Profession of sommelier turned out to be one of the most sensitive to changes in the world during the pandemic. Direct communication, which is the core or this kind of job, became impossible. How restaurants and hotels in Russia and around the World will survive the pandemic? What is going to change in industry of hospitality? In search for the answers, SWN interviewed the president of ASI Andres Rosberg.
During the lockdown caused by COVID, in many countries, the restaurants were closing and the sommeliers were losing jobs. How do you think, how dangerous was the pandemic for the profession in general?
There is no doubt, that restaurants and hotels were hit badly, and the jobs of many sommeliers around the world have been compromised. Sommeliers, however, are passionate about what they do: many have been able to adapt, doing private sales and delivery, teaching online, getting temporary jobs in wine stores or wineries, transforming their restaurants to cook for those who are homeless or hungry, etc. For others, it was not so easy, but we observe several solidarity initiatives, charities and projects to help those in need. At the end of the day, however, people are still drinking – and in some countries even more than before! There will always be people who would like to learn about wine, and order a drink or two. I trust that this is a temporary problem and remain very optimistic about the future of our profession.
© Martin Fernandez Delamer
In some countries, say France and Sweden, the governments helped the sommeliers, subsided them for the period of job loss. Some web pages turned free for this period. Were there some kind of supportive initiatives for sommeliers from ASI?
This pandemic has affected ASI too: We have had to cancel or postpone meetings, and are rescheduling some events –most notably our General Assembly, which was scheduled for September in China. We are working hard to organize the Best Sommelier of Europe and Africa contest in Cyprus this November, and we have extended the deadline for the payment of membership fees. We improved our communications with national sommelier associations, promoted and communicated their initiatives to help sommeliers in the more than sixty countries that represented in ASI. We have launched – for the first time – online masterclasses with our partners for sommeliers around the world... we're in this together, and we are working to make sure we all make it through these weird times.
© Andres Rosberg
Nowadays, the profession of sommelier has to cope not only with economic and social problems, but also with the rise of wine e-commerce. Of course, internet will never substitute the live communication, but the customers, using various apps, know much more about the wine. Do you think may there be a real threat from online?
When I started working as a sommelier, social media didn't exist – and our voices were heard only by the few dozen clients visiting our restaurants. Today our voices are amplified, and we are not only heard by our customers, but also by the thousands of people that follow us on our social media. Also, I used to spend entire nights counting bottles and hours on the phone placing orders... These apps that help manage inventories online and save you from having to print your wine list over and over again every time there is a new vintage or a change of prices are priceless benefits for somms.
I understand that some people may have concerns, but I tend to look at it from a different perspective: Most experienced sommeliers I know will tell you that their best clients are the ones that actually know more about wine, as they normally are more adventurous in their choices, drink the best bottles, engage in more meaningful conversations, drink a little bit more, and even tip better most of the times!
There is a certain kind of revolution happening in the profession of sommelier. Nowadays nobody wants to see an academic, clever and well-read somm. People want entertainment and less arrogance. Do you think, we should re-think the image of sommelier or we should stick to good old classic style?
I think we'll have to re-think the future of fine-dining in general, especially after COVID, but that is a different question. The reopening of Noma as a burger joint is probably the best example of this. But, this being said, I also have to point out that a sommelier can be academic, clever and well read without being arrogant. Furthermore, I believe different people want different types of service, and a good sommelier has to be able to “read” the table, adapt to its needs, and adjust his performance accordingly – being more talkative with those who ask more questions, etc. There are good and bad professionals in the world of sommellerie, just like in all the others. What we have to do is revise our own prejudices, and celebrate the hundreds of somms around the world who do their job properly and enhance the overall experience of thousands of customers in hotels and restaurants all over the world.
© Andres Rosberg
To win ASI contest, the sommelier must be a walking wikipedia, but most sommeliers say that the contests are more of a sport than a real life and you should prepare to it as for something completely different. What do you think about it?
It depends on what each person's definition of real life is, I'm sure Messi's real life idea of football is very different than mine! ASI contests gather together the very best sommeliers of the world. How do you choose the winner of a continental or world competition if it is not through some very hard tests? The candidates competing normally spend years of their lives training, studying, tasting – plus working in some of the best restaurants in the world at the same time. Not only they are walking wikipedias: they also have great palates, they have some seriously impressive service skills, they manage to perform incredibly complex tests in record times and most of the times they will even do it with a smile. This is their real life, and all you have to do is attend any of the restaurants where they work to get a first hand experience of their magic... you will not regret it!
In wine lists more frequently we can see more unpopular wine regions and less classic appelations as Bordeaux and Burgundy. Do you think there is a place for classics in the wine carte of future?
Bordeaux and Burgundy, together with other very fine regions in the world, are at the core of what we do and love. If anything, I believe they are victims of their own success, as many of them are now sold on small allocations and their price has increase significantly over the years, making it hard for some people to afford them. At the same time, globalization has helped other wine regions and producers that make magnificent wines at very decent prices, and it is only logical that this is making both wine lovers and sommeliers very enthusiastic. Wine lists around the world are increasingly diverse and well curated, catering to customers who are increasingly savvy, and delivering more value for money than ever.
© Andres Rosberg
Could you please say a cheering word to our professional community?
They say the darkest hour is just before the dawn. These are hard times, but we have to stay calm and be resilient. The service part of our job has been compromised, but is slowly coming back around the world. At the same time, nothing prevents us from focusing on the things that we can do, like studying; communicating and selling wine and other beverages; and, above all, helping those colleagues who have lost their jobs and are having a rough time. Let's use this opportunity to come out stronger, more creative, and more supportive of our global community and those who are in need!
Cover photo: © Andres Rosberg.