Endangered species: Sommeliers in crisis

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

06 January 2017

From a wave of inexperienced staff to merchant-designed wine lists, and shift fatigue to the rise of casual dining, the world of sommeliering is struggling to adapt to its new realities. Chris Losh reports on a profession under threat

Last year, I was talking to an eminent MS who was vocal on the subject of how hard it was to find sommeliers. Over the year, other restaurateurs backed up his point, and in late autumn I duly set out to research the Great Sommelier Drought of 2016.

But in fact the myriad interviews I conducted for this piece threw up something altogether more serious: an industry where knowledge is battling lifestyle; where expertise is too often going unrewarded and where modern attitudes are butting up hard against a traditional approach that often hasn’t changed for generations.

It might be over-egging it to say that this is a profession in crisis, but it’s certainly one that is suffering both a crisis of identity and a crisis of confidence.

There is a shortage of sommeliers at the moment. Those with an MS are often attracted into managerial roles with shorter hours and better pay (or to the US), while junior/commis somms aren’t in the mood to hang around gaining experience and polishing glasses for a small salary.

It’s a profession that is suffering both a crisis of identity and a crisis of confidence

Marc-Andrea Levy, beverage director at the Open House Group reckons that it used to take four years to get from commis to head sommelier, provided the training was good, but that he’s seeing people make the jump in less than two years now. Every person I spoke to made the same point. All had seen junior members of staff securing head sommelier roles long before they were actually ready to.

Such is the effect of supply and demand. The sheer volume of restaurant openings over the last two to three years – most obviously in London, but a factor all over the UK – has seen a spike in demand for somms faster than they can be hired and trained.

‘There are more places opening, but not enough sommeliers arriving,’ says Sexy Fish’s Julien Sahut succinctly. ‘So the level [as well as the numbers of somms] is going down.’

Strictly speaking, then, what we’re currently seeing is not so much a drought of sommeliers per se as a shortage of quality; too many people who are being over-promoted too quickly to positions that they then lack the expertise to fill adequately, and an increasingly shiftless population who are milking their worth in a seller’s market.

The latter’s febrile nature is further exacerbated by the number of high-profile, investor-funded operations that have thrown big money at venues and need the wine expertise to match.

This has inflated the going rate and, as a result, somms – in the south-east, at least – are more inclined to move jobs for an extra few hundred pounds in their pocket every month. It’s a difficult situation for anyone looking to recruit.

Unfit for purpose
‘You get horrible CVs, horrible interviews,’ sighs Tobias Brauweiler MS of Sake no Hana. ‘People who are not qualified at all. And still GMs will employ those people.’

‘With a lack of candidates to choose from, restaurants need to choose the least bad candidate to fill gaps,’ concurs Levy. ‘It’s more of an emergency fit than  a positive choice.’

Or, in some cases, no fit at all… Levy points out that failure to find a suitable head sommelier for his group’s (Michelin-starred) Hedone restaurant in Chiswick led to the owners employing a more junior wine waiter, and taking charge of the wine-buying duties themselves.

Worryingly, from the point of view of sommeliering as a profession, at least, this, too, is a growing trend across the industry. The last five years have seen the growth of the ‘helpful’ wine list, split up by wine style, rather than by country, and an explosion in casual, often temporary, dining venues. Both of these factors – if not always obviating the need for a sommelier – certainly make the position optional rather than essential, and there is a more ambivalent attitude to the role.

Vinoteca, for instance, a highly successful small group of wine bars in London, might have wine knowledgeable staff, but there isn’t a sommelier in sight. Such is also the case at the highly rated Portland Restaurant.

‘The role of a sommelier has started to bleed much more into team management and operations on the floor,’ says Portland GM James Fryer. ‘I would expect anyone we hire into a beverage-related role to also work alongside the rest of the team – in a section – during service and to be as much involved with the service of food and care of our guests as they would be with beverages.’

‘We employ wine specialists here,’ says Frances Bentley, wine development manager for a hospitality group in the north-west. ‘But they have to be more than just a sommelier most of the time.’ The job, in short, is changing.

Multi-purpose positions
How much of this shift to a somm-less environment is by choice, and whether it’s a reaction to external factors, such as
non-availability or cost, is a moot point.

What’s certainly true is that the decline of the sommelier’s role probably began following the financial crisis in 2008. As belts tightened, staff were not replaced, leading to more shifts – even for the head sommeliers. Salaries then stagnated, and many restaurants consolidated their wine suppliers in search of better discounts.

What we’re seeing is not so much a drought of sommeliers per se as a shortage of quality

As George Bergier, a 50-year doyen of the Manchester restaurant scene says on the subject, ‘In too many restaurants up here, the merchants write the lists.’

Of course, if the choice is between going out of business or making savings but staying open, businesses will choose the latter. However, these choices have inevitably come at a cost. The gradual diminution in the role of the sommelier, combined with an increase in under-qualified staff filling the roles that are available, is leading to a general dwindling of expertise across the on-trade.

Role dilution
‘When I started, 90% of the staff at the Midland Hotel were catering college trained, and you had no chance to be a station waiter unless you had three years’ experience,’ says Bergier, pointing out sadly that several colleges in Manchester have closed their catering departments over the last few years.

‘The role has become diluted,’ agrees Bentley. ‘I recall when the role of a sommelier was a very precise thing. Now anyone swanning around in a jacket seems to think they are one, and as a result restaurants see fit to pay them less.’

Needless to say, the impact of these developments, both on a restaurant’s wine offering in general and sommeliering as a whole, is not good in the short term. But its long-term effects could be even more serious.
Merchant-written lists remove a large incentive for wine-engaged members of staff to stay in the profession, while an inexperienced team is less able to handle difficult situations.

‘The sommelier and restaurant manager are very much the face of the business. If anything goes wrong it can be really detrimental to the reputation of the restaurant,’ says Levy.

Financially, too, the obsession with the bottom line that’s leading increasingly to the removal of the traditional role of the sommelier in favour of a battery of waiting staff with a bit of knowledge is far from being a zero-sum game.

the role of a sommelier has started to bleed more into team management

James Fryer

‘A sommelier will pay for themselves, no two ways about it,’ comments Bergier. ‘If they were given the chance to be the buyer – and rewarded for doing it – they would jump at the offer.’

Levy, meanwhile, sees real dangers with appointing under-qualified people to positions of responsibility, particularly given the importance of wet sales to a restaurant’s bottom line , as well as the uber-competitive nature of the market at the moment.

‘With the increases we’re seeing in rent, a lot of restaurants are closing down,’ he explains. ‘Any hit on the beverage take of even two or three percentage points on margin can
have a drastic impact.’

Changing times
So much for the business issues currently surrounding sommeliering’s existential crisis. But there are internal as well as external pressures on the profession. Generation Y, it’s abundantly clear, have very different expectations from work and life than those who went before them – particularly when it comes to hospitality.

‘Guys now in their forties went into it as a career, rather than just falling into it,’ says Sunaina Sethi of JKS Restaurants. ‘Working in hospitality is quite a cool thing to do now, but a lot of these guys wouldn’t necessarily see it as a career, but a way of making ends meet and tasting some cool wines in the meantime. People end up doing it for the wrong reasons – there isn’t necessarily that passion there.’

This, in other words, is often not seen as the first rung on a career in hospitality, so much as a lifestyle choice involving plenty of good food and drink – and not just wine.

‘These somms are different from what we are used to,’ says Hakkasan’s group head of wine, Christine Parkinson. ‘Their knowledge is from a completely different subset of information. They typically know some wines, especially natural ones, have visited a distillery, are passionate about craft beer and gin and have a preferred blend of coffee.

‘They know plenty about a few very diverse products, but they don’t have either the depth or breadth of knowledge that the word “sommelier” implies.’

Nor, perhaps unsurprisingly, are they over-enamoured of the kind of hours that hospitality unfortunately demands. ‘They complain about doing 41 hours,’ said one top sommelier with evident exasperation. ‘They want their work-life balance… But this is not hospitality.’

In fact, there’s no shortage of head sommeliers fed up with the extra shifts as well. ‘Nobody wants to do 10 shifts a week,’ says Julien Sahut. ‘[Head sommeliers] want to do six or seven.’

Premium on experience
It’s an obvious pinch-point, with more experienced sommeliers feeling they’ve earned the right to cut back on shifts, and an inexperienced team requiring ever more hand-holding if standards are to be maintained.

It’s another example of a profession that currently seems to be breaking down on every level, with increasing pressures on hours, headcount, margins, salary and experience.

And all the while the macro trend is for more informality, less specialisation of knowledge and more generality; for above-average knowledge in many areas, rather than for a somm’s deep-dive expertise.

Now anyone swanning around in a jacket seems to think they are one

Frances Bentley

‘Anyone who enjoys different types of drinks can work in a restaurant and be called a sommelier,’ says Hakkasan’s Parkinson. ‘Anyone who has had six to eight months in a ‘serious’ restaurant – even as a junior – can move on, and instantly get an upgrade to a head sommelier position. I am absolutely not against this – what could possibly be wrong with having more fun and being paid for it? It’s great.

‘The only problem is that those of us at the “serious” end of the on-trade persist in expecting alt-somms to be the same as the traditional ones: qualified to the hilt and devoted to their craft. It just isn’t like that anymore. It’s us who need to change.’

And quick. The seismic shifts in the on-trade of the last 10 years have unfortunately left traditional sommeliering looking increasingly like a Bakelite profession in an iPhone world: solid, formal and venerable… but not necessarily relevant.

Battles of the Somm
Top sommeliers pinpoint their biggest issues

‘The more experience we get, the more we leave the floor. We have a duty to carry on training the next generation of sommeliers.’
Marc-Andrea Levy, Open House

‘We can’t keep employing enthusiastic young alt-somms and expecting them to learn every grand cru of Alsace before their lunch break. We need to work out how to use them and spot the ones who are excited enough to take it further.’
Christine Parkinson, Hakkasan

‘If people leave, I’d say either they weren’t interested from the start or I maybe didn’t invest enough time in them as an employer.’
Sunaina Sethi, JKS Restaurants

‘You can find good staff who are keen to learn, but it’s harder to find people with a somm’s level of knowledge.’
Charlie Young, Vinoteca

‘The salary hasn’t increased since the economic crash in 2008 – and a lot of places reduced their staff too.’
Julien Sahut, Sexy Fish

‘The owners of the establishments in Manchester don’t give enough attention to the role of the sommelier. If they made an opportunity for them and paid a reasonably good wage, they’d see that position as a career.’
George Bergier, The Victorian Chop House Company

‘They can’t calculate margins, they can’t negotiate prices, they can’t generate revenues, do staff training or control wine sales. How can someone like this mentor a commis sommelier?’
Tobias Brauweiler MS, Sake No Hana

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