Sommelier Training: Could do better

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Would a more structured approach to training raise standards and attract more young Brits into sommeliering as a career? James Lawrence talks to the trade both here and abroad to find out

The hospitality industry doesn’t agree on much, but one thing that creates consensus across the restaurant trade is that sommeliering as a profession doesn’t attract the respect its level of expertise demands – probably one of the reasons why there are still relatively few British sommeliers.

Both of these issues – the lack of respect and the shortage of local sommeliers – stem, some argue, from a general lack of training – a factor which makes the route into the profession uncertain and also allows inexpert staff to work the floor, with an inevitable potential for mistakes.

‘Without a three-year qualification, fine dining restaurants won’t let you work’ Johannes Hartmann

Certainly the situation in the UK seems very different from that in many European countries, where there is no shortage of locals eager to enter the profession. The question is whether goings-on elsewhere offer a potential solution to problems in the UK.

Lessons to learn

Gérard Basset MS MW MBA OBE, who opened the acclaimed Hotel TerraVina in 2007, believes the current situation in the UK is simply the result of a long-term historical trend, and one that is changing, albeit slowly.

‘In the 1960s and 70s wine consumption was still very low in England, and not everyone going to a restaurant would drink wine,’ he points out. ‘The UK fine dining restaurants of that period, many of which were French or French-influenced, started to employ French sommeliers. Therefore, it is not surprising that the profession took time to develop in the UK and that there weren’t many British sommeliers!’

Fred Sirieix, general manager at Galvin at Windows expands upon the theme. ‘Being a sommelier is really like being a waiter. Don’t we call them wine waiters? Like waiters, sommeliers are in the service industry, and it is not considered a true profession. In addition, the qualification system is much more consistent in France, for example. Sommeliers in Europe have much more support than those in the UK.’

Ironically, despite the clear lack of British candidates lining up to join the profession, many European sommeliers working in London feel that the UK is by far the best place to work in Europe.

‘No other country can offer such an array of wines from all over the world,’ enthuses Costanzo Scala, head sommelier at Benares. ‘If you work as a sommelier in France or in Italy you would not even dream of tasting a wine from South Africa, New Zealand or India.’

His sentiments are echoed by many in the trade, who feel that the historical lack of British sommeliers is more down to a mix of sporadic and messy training routes and lack of early education and awareness than any inherent problems with the working conditions.

‘There are too many organisations and bodies in the UK that have a say on how we should educate professional students in the UK schools,’ says Sirieix. ‘There are too many qualifications. What we need is clarity, one direction and fewer (but more meaningful) qualifications – a handful would be enough!’

Home schooling

There are no such problems in Norway, for example, where the Norges Sommelier Utdanning runs a centralised training system and boasts an infrastructure that is a model of clarity and focus, allowing the organisation to recruit school-leavers before they enter the jobs market.

Contrast this with the situation in the UK. ‘The profession is just not on the radar of the average school leaver or unemployed young person,’ sighs Chris Cooper, sommelier at the Savoy Grill. ‘Nobody knows about wine as a career, or at least if they do, they think it’s far beyond their capabilities.’

Prestige, perception and, er, p-training

The Asian Sommelier
Francis Lo, The Peninsula Hong Kong

‘The job of a sommelier is absolutely respected in Hong Kong, and increasingly so. With the rise of wine appreciation and increasingly refined levels of fine wine collecting both here in Hong Kong and in mainland China, a sommelier worth his salt is a huge asset in our industry to any organisation that takes its wine seriously. The profession is now viewed as a distinguished career path.’

The European Sommelier
Johannes Hartmann, Petrus, London

‘It’s not only sommeliers who are rarely native English, but also the front of house team, and that’s because, in the UK, becoming a chef seems more tempting and lucrative than a waiter or a sommelier. I really believe that the art of service is underrated. Waiting tables is commonly seen as something you do while you are studying, not as a profession. ‘I think sommeliers should be in the public eye a lot more, whether it’s using TV, internet or blogs. In a restaurant, the wine should be as important as the food. There are plenty of famous chefs, so now it’s the turn of the sommeliers and maître d’s. It’s just a matter of time.’

The British Sommelier
Chris Cooper, Savoy Grill, London

‘The guest is becoming much smarter and much more savvy. They will not tolerate any weaknesses or short-comings in quality or service. For example, the grasp of the English language from service staff in the UK can be an issue. I feel that there’s about to be an increasing number of diners demanding clear and confidently-spoken English.’

Johannes Hartmann, a German-trained sommelier at Petrus adds, ‘In Germany you do an apprenticeship in a hotel or restaurant for around three years to become a fully-qualified waiter. Without this qualification, fine dining restaurants won’t let you work. This profession is as equally respected as a chef, painter or electrician.’

The UK, it seems, is crying out for a more unified approach to the recruitment, training and development of sommeliers. While ability and experience do count (rightly) for a lot in the UK, sommeliers in Europe generally seem to benefit from a much more structured training and development process to become an officially accredited sommelier, with exams and courses necessary to progress to each subsequent career level.

Antony Moss MW, research and development director at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) has made it his priority in recent months to address the lack of a structured approach to sommelier training in the UK.

From May to July this year, 50 WSET approved programme providers (out of a total of 400) have been trained in 13 countries to offer two new service qualifications, The WSET Level 1 Award in Wine Service and The WSET Level 2 Award in Professional Wine Service.

Both of these Awards are now available in the UK from 15 approved schools and will focus exclusively on restaurant wine service skills, but will also be partnered with a WSET qualification of the same level, to provide the knowledge to back
up the skills.

Moss hopes that candidates with the Level 2 Award in Professional Wine Service and the WSET Level 3 Award in Wines and Spirits will have a solid enough base to be able to progress on to the Court of Master Sommeliers Certified Sommelier.

‘Although some organisations such as the Court of Master Sommeliers in the UK offer well-respected credentials in restaurant wine service, it is very hard for anyone wishing to gain the service skills needed to meet these standards,’ Moss continues. ‘Hospitality degrees generally devote too little time to the wine aspect of the business, so therefore even if you are young and inspired to enter wine service, your opportunities are limited to finding a good restaurant employer that offers a suitable in-house training or apprenticeship programme.’

According to Moss, early soundings suggest a high level of interest in these courses, and a large take-up by candidates, as well as respect and recognition by restaurant employers.

Train to gain

The Academy of Food and Wine Service has its own strategy for tackling the training deficit. Nick Scade, chairman of the AFWS, explains that the Academy is developing its own Licence to Work (L2W) training programme in areas such as elementary wine service, as well as working with the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) to develop a new training programme.

Conscious of the need to keep the standards of basic training consistent, Scade notes, ‘These courses will cover a number of front-of-house areas, including banqueting and wine service; areas that perhaps have been traditionally neglected by training bodies.’

Optional or obligatory?

The question of whether these courses should be mandatory for aspiring sommeliers, however, is a thorny one, with figures like Basset and Scade travelling in different directions.

Basset, for instance, generally prefers experience to documentation. ‘I am not a great believer in making training programmes mandatory,’ he says. ‘People who have a genuine passion will want to train and will find a way to gain the necessary skills and expertise.’
Basset, of course, is a hugely influential figure within the UK on-trade and a top trainer of his staff. Yet there are others who feel that a coherent framework for initial training, coupled with a concise effort to target school leavers, would be of real benefit to the industry.

‘The profession is just not on the radar of the average school leaver’ Chris Cooper

It also raises the pertinent question of why the industry has lacked a formal training infrastructure for so long, and whether the standard of service has suffered as a result, particularly for those entering the profession.

As the AFWS’s Nick Scade puts it, ‘We feel that a training gap does exist, primarily at the basic entry level. The more advanced training levels are well-served by existing organisations.’

It is at this basic level that the situation in the UK diverges most markedly from that abroad. European countries, in particular France, Italy and Germany have, for decades, offered aspiring sommeliers a much more structured development, with exams and courses that are applied to each career level.

Young school leavers or adults, who may have little knowledge of even the most elementary basics, have been guided every step of the way. Simply put, they could not even contemplate calling themselves a sommelier without a certificate from their national sommelier association.

And because the path to becoming a sommelier has been clearly signposted for everyone, the status of the profession has been assured: the job is on the radar for young men and women, and, most importantly, the standards have been set from the beginning.

The UK, in contrast, seems to have survived largely on a significant portion of imported talent – especially in London – and on a relatively small number of home-grown and self-motivated professionals who were prepared to seek out extra education for themselves.

Trainer par excellence, Sirieix, sums it up nicely. ‘For me there are two options. We will attract and educate young people to a standard of excellence within our professional schools, or we will carry on the way we are and quality will go down.’

And at a time when the industry is struggling to keep diner numbers up, surely nobody wants that to happen.


The Court of Master Sommeliers

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