So you want to be a sommelier…
On the floor the lights are low, the customers are munching away on their Dover soles and their duck breasts, the musak is playing gently in the background.
The wine list is 250+ references and you’ve just got a new delivery that morning, so you’ve got some research to do, update the wine list, print off ten copies, and don’t forget to push the Numanthia, and we’re out of four of the wines.
Table 38 needs the next wine on their tasting menu, 49 have empty glasses that need clearing, 52 are waiting on their gin and tonics and the Chef’s Table needs top ups.
Mr Smith on 46 is a regular, and he likes Lynch Bages, but why don’t we upsell him a bit? What are his preferred vintages again? And he’d prefer it decanted. Oh, Luigi has all the bottles of Mas de Daumas Gassac in the Lindsay room.
Running. ‘Can we get some more bread?’. OK. 49's starters are being served, I should help. Mr Smith’s glass is empty and he’s giving the side eye. Mains away on 38's next tasting course, so they need the Tramari rosé in three minutes. Running again. Chef’s table! Thank goodness our private dining waiter doesn’t mind helping out. Still running. Always running ...
At the pub after work. 1am. Contented and feeling rewarded. It was a great shift. Every muscle in your body aches. But you did it. You opened some great bottles and your guests were overjoyed. The cheap lager tastes like you’ve just taken your first sip of water after being stuck in the Sahara for a week. Euphoria.
In June of 2017, I left Glasgow for London, having accepted the position of Junior Sommelier at Corrigan’s Mayfair – Richard Corrigan’s third award-winning fine dining restaurant, in the heart of one of the city’s most prosperous areas – with the dream of gaining enough knowledge and experience to be the best in the business. It helped me realise that personally I would prefer to be the best in the business through a word processor, but I wouldn’t give my experience as a somm back for the world. So, what does it take to become a sommelier?
When it comes to embarking on a career a sommelier, the easiest way to begin is simply by immersing yourself in wine. Go to your local library, wine shop, restaurant, and begin to ask questions. Most importantly, taste as widely as possible – even wines you wouldn’t normally go for. Taste fortified wines, like sherries and ports, cognac, the whole magical spectrum.
There are some invaluable resources out there, especially those like Wine Folly’s Visual Guide to Wine, The World Atlas of Wine, and Wine Bible. And of course the infinite expanses of the Word Wide Web always help. The guys behind Wine Folly have a great site that is perfect for the beginner, as well as Wine Spectator, Decanter – from whom I would also recommend getting a magazine subscription for some interesting perspectives and wine-related news – and some more casual sites such as Wine Wankers.
Talk to professionals, find other people who love wine, and get to tasting (or drinking). A fantastic way of tasting tons of wine without having to splash out on a bottle of Haut-Brion or DRC is to find somewhere nearby where they have an Enomatic wine dispenser, which allows you to experience tasting-sized portions of amazing wines like these without having to splash the cash ridiculously. Enomatics are also great for training if you’re taking an exam, like one of the WSET or Court exams.
So, you’ve tasted a lot, you’ve read up, you can talk to other enthusiasts about wine, so it’s time to go out and be a sommelier. Have a look online for commis or junior sommelier jobs – at the point at which I became a somm, I’d been working in hospitality for about 5 years, but it’s best to go in at the base of the pyramid. If you think you know a lot about wine, stepping foot on the floor as one of the people your guests rely on to make their evening special, armed with only your knowledge and a corkscrew, will change your mind!
The most rewarding part of the job is the joy it brings to the guests. It sounds like a huge cliché but it’s true. You are introducing people to wines they maybe haven’t considered trying before and now absolutely love, and telling them stories about each producer. And your own personal learning never stops! There are opportunities to go to professional industry tastings, your network grows by the day, and a lot of employers offer incentives – I managed to wangle winning a trip to Cognac with Remy Martin’s Louis XIII in the middle of a beautiful French summer, because of my job as a sommelier.
At Corrigan’s especially, the team spirit between the entire team was great too, not just the sommeliers. There were three off us somms, hanging out in the cellar, talking wine and testing each other, talking about wines we had tasted, and encouraging one another to excel in exams and competitions.
Our Head Sommelier, Jolanta Dinnadge, competed in the Bellavita’s UK’s Best Sommelier competition and came 2nd, and, although I’m biased, I put it down to a supportive team who want the employees to succeed. (At the time of writing she's also just been shortlisted for best UK sommelier in the 2019 GQ Food and Drink awards!)
Also, as with all hospitality jobs, you spend more time with your colleagues than your own family, which means I have come out of this job with a second mother, a protective uncle and about 15 siblings. You don’t often get that at an office job. It’s lovely to walk into the restaurant before service and receive hugs and high fives and talk next to the coffee machine for a few minutes before you clock in.
On the down side a certain weariness sets in when you’ve had four hours sleep every night for the past two weeks, and you’re only halfway through the Christmas rush. The hours are deadly.
And when you finish at three in the morning and the Tube is closed, you get home at five and are back up ready to start at ten. And when you start at ten there’s no breakfast, which means your last meal was 24 hours ago. Don’t forget you’re not allowed to eat in the kitchen. Prospective guests are coming to view the private dining rooms while you eat so if you just stand for an hour and a quarter, holding your plate in your hand, looking like a spare spanner, you’ll be fine. And you haven’t sat down in 14 hours. And don’t go through the front door, just in case the guests see you being a normal human being walking outside. Oh and we ran out of water yesterday and the delivery is not till Friday. Are you ready to be sleep deprived, hungry and dehydrated? No biggie.
But even when you come in on Saturdays before service to polish ice buckets for hours, and take out 100 bottles from the shelves to make sure the floors of the cellar are sparkly, and to clean the digestif trolley, and unpack 30 cases of wine in less than twenty minutes, you know what you are doing is for the greater good of the customer.
Sales do really go up when your bottles of fine whisky and cognacs are more sparkly than they have ever been before. And it is truly fun. Especially if it means opening a bottle of 1997 Romanée Conti Romanée Saint-Vivant. I tasted it once in my time with Corrigan’s and every late finish, every case of wine unpacked, every glass polished, became instantly worth it.
At the time Nathalie Gardiner wrote this she was studying for a Wine and Management Diploma at the Cordon Bleu Institute in Paris. She is currently working as a sommelier at Bentley's.
Photographs © Niamh Shields.
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