Interview: The art of the sommelier   

Julie Sheppard

Julie Sheppard

15 June 2017

Following the announcement of the Ruinart Challenge UK 2017 winner, Imbibe catches up with the competition judges Ronan Sayburn MS, Gerard Basset MW OBE and Frédéric Panaïotis to discuss the role of the modern sommelier    

The Fat Duck’s Julia Sewell won this year’s Ruinart Challenge UK, beating off fierce competition from sommeliers across the country in a blind tasting, to win an all-expenses-paid trip to Champagne. Imbibe quizzed the judging panel Ronan Sayburn MS, Gerard Basset MW OBE and Ruinart’s chef de cave Frédéric Panaïotis to find out what they think about the new generation of sommeliers competing in the competition.

Imbibe: How has the role of the sommelier changed in the last 20 years?

Ronan Sayburn MS: There’s a lot more information out there now, about the technical side of winemaking, the science and the chemistry. There wasn’t so much of that around when I was younger – there was a lack of Google! It’s easy to get super-geeky about wine, but younger sommeliers need to reign that back and not give that to the customer.

Frédéric Panaïotis: Some of the questions I get about winemaking are very technical. But it’s about how to use that information to make it appealing to customers.

Gerard Basset MW OBE: In London now we have sommeliers from all over the world – 25 years ago it would have been mostly French. It makes the industry very interesting now; it’s good that everyone brings their own culture.

I: Is there enough diversity in the sommelier world?

RS: It’s a good thing to have a mix in a sommelier team; a mix of nationalities, personalities and sexes – you see it more often in kitchen teams.

GB: The best sommelier in America is a woman; the same in Argentina. It was a bit disappointing not to see more women entering the Ruinart Challenge – but we have a lot of talented female sommeliers in the UK who don’t enter competitions. I’ll tell you a secret: I think they’re better sommeliers.

FP: Passion is the most important thing in wine; and you can have passionate women or men.

RS: But I think the role of the sommelier is more diverse now too. Sommeliers are expected to know about spirits, craft beers, saké, soft drinks… Rather than doing everything, I still think it’s better to do one thing well.

GB: It’s only important for people to know about what they’re selling – I couldn’t care less about what else they know. But in international places like London, Tokyo, you do need to have a generalist approach.

RS: That’s what makes non-wine-producing countries such a good place to come to for work.

FP: The countries where there is no winemaking production can sometimes deliver the best sommeliers. In a way they show more professionalism – they have a more structured approach to learning.

GB: This is a natural thing. I use this example: England thinks that because they created football, they’re the best at football…

I: Should there be better education and training for aspiring sommeliers in the UK?

RS: The Academy of Food & Wine Service is pushing for the sorts of courses you can find in mainland Europe to be run in the UK. A change has to come from the grassroots level, the colleges. The Court of Master Sommeliers does things from a basic level up to certification for Master Sommelier. We get people who want to switch careers and become a sommelier. But we tell them that the basis of that is hospitality. That’s more important for the first five years of your career than knowing the back vintages of Pétrus.

GB: That’s right. For me the job of a sommelier is first and foremost to make people happy. If someone leaves your restaurant feeling uncomfortable, feeling that they’ve spent too much money, that’s the result of a bad sommelier. A sommelier is a good salesman, in the noble sense of the word.

I: Has the development of the English wine scene affected sommeliers in the UK?

RS: I think English wines will become a must-have on a wine list; you’ll need to have one. I think in England we never really looked at our own wines, but the amount of interest internationally has really grown.

GB: At the moment the interest is phenomenal. But champagne is still a very important category in the UK.

RS: Historically champagne holds a place in the heart of Brits. It’s still the wine they use to celebrate special occasions, so sommeliers need to learn about it.

FP: There’s a great programme called the Champagne Academy that has been instrumental in improving champagne education. But if you want to know more about the region, visit it. Four hours on a train and you’re there – what other region is so close? When the winners of the Ruinart Challenge visit France I want to give them an experience that they can’t find in books.

RS: It’s the natural curiosity of sommeliers that’s good. They get a bit of information and want to know more. Sparking that curiosity is very important.

FP: We always like to support the sommelier community. That’s why the Ruinart Challenge is not a competition like other competitions. What we want to bring is education.

I: As a producer what can you learn from the sommelier community?

FP: The biggest part of communicating is listening. For me it’s important to anticipate trends. So I need to listen to the sommeliers I meet and see what the next big thing will be.

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