When somebody says ‘sommelier’, what image springs most readily to mind? I’m guessing that it probably involves a man or woman in a smart black outfit – probably including an apron and some kind of badge – who, and this is the important part, knows a lot about wine and how it should be served.
If I asked you to broaden your parameters, you might possibly include some expertise concerning cigars, Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados.
Did you imagine a sommelier being a person who might know more about all the beverages the world is drinking today and will be drinking in the future than any wine critic or merchant?
I have to confess that, until I spent a few days behind the scenes at this year’s ASI Meilleur Sommelier du Monde competition in Paris, I certainly had little idea of how far beyond fermented grape juice today’s wine service professionals’ studies take them.
Each of the 17 semi-finalists was subjected to three different tests in separate rooms. In the first two, they respectively had to demonstrate their tasting and serving expertise: the kinds of skills most people would expect of them. In the third, however, they were asked if a table full of bottles and ingredients included everything they would need to produce a Sazerac and an Aviation cocktail. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t.)
Then they were required to identify a set of five unnamed beverages. The fact that answers ranged from lemon juice in sparkling water and non-alcoholic spirit for the first, to coconut milk and Nigori sake for the opaquely white fifth, illustrates the difficulty of the task. Most spotted the cold-brewed coffee among the other drinks on the table. Many fingered the kombucha.
Finally, without knowing how successful they had been in naming those drinks, the sommeliers had to propose a four-course vegan meal to go with them.
So, why am I telling you about this? Because I believe it reflects something crucially important about wine communication and the drinks market in 2023. To the discomfort of many purists who have little time for spirits or beer or fermented tea, wine today is increasingly one of a range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Yes, it may be the most complex, the most illustrious and – at the top – the priciest, but it’s still a runner in a race that includes other fit and speedy competitors.
Wine is a runner in a race that includes other fit and speedy competitors.
As if to underline this, one of the masterclasses attended by the 400 professionals involved in the Meilleur Sommelier competition included a highly detailed session on different kinds of sake by Julia Scavo, the Romanian-born finalist in the European sommelier championships.
It has often struck me how unpredictable it was that sake, which has much more in common with beer than wine, would be so wholeheartedly adopted by the wine establishment.
Today, the idea of accompanying a Michelin-starred meal with a glass of Junmai-shu or Daiginjo-shu is treated as being as normal as washing it down with a Bordeaux or Burgundy.
But the same increasingly applies to other alcoholic beverages. At one of the other similarly well-attended masterclasses, the focus was on the Macallan malt whisky which, the attendees were told by leading sommeliers, is a perfect partner for pigeon stew.
It is not so long ago that drinking scotch with dinner was the kind of behaviour associated with unsophisticated countries that had yet to discover wine. Now it could be a pairing recommended by one of those men and women wearing the badge and apron. And the same applies to craft beer and orange wine.
Without the enthusiastic support of sommeliers, would skin-contact wine ever have successfully come from nowhere to fight its way onto the shelves of supermarkets? I really don’t think so.
This trend is only heading in one direction, especially given the number of wineries that have launched their own microbreweries and distilleries in a highly understandable effort to create a new revenue stream that isn’t dependent on capricious vintages and can be turned on and off at will. My sources suggest that LVMH (which also has an interest in a super-premium sake made by former Dom Perignon winemaker, Richard Geoffroy) is planning to launch a super-premium zero-alcohol beverage. Just as Diageo opened the way for branded spirits, anything LVMH does is certain to be followed by others.
I’m sure many in the wine industry will bury their heads in the sand and imagine that interest in all these other drinks is a temporary infatuation and that, sooner or later, people will return to the true path of wine. The only problem with this strategy is that it is precisely the one adopted by the French wine establishment in the 1980s when UK consumers began to transfer their affections towards the New World.
To bury their heads in the sand and imagine that, sooner or later, people will return to the true path of wine is not a strategy.
A quarter of a century later, the British – and other markets’ - love affair with Australian, New Zealand, South African, and North and South American wines still doesn’t seem to be waning, and Bordeaux is uprooting vineyards.
Which perhaps explains why the three Meilleur Sommelier du Monde finalists in Paris were asked to identify South African and Brazilian Semillons – after they’d shown what they knew about cocktails.
The somm network
As I wrote on this platform last year, sommeliers have another underestimated superpower: their global network. If a wine producer impresses a Japanese or German or American critic, they will, at best, create a bit of a splash in the Japanese, German or US wine market. Wine communicators in Washington DC or Wiesbaden do not generally read what their Japanese counterparts have to say, and vice versa.
But, if a winery can win over a sommelier from any of those countries, there is no knowing how far the message will spread. Sommeliers talk to each other via Instagram and Whatsapp all the time. Why? Because they are often highly competitive human beings who have made friends at international competitions and, more importantly, because they are often looking for work. And the next step up the employment ladder for a somm pouring wine in Boston might well be in Berlin or Beijing. And wherever they go, somms take their knowledge with them.
So, with all due respect to the best wine critics, today, if I wanted a guide to lead me through the jungle of 21st century drinks, it wouldn’t be a traditional wine communicator. It would be a sommelier. Quite likely one of those young somms I met in Paris.