Vincents Restorāns in Riga has closed temporarily due to the pandemic, but when Meininger’s visited early in spring, it was still open and the Art Deco ornaments on the facades were shining in the pale sunlight. Vincents is located in Riga’s so-called quiet centre, whose outstanding Art Deco architecture has been included in UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
Its director is Raimonds Tomsons, one of the world’s top sommeliers. Although Latvia is a small country, it has a relatively developed wine market — and it even boasts a Latvian Grapegrowers Club, also based in Riga. A small hill in Sabile, 100km west of Riga, held the Guinness World Record as the world’s most northerly vineyard. It’s not far from Tomsons’ birthplace, Talsi. Tomsons recommends the Ledus ice wine made from naturally frozen Latvian apples. Not only that, but he works to promote a culture of wine in all three Baltic countries, not least as head juror of the Baltic Wine List Awards.
Even so, it’s a coup for the Baltics to have produced a sommelier of such stature. How did Tomsons do it — and what advice does he have for people wanting to place their wines in fine dining establishments?
The star from Riga
Tomsons found his vocation when he began as a trainee and waiter at Vincents in 1999 — where he has stayed. His charismatic mentor Mārtiņš Rītiņš introduced haute cuisine to the Baltic countries when he began the restaurant in 1994. Since then, dinner at Vincents has become a must for celebrities such as Elton John, José Carreras, George Bush, Angela Merkel and even HM Queen Elizabeth II. Rītiņš is now a Latvian celebrity himself.
After 15 years of experience, Tomsons studied at the Austrian Wine Academy and became a certified WSET Sommelier in 2016. Sommelier competitions have become another way to improve his tasting skills and wine knowledge; after winning all regional awards in no time he won the A.S.I. European and African championship on his first try in 2017, followed by the third place on the world stage.
Tomsons believes coming from outside a classical winemaking country gives him an advantage, as it leaves him unaffected by traditions and historical links, giving him a non-partisan look at wine. Despite all the accolades, he thinks learning to be a good host is the crucial part of the job. Welcoming and entertaining the guests is where the talent lies, but he considers tasting as mostly hard work, matter of talent, while “like going to the gym”. He became director of Vincents in 2017, when Anglo-Latvian chef Rītiņš retired.
Riga has bid to host of the next world finals in 2022 and the finals would take place at the National Art Museum, the place where Tomsons broke the world record for opening Champagne using the Sabrage method — 71 bottles in one minute. Tomsons also judges at wine competitions, including the Decanter World Wine Awards.
Not surprisingly, Tomsons — who lectures about wine and advises restaurants — is often asked about how to get wine into fine dining restaurants.
Advice for tough times
“Never push hard when selling wine to a sommelier,” he says. “If a distributor tells me his wine is the best of all, I’m already not interested.” Stereotypical marketing doesn’t impress him either. His advice is that the trader should contact the sommelier, as it’s the sommelier who sells the wine on the floor and should ask for a meeting at the restaurant. Before arriving, the distributor should know about the restaurant’s kitchen style and wine list and it helps to offer an idea on how his or her wine fits into the concept.
To appeal to a head sommelier like Tomsons, who tastes about 3,500 different wines per year, the wine has to offer “that certain ‘aha’ moment”. Tomsons says he wants to taste personality and philosophy.
The wine also has a better chance if it comes from a less competitive appellation and grape. In general, most fine dining restaurants are looking for a balance of classic, reliable regions and wines from smaller appellations. But they usually have their classic wines in the cellar already, which is why Tomsons says “we don’t need another Burgundy Chardonnay, with all respect”.
Tomsons sees wine from Portugal about to boom in the fine dining scene, particularly from the Aragonês, Arinto or the Alvarinho grape. He also thinks indigenous Greek grapes such as Assyrtiko and Xinomavro have a future. He also mentions amphora wines, where grapes are skin fermented in clay pots. When it comes to the classic regions, Tomsons believes lesser known grapes, such as Chenin Blanc, and appellations are on the rise.
Overall, Tomsons sees the trend to organic, biodynamic and low intervention wines, along with indigenous grapes, becoming stronger. “Wine is a natural product,” he points out, “so for our own and the winemaker’s health it makes sense to stop polluting the soil with chemical fertilizers, fungicides or herbicides.”
When it comes to natural or orange wine, Tomsons says the product still has to be good. “Natural wine shouldn’t be an excuse to make faulty wine,” he says. “If a wine is funky on the nose it is simply a bad wine.” He advises that if there are no natural wines listed at a restaurant, it makes sense to ask the sommelier before the meeting if they are open to this wine style.
Tomsons sources wines from trips, which he finds the best way to understand the winemaker’s philosophy and to get a sense of the terroir. His last trip introduced him to 21 Bordeaux winemakers in five days. Thanks to one such trip, he met Fabien Jouvé, a young winemaker from Cahors. Jouvé treats each parcel differently, handpicks the grapes, uses natural yeast and does not add sulphur during vinification. “It’s nearly natural wine making yet the result is great. I like the complexity and the great expression of the Malbec,” says Tomsons, who used Jouvé’s Demeter-certified Malbec for his caviar matching masterclass at this year’s Vinexpo Paris.
Sommeliers are, above all, storytellers in Tomsons’ opinion, so distributors and winemakers should have good information at the ready. “The guest wants to drink a nice story with the wine,” reasons Tomsons, whether it’s about the winemaker, the fermentation, the ageing, the year or the terroir. He notes that sommeliers don’t only share these stories at the restaurant table, but on social media as well. Instagram in particular has become a crucial marketing tool for sommeliers.
Good stories aside, restaurants are still businesses, and “the price has to be honest”. If the winemaker sold the wine to the distributor for €5 a bottle, the restaurant will expect to pay double this. It will then be sold to the customer for €30 — but the more expensive the wine, the smaller the margin the restaurant makes. A wine that costs €30 ex-cellar but which is sold to the restaurant for €50, may end up on the list at €80. Distributors need to be flexible in both their pricing and with their payment terms, and new regions need to be introduced at a lower price than wines from elsewhere. This pressure on margins will be even more intense after the coronavirus crisis.
Tomsons knows that restaurants are mostly recognised for the merit of their kitchens and hopes that the Michelin inspectors will one day find their way to the Latvian capital, to put Riga on the international gourmet map.
In the meantime, he needs to find a way out of the crisis once Vincents reopens. He has to attract more local clientele as guests from abroad — who made up 80 percent of the clientele before the crisis — won’t be back any time soon. Wine prices will have to become more “democratic” and Tomsons has already had to send back some more expensive bottles. “The distributors were very understanding, just as we all should be now,” he says. He expects the crisis to boost the trend to more casual fine dining, where less pomp is involved, which will also affect the wine cellar.
“We will see less frozen money and more wines that are drinkable sooner,” he predicts.
Florian Daniel Maaß
This article first appeared in Issue 3, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available by subscription in print or online.