The Association de la Sommellerie Internationale Cleans Its House

The ASI is adopting new rules, including a new code of conduct. Robert Joseph went to the annual general assembly to hear more.

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55th birthday of ASI (Photo: ASI)
55th birthday of ASI (Photo: ASI)

To mark its 55th birthday, the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) held its annual general assembly in the tiny principality of Monaco. Present were the heads of the association’s 63 national associations, representatives from five applicants for membership – Colombia, Ecuador, Lebanon, Moldova and Vietnam – and from a pair of countries described as ‘coming soon’: India and Peru.

The most important topic on the agenda was apparently the language to be used by sommeliers competing for the various regional and global competitions. Until now they had to choose between English, French and Spanish, none of which could be their mother tongue. This clearly disadvantaged monolingual Britons and Americans, for example.

Now it was proposed to allow them to speak in their own language, with bonus marks being awarded to those able to show their skills in a second language.

The new rule was adopted, to the relief of all concerned, but behind the scenes far more significant changes had already been taking place.

Black tie tradition

The assembly kicked off with a glitzy, black-tie dinner in the Hotel de Paris, that at first glance looked indistinguishable from events from a decade or two earlier. A large proportion of the guests were male, and many appeared to be old enough to be the fathers of the latest crop of contenders for the top sommelier awards, none of whom were present in Monte Carlo.

Some of the elegantly dressed women in the room were the partners of the tuxedo-clad men, or representatives of the many sponsors who helped to fund the association, but there were also a number of female delegates, including Alba Hough, the President of the Icelandic Sommeliers’ Association, Janni Berndt Dahl from Sweden, Heidi Mäkinen from Finland and Liora Levi from Norway.

These women, along with Celia Hay from New Zealand and Sarah Andrew from Australia as well as Heleen Boom from the Netherlands and Renata Moreti from Chile, seem set to be an important part of the future of the ASI – a future that involves that the Assembly takes a decision about its internal rules of conduct.

Code of conduct

Earlier that day, a code of conduct was introduced to cover the way sommeliers behave towards each other. It is intended to protect female and younger members of the profession from abuse by their colleagues and superiors.

Dodging several bullets, the ASI escaped the sexual abuse scandals that surrounded the Court of Master Sommeliers in the US, but some of the attendees at the assembly — speaking off the record — made it clear that the association had dodged more than one bullet. Before leaving for Monaco I was told about appalling experiences suffered by a young sommelier who wanted nothing more to do with the association. Her stories were all too credible. As one attendee put it, “We wouldn’t be introducing a code of conduct now, if we didn’t think it was really needed.”

The world of wine service, another explained, is almost designed for abusive behaviour. “You have people working together on the floor for long and often stressful sessions in which alcohol is involved. Then you introduce the concept of older somms mentoring younger ones in their spare time and training them up for competitions, and the risks are all too clear.”

Human nature being what it is, it’s unlikely that any code will put an instant and permanent halt to all misbehaviour by wine service professionals in countless establishments in over 70 countries, but it is an important statement of intent. The short time I spent with those Nordic and Australian women convinced me, that they won’t be helping to sweep anything under the carpet.

Enter the bootcamp

If the code of conduct was barely mentioned in public during the Assembly, other buzz words were frequently heard. The Association is to embrace inclusivity and diversity, its newly reappointed president William Wouters stressed. It must support entrants to the profession “regardless of their culture, gender, ethnicity or religion”. 

Turning words into action, Wouters has helped to foster sommelier culture in new parts of the world by creating regional ‘bootcamps’ led by some of the profession’s leading lights. After launching the concept in Warsaw, the ASI ran it in Malaysia in 2022 and Ecuador in 2024. This year, the ‘Europe and Africa’ event will be hosted in Spain, with talk of Eastern Europe in 2025.

Sustainability lessons from Burgundy

The other buzz topic that was predictably raised at the Assembly was ‘sustainability’. Powerfully, however, the task of raising it was handed to Frédéric Drouhin, who did so in the context of a vertical tasting of his family business’s red and white Clos de la Mouche from 2011 to 2019.

In the course of a working life that began at the end of the 1980s, Drouhin said he has seen Burgundy harvest dates begin two weeks earlier and the average temperature rise by 1.2%. If hotter seasons are a challenge, he continued, in the shorter term, winemakers face the immediate threat of heat spikes that can shut down the vines completely. Over the last two decades, there have been no fewer than 35 of these.

Joseph Drouhin is, he explained, trying to take as many small steps as possible in the hope of a cumulative effect. Wines are now shipped across the Atlantic in sailing ships and experiments are being conducted to protect water resources and to develop new strains of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Unfamiliar regions

The attendees were clearly fascinated by these stories from one of the world’s most classic regions. But, to judge by the conversations over the two days, they were also interested in the quality of the two South African wines — the 2022 FMC Chenin Blanc by Ken Forrester and the 2016 Klein Constantia Vin de Constance —and by four Gérard Bertrand wines from Languedoc. How many bottles from these regions would regional presidents at the 35th Assembly have got to taste?

As the attendees packed their bags and headed back to their 70 respective countries, the ASI was almost certainly in better health than when they’d all arrived. Whether the existence of a new code of conduct will persuade that disaffected young sommelier to reengage with the association remains to be seen, but if she were to talk to some of the senior female somms I encountered in Monaco, I think she might have more faith in the direction the world of wine service is now taking.



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