It’s a cold rainy day in November in London and I keep telling myself how could I forget my brolly today, it’s London after all. Yes it’s London but the forecast said cloudy with only a 20% chance of rain. The winter has just begun to make an entrance and I know exactly what will cheer me up, a lovely glass of Bordeaux.
I enter a London restaurant for the second time in my life and the receptionist greets me with a warm smile and remembers my name, whilst saying that she will gift me an umbrella when I leave. I am already smiling before being shown to my table. Equally impressive is the Manager who had only met me once before and who remembers not only my name but also when I last came and where I was sat. Physiognomist or lucky shot? Either way, I’m delighted because he remembers me and every guest feels special when the staff remember them. The Chef patron wows me by knowing who I am before I have even uttered the words wine o’clock, highlighting what a tight knit industry this is.
Remembering a guest goes further than just knowing his or her name. It involves knowing his or her favourite wines, any allergies and dietary requirements as well as those of his or her guests and knowing what occasion if any is being celebrated.
I touched upon wine and how remembering some of my favourite wines is a definite bonus. I often get asked what makes a great sommelier? Some may think great knowledge and exams. But before all of that, a great sommelier to me is one who listens. “Would you like a rosé or a light white wine?” are words that are often uttered to me by sommeliers and it has become a bit of a joke within my circle of friends to see how many sommeliers will ask me this. Is it because I’m a young woman? Don’t assume every young woman likes only rosé. In fact, I love red Bordeaux with power and body and white Burgundy with oak and creaminess. The best sommelier will remember this whilst challenging me by taking me on a journey and making me discover other wines in that range that he or she thinks I will really enjoy.
Vintage is key and there have been occasions where a different vintage has been brought to me. I was once brought a 2007 Château Talbot instead of the 2005 listed on the wine list. Luckily, it didn’t take long for the sommelier to see I really wanted 2005 so he rectified this and surprised me with a Rauzlan Ségla 2005 that had just arrived. Stock shortages can happen, although I think it’s always important to notify the guest of this to enable them to make an informed decision.
I recently caught up with Angelo Altobelli, the Beverage Director and Head Sommelier of Dinings SW3. I know I am always in great hands when Angelo is there. With his Italian flair and charisma, Angelo knows what it takes to make his guests feel welcome and happy. He knows my love of Bordeaux as opposed to Malbec, and for Burgundy as opposed to Riesling and won’t even dream of recommending orange wine as he knows it makes the vein on my forehead pop! He also understands my obsession for decanting all my wines as well as my love of perfectly chilled champagne (who else hates champagne at room temperature?).
I started by asking Angelo why it is so difficult to find sommeliers in the UK? Angelo explains to me that after Brexit, many people decided to leave the UK. This was very reinforced after the many lockdowns. Wine is not as present in this country as in Spain, France and Italy as a profession. Most of the sommeliers in the UK are not British. Angelo mentions that in Italy, there is even a school where you study hospitality and wine whereas in the UK this is not so common, apart from Le Cordon Bleu.
I’m curious to know what Angelo thinks makes a great sommelier. He says they need to be able to adapt to the guest’s needs, whilst still making it fun based on their palette. Some sommeliers make it a bit too academic he says. I couldn’t agree more as we just want to be taken on a journey allowing us to discover different wines. What I perhaps like best about Angelo is that he listens to the guest. He knows my love for full-bodied wine so he avoids recommending me any Pinot Noir. Angelo also adds that a great sommelier has a good understanding of business so they know what sales and profit margins they need to achieve. Whilst we may be quick to complain about high wine prices, Angelo explains that a lot of research goes into what wine to put on his list, focusing on the producer and the vintage. It has taken him 9 months to get the Dinings SW3 wine list where it is now and he is not even half way there yet.
The industry is clearly struggling and we are likely to see many restaurants shutting their doors which is heartbreaking. Angelo admits that he is a little bit scared about the situation. Demand for sommeliers is high at a time when there is a real shortage, meaning this may lead restaurants to have to recruit people who are either not sommeliers or not passionate about the trade. We talked about how the government needs to be doing more to help the hospitality sector, with a key priority being easier access for people to come work in the UK. Four years ago, it would not be uncommon to see a starting sommelier position advertised at under £25k. Today, you will struggle to advertise for that position under £30k, with some restaurants offering even more.
Angelo has plenty of funny wine stories. Perhaps my favourite one is where a guest said to him, “can you recommend a good white wine?” When Angelo asked the guest what she normally drinks, she said everything but that she hated Chardonnay. He then went on to recommend a Riesling, yet she insisted on having a Chablis! My eyebrows are raised at this stage and I ask him if he told her that Chablis is a Chardonnay grape variety. He opted for diplomacy and just smiled I bet he was giggling inside…
Perhaps what we don’t talk about so much is how much time sommeliers dedicate to their exams known as the Court of Master Sommeliers. The first of these exams took place in London in 1969. The aim of these exams is to encourage the quality standards for beverage service in the hospitality industry. The first of these exams is called Introductory, then comes Certified, followed by Advanced and ending with the most prestigious and highly coveted of all, the Master sommelier exam. On average, the pass rate for the Master Sommelier is about 5% and there are only 273 worldwide which shows how difficult it is to achieve. More than a decade can pass between the first exam and the Master Sommelier exam which involves a blind tasting of 3 red wines and 3 white wines, as well as an evaluation on service and a theory-based exam. So why put yourself through such intense studying? Well, on one level it’s the pride of the achievement but as well as this, it does demonstrate to a potential employer that the candidate is among the most qualified in the industry and can also lead to better progression and a higher salary within the industry.
Historically, one could argue that sommeliers were not paid very well, given all their hard work and the long hours they spend in the restaurant. Before covid, it was not uncommon to see a starting sommelier salary between £24k-£25k. Now this is closer to £30k although it will depend on the restaurant of course. This is something positive though as the lack of supply has also highlighted the need to reward talented and passionate people. A Head Sommelier will of course be on more, typically this would start at around £40-£45k in London although it could be more depending on the person’s experience. As for Master Sommeliers, it is not unusual to expect them to be on £80k-£90k in London. The title is one of the most prestigious ones in the wine world so it is understandable that restaurants are proud to be able to say they have a Master Sommelier in their team.
Investment in wine has become an interest of many wine lovers as it is an alternative way to make some money from something people are passionate about. It can get quite complex so having an advisor for this in the industry is very helpful. It all depends on how you buy the wine. The key is buying the wine En Primeur which means you are buying the wine before it has been bottled straight from the producer. This ensures you will make good revenue on your investments. You could expect to buy a bottle of Guiberteau 2 years ago for between £20-£25 that would now sell for between £35 and £40 per bottle. Both Burgundy and Bordeaux wines are great investments and 2 that I always turn to. Burgundy gets mature quicker so the return will come sooner, usually in about 5-6 years whilst Bordeaux can take up to 10 years. It is all dependent on the producer and the vintage also plays a part. The top 2 wines I would recommend for investment are Domaine Romanée Conti (known as DRC), although getting an allocation is a challenge in itself. A case of 3 bottles about 5 years ago was £900, whilst today it is up to £4,000. DRC is so attractive as it can generate returns of up to 200%. For Bordeaux, I would turn to Château Lafite. As an example, a bottle of 2018 Château Lafite was £2,300 en Primeur whereas now it is selling for £3,500. The key with wine investment is patience and a careful selection by someone who understands the market.
When it comes to hospitality, consistency is key and being made to feel welcome will make me coming back for more. My dad used to say, “this restaurant is my home away from home”. Nothing beats sharing a bottle of wine in good company. Warm treatment of your guests will make them a walking advertisement and they will not only become regulars but also spread the word to their network. True hospitality is achieved when people leave feeling better not about you but about themselves. Psychology plays a huge part in hospitality so understanding your guests is really key and the sooner this is achieved, the better, so keep the orange wine away from me and get your decanter out because it’s wine o’clock!