In most countries, the on-premise sector – HoReCa – represents just 10-20% of total wine sales and, while some like to refer to it as ‘gastronomy’, in truth the terms also cover huge volumes of very ordinary stuff served in cafes, bars and in holiday resorts and cruise liners where unlimited amounts of wine are included in the price.
Only a small minority of HoReCa outlets have service personnel with more than the most basic training.
Sommeliers Ever More Attractive?
So why are producers and regions that once focused their marketing efforts on the media now so eager to talk to sommeliers? Why did Torres, AdVini, the Perrin family, Wines of California, Graham’s port and Wines of Moldova all sponsor the recent ASI - Association de la Sommellerie Internationale - bootcamp in Kuala Lumpur, spending money that might previously have gone on advertising or entertaining wine critics?
At this point, I have to declare an interest. As a consultant to the Moldovan wine industry, I was involved in the decision to send their wines to Malaysia, and actually co-hosted the tasting there. But I had nothing to do with those other sponsors and regions being in Malaysia.
So, to return to my question: what makes somms such an attractive target?
I wrote about this three years ago after judging the final of the Meilleur Sommelier du Monde competition in Antwerp, but make no apology for returning to the subject in greater depth here. The sommeliers have several key qualities that separate them from traditional media and the influencers who are supplanting them.
First, they buy wine. Many of them may not, in all honesty, buy very much, but being able to talk about having a wine listed by a Michelin-starred restaurant can make it a lot easier for a salesman to get it into other establishments, and even some specialist retailers.
Second, the growth in the importance of group-sommeliers and somms who act as consultants, especially in North America, may mean that one successful presentation could lead to listings in 10 or even 100 restaurants.
Then there is the question of price. As wine retail in many markets has contracted and prices of top wines risen, there are premium and super premium wines that are rarely seen outside the on-trade. The fact that these already-pricy wines will become disproportionately pricier once a restaurant margin has been applied may seem counter-intuitive, but on-premise customers are simply readier to dig deeply into their wallets and purses.
Every time they do so in a top-flight establishment, of course, a sommelier gets the chance to sample what they are drinking. In any week, some somms will be exposed to more ‘fine wine’ than most wine critics would see in a year. So, listening to some of them knowledgeably discussing recent and older vintages of specific Côte d’Or vineyards and growers could make all but the wealthiest Burgundy lovers weep.
Top somms who want to explore less well-trodden paths of the wine world, have merely to fire off a few emails and wait for samples of Swiss Petite Arvine or Hungarian Furmint to be despatched for them to taste. Few critics and even fewer influencers have this much power.
Lastly, as I saw in Antwerp and in Kuala Lumpur, there is the particular character of the sommelier community. These are men and women who are extraordinarily mobile, moving from city to city and country to country as new and more attractive jobs come along. And one of the ways that somms market themselves and their enthusiasm for exciting new wines is online – through their Instagram accounts and blogs.
In this, of course, they aren’t doing anything different to modern wine critics and influencers. What sets them apart is their own global network. British, French and Swedish wine critics have little if any contact with each other. Even when they share a language, they rarely pay much attention to what their counterparts in other countries are saying. Their paths may cross briefly in the press centre at ProWein or Vinexpo, or at a dinner or tasting, but you won’t see them mixing in the way the sommeliers do. And this is explained by the extraordinarily competitive nature of wine service. If a somm in Boston publicly falls in love with a new grower Champagne, her counterpart in Berlin or Beijing will notice and add it to their ‘must-try’ list.
Evidence of this is clear from the extraordinary growth in the market for natural and Georgian wines and the wines from regions like Etna. Without the enthusiasm of the somms, I doubt any of these would be as successful as they are today.
Building the Resumé
Young somms are looking for the qualifications and success in local and international competitions that will look good on their CVs. The events where they train or actually compete usually involve spending several days together listening to presentations, tasting and being put to some very tough tests. The ASI didn’t call its Kuala Lumpur event a ‘bootcamp’ by accident.
Inevitably, the evenings are long and convivial too. And in KL the second such event the association has held, this involved 46 tasters from 26 countries, plus the Master Sommeliers and previous competition winners who attend as tutors. Aspirant Masters of Wine (who are generally less mobile professionally) may have similar experiences, but there is no equivalent for writers and critics.
In Japan and, more recently, China, some top sommeliers have crossed the line to become online influencers. This has been less apparent in the west, but I’ll bet that we’re going to see a lot more of it, especially having met some of the young somms at the KL bootcamp.
Experts with Tattoos
There are undoubtedly a few competitively macho individuals among them, but generally they seem to be a very different breed to the middle-aged and older males, some of whose behaviour recently brought disgrace to the US sommelier community.
This is a new generation that combines its vinous expertise with beards and tattoos that would once have been unimaginable in anyone pouring grand cru wines.
And I can’t see any reason why some of them won’t become powerful influencers in their own right.
Prime contenders would obviously be German-born Meilleur Sommelier du Monde, Marc Almert and Nina Hjgaard Jensen the Danish runner-up. Aged 31 and 30, both are decades younger than most critics and immeasurably better informed than almost any Instagrammer or YouTuber.
But these two are almost veterans when compared to some of the sommeliers who are snapping at their heels. I was particularly struck by 27-year-old Toru Takamatsu, one of the ASI bootcamp mentors in Kuala Lumpur. Based in Japan, and still the world’s youngest Master Sommelier, he combines Japanese parentage with the Australian accent he got through being brought up in Sydney and some great communications skills.
Another young somm who stood out in KL was Jessica Wood of the Noble Rot wine bar in Wellington, New Zealand, who really impressed me with her combination of passion, curiosity and ambition.
I'm sure I'm probably being unfair in singling out these individuals, but remember their names, and the name of the next young sommelier who you come across in a restaurant that cares about wine. They might just have a big say in where the wine industry is headed over the next decade.