wine, my parents thought I was nuts, but now that they have seen how far I have gone in my career they’re glad they supported my change in direction. I don’t think I was really aware of what it entails, but wouldn’t change a thing.”
So what’s Shaw’s advice to young people thinking of entering the profession. Shaw is clear: “Taste, taste, taste and taste some more. Taste with others, discuss and don’t be afraid to follow your instincts over what feels right to you.
Nadia Khan, the Head Sommelier of the Adam Handling Restaurant Group, notes the importance of setting aside time to think ahead: “Between the two services (lunch and dinner) I will dedicate some time meeting with suppliers and producers, tasting and talking about new wines and projects. This keeps me constantly informed and engaged with the wines from around the world, always training my palate and developing my knowledge.”
So what talent is required to make it as a sommelier? Khan recalls: I think I have always had a discerning taste and smell. And, with time, experience and constant training, I have developed an analytical consideration, which now enables me to judge a wine after just two or three sips. I would say it’s a natural flair that I’ve applied to experience and knowledge.”
So what would Khan recommend to young people thinking of becoming a sommelier. “I can advise that it will take time and a lot of hard work but nothing is more rewarding than making your passion what you do every day,” he explains. “Being a sommelier means that you can constantly learn and develop your expertise, whilst still having that incredible interaction with guests which often makes it all worthwhile.” Costeau will drink to that.