Sommeliers. SO MANY QUESTIONS!
What even IS a sommelier – or a Master Sommelier? What makes a great sommelier? How have sommeliers been affected by the pandemic, when hospitality has been devastated? What’s all this about the lack of diversity among sommeliers? What of the very serious scandals that have played out in very public and traumatic fashion at the Court of Master Sommeliers-Americas lately?!
Ultimately: what does the future hold for sommeliers, this proud and historic profession that has really been through the wringer of late?
We ask these questions (and many more) of a star line-up of guests: Emily Wines MS, Chair of the Board of the Court of Master Sommeliers-Americas. Audrey Annoh-Antwi, sommelier and front of house at Lorne restaurant in London and Be Inclusive Hospitality ambassador. Jason Wise, director of the Somm movies and founder of Somm TV.
And we get…some hard-hitting, thought-provoking and fascinating answers, which we discuss amongst ourselves while also recommending wines from Help4Hospitality AND offering you a fun prize giveaway. If sommeliers are all about hospitality – then this podcast is the same.
Dedicated to the memory of two fine sommeliers, and fine friends: Terry Threlfall and Gerard Basset.
Order Help4Hospitality wines via this link. In doing so, you not only get delicious wines at discounted prices, but you also help hospitality venues and, by extension, sommeliers.
To enter our giveaway to win one of three free decks of Blinders Game worth $35 (pic below) follow us on Instagram or Twitter, like one of our posts about this podcast and leave us a comment. Or just send us an email.
Click here for more information about the Blinders game.
Emily Wines MS (EW): To me, a somm really comes down to service. It’s really about having an expertise in wine that really involves interfacing with people in a very personal way. Unlike other wine experts who do a lot of writing or research or who are very cerebral, sommeliers need to be really quick on their feet and interact with people in real time. Which is why the Master Sommelier exam is all oral, there’s a lot of service elements, it involves gracious service and interaction with people. That can sometimes overlap into retail but primarily a sommelier refers to service in a restaurant setting.
Susie Barrie MW (SB): Is there one thing that makes a great sommelier?
EW: It’s understanding your guest. It’s somebody who can really read where their guest is at. Who doesn’t have their own agenda. So many times sommeliers are like: ‘I just love the wine from the Jura, you have to drink this!’ You see that all the time and they’re not actually paying attention to what their guests are looking for, or what their comfort level is. Whether it be in what they want to spend or what they want to drink. And a great sommelier understands where their guests are and they meet them there.
SB: Hospitality has been devastated by lockdown. How have you been affected in your professional life?
EW: It’s been really interesting. I’ve been really fortunate to be able to work continually through this. The job I do now is a hybrid, not a traditional sommelier role. But it’s still been about the fundamental pieces of being a sommelier: connecting with our guests, it’s all been virtual, online events and content, doing videos, social events, hosting events where people can interact and chat and I’ve been emailing much more regularly with our guests. Creating that connection because connection right now is so deeply important to everyone.
SB: You’ve kept working but what about the sommelier profession as a whole, how will it come out of the pandemic? Will it be a case of doing more of what you’ve been doing?
EW: It’s been really tough. It’s an industry that’s been devastated. Most sommelier are either unemployed or a lot are doing virtual tastings or events, still doing that guest connection piece, they’re working as restaurant managers, servers, delivery divers… I believe it will come back, it is coming back fast and furious in the US right now. But not fast enough for a lot of these guys.
SB: It’s been tough for everyone recently, but particularly sommeliers. For many reasons. We’ve touched on the pandemic. But it’s also been a bumpy ride in your part of the world for the Court of Master Sommeliers-Americas
EW: It has.
SB: The whole board were recently replaced. You’re now the new chair of the board, so congratulations!
EW: Ha ha…thank you!
SB: What are the highest priorities for you on your to-do list?
EW: It’s pretty massive. The number one priority is about rebuilding trust in our organisation. We have been in a position of power in our industry for a very long time and, particularly in the US with the sommelier movies and TV shows, it’s really given our position a certain celebrity which has been nice, in terms of elevating careers and the industry, but at the same time it’s also added more power to some people, it’s put them in a position to take advantage. And there’s a lot of bad behaviour across the entire industry, around sexually inappropriate behaviour in particular, we see this with the #MeToo movement where all around the world, women are being empowered to speak out and say this isn’t OK. And the Court of Master Sommeliers in particular has been held out as an example of really bad behaviour and yes, there’s been a lot of bad behaviour. And my priority is to really turn things around, and hopefully let us become an example of good behaviour and a way to hold ourselves to a higher standard, so that’s the work that we’re doing now.
SB: And your aims and aspirations for the next 5-10 years, what would they be?
EW: A few things. One is setting a very strong code of ethics, not just speaking to Master Sommeliers but also to the entire sommelier community. Because I don’t believe that bad behaviour doesn’t just start when someone becomes and Master Sommelier. It starts earlier on. So if we can start to build a culture that’s inclusive and respectful and really open to all, then that culture really begins to bring everyone along. I also want our organisation to become much more community focused. For the longest time we’ve been viewed as the pinnacle of our field, and as a Master Sommelier there’s truth to that, however we are in service to the community rather than at the top of the community. I’d like to see a broader inclusion of those community voices and bringing them into the organisation in a very different way.
SB: In order to move forward, to regain your good reputation, does that mean people will have to go, people will be stripped of their MS?
EW: It’s very possible. What we’re looking at, in terms of the complaints that have come through, is – and at this time, we don’t know what all the complaints are. We have engaged with an outside investigator. As well as an outside reporting line that has taken in a lot of the information. So we have a good idea what a lot of the complaints are however this investigator is pulling in a lot more info. So at the moment we have a number of Master Sommeliers who are suspended. And once the investigation is concluded, we will determine…some of those Master Sommeliers…were they maybe unknowing that they did something offensive and now they know that’s offensive and they shouldn’t do that again… Perhaps it was unprofessional, perhaps it was unethical, perhaps it was unsafe, perhaps it was unbecoming a Master Sommelier, perhaps it was illegal. So we have to determine where on the scale or spectrum those things fall and I am certain that there will be some Master Sommeliers who will be stripped of their title as a result.
SB: So the wine world as a whole is often criticised for its lack of inclusivity and diversity. How do you think that can be addressed better, changed, improved?
EW: That’s been a really hot topic of conversation this year, and I’m so glad that even though what’s triggered it has been very painful, it’s been really good. The wine world of course has been so Euro-centric and so white for long. And we’ve looked of course at the Master Sommelier programme, as being…this was a merit based programme, a meritocracy, open to all… But in truth even though yes it’s like, anybody can come in, but when you realise the barriers to even entering in the first place are very challenging, we have to starting looking at that. When you look at restaurants – and you realise, who goes to work in restaurants, as you go up the scale to more fine dining restaurants, the people working front of house become more white and more male. So that means people going for sommelier positions are even more white and male. So if we want more women and people of colour going in to those positions in the first place, you have to start looking at the bottom. So the things that we’re doing in the wine industry, we have to be looking at young people who’d never consider wine as a profession, or even think there’s some facet of wine that could suit their profession. Even going into colleges and offering some glimpse of the world of wine. What I say by that is: in the US at Cornell they offer a wine appreciation course. So all of these business students are being exposed to wine, there’s a potential some of them can come out of business school and do business in wine. Why are we not doing that at historically black colleges and universities in the US? This is one of the things we’re looking through our diversity programme with the Court of Master Sommeliers and some of the many other organisations that have popped up are addressing as well. How do we start showing more of these young people more of these opportunities that wine culture is not just for white people. It’s really important, and it will make the wine industry more interesting.
SB: Moving on: you have a senior role at Cooper’s Hawk, which describes itself as, ‘A wine driven dining experience’ whose mission you’ve described is, ‘to democratize the good life.’ Sounds great. What do you mean by that?
EW: Cooper’s Hawk is really interesting. Having come out of luxury world of wine, Cooper’s Hawk is the opposite. It’s wine for the 99%. We make wine super approachable and accessible. Primarily our restaurants are all in the suburbs, in communities that are really hungry for wine, and drink a lot of wine, but they’re places often overlooked by big mainstream wine culture. So we bring this wine experience, it’s sort of like going into Napa and going into a tasting room, being able to interact with wine, learn about wine, and do wine pairings with your food, in this very traditional chain restaurant setting. It’s beautiful and very wine centric, wine themed. We have a lot of fun. It’s great. Bringing wine culture to everyone!
SB: As a final question: this is an episode about celebrating somms. What do you think the future holds for sommeliers around the world and do you have a positive outlook?
EW: I do have a positive outlook. I think that sommeliers have really changed. I’ve been saying this for a long time. The sommelier of the 1960s is so different. Today, a sommelier could be very different ethnically, could be female, could be transgender, could be not pairing wines not with lobster thermidor but hummus in a quirky ethnic restaurant, not white tablecloth. It’s really exciting. The opportunities for sommeliers have become so broad. And so our definition of what a sommelier is needs to continue to evolve along with it.
SB: Emily Wines thank you so much, it’s been such a pleasure!
EW: Likewise, take care!
Audrey Annoh-Antwi (AA): I work in a small restaurant so as well as being part of the wine service, I serve customers as well generally. But my favourite part is, just when the restaurant scene is set, and you present someone with a wine they genuinely love and you can see they’re enjoying it and they say: ‘Ah, such a good wine.’ And then I can scuttle away and let them enjoy the wine, enjoy the company, enjoy the delightful food, cos that’s why people go to restaurants. And then I know my work is done.
Susie Barrie MW (SB): is that what makes a great sommelier, being able to find that perfect wine for each customer, or is it something else?
AA: I think it’s…many things. I think sommeliers themselves have to be personable and you need to be able to gauge what your customer wants. Some customers want to talk a lot about the wine and food. Some already have a high level of knowledge, they just want to have a wine that’s great and they really just want you to leave them alone. It’s kind of being able to gauge what people want, give it to them, play your role, and just let the evening’s magic unfold at its pace.
SB: You’re an ambassador for Be Inclusive Hospitality, as you said. And it was set up to drive education and accelerate racial equality in the industry. What does hospitality and the wine world need to do to be more inclusive and more diverse?
AA: Oooff! It’s a real tough one. But I think one of the important things that Be Inclusive Hospitality are doing is just collecting the data. Because I think sometimes if you have something that is acknowledged as a problem, but a lot of the people who might have issues you don’t tend to see them, or hear from them, no data has been collected, so then when things do come to light it’s like: oh but where is the proof from the data? But now things are being collected, there’ll be more focused reports, and even just shining a spotlight on people who work in the industry. Because one of the things that’s often been highlighted is that there are a few of us working within the area but we’ve never met each other, never see each other, so having Be Inclusive exist is that this is the first time a lot of us will meet each other, facilitated conversations, have panels, they’re also setting up a mentorship scheme, career coaching, a lot of access to services you might not necessarily have known were available. Especially with the area of wine, even trying to get your foot in the door sometimes it’s kind of, you think: what are the jobs that exist within the area, where do I begin, who can I talk to, I think it’s important that there’s now more provisions being provided where if it’s something you want to consider, there’s a lot of mentorship, also just like panels, talks, and I think that’s, there’s also some bursaries and things…
SB: There seem to be quite a few scholarships offered at the moment to the BAME community, for example the Gerard Basset Golden Vines scholarships. What do you think of those kind of things, are they going to make a big difference?
AA: I’m optimistic about them. But then also you have to think of: where a lot of these schemes are being presented, is there access to know how to aplly to these things readily available even? Cos sometimes it’s like: oh there’s this scheme, but then when you talk about it to other people they’re like: ‘oh, it exists!’ And you think: it’s good for it to be there but if people don’t know it’s there then….
SB: so it’s about getting the word out to people.
AA: yeah, I think that’s an important part. But when it comes to wine education, especially people who may not have started in that area v early, you may have to fund part of the study yourself. The expense!! It’s a serious cost. Especially if you’re not yet in the wine industry, it becomes prohibitively expensive, particularly in terms of the cost, for example the wines you might need for a practise tasting. And if you don’t really have any friends who work in the industry to share the costs around, it can really add up.
SB: So is making sure everybody knows, and spreading the world, so anyone interested can definitely have access and know about it. Can I ask you what your personal experience has been of inclusivity, or a lack of it, in the wine world?
AA: well, I think this is just my personal experience but when you go to wine tastings or events, a lot of the time I can count the amount of people who look like me on one hand. Or if, at a push, two. And it just becomes a bit strange when you don’t see anyone like yourself. But it’s one of those things: the perception of who works with wine that becomes problematic. Cos a lot of the time people won’t take you seriously at all. Or they just kind of like, I’m aware of my visibility but then I’m also quite invisible. So sometimes it’s just a bit of dissonance. But my experience has been OK.
SB: one last question: do you have an ultimate lockdown wine?!
AA: oh, one thing I’ve really been looking into with cooking more Ghanaian foods and pairing it with wines, is lighter reds but those that have good flavour intensity, maybe a spicier character. So I’m trying to find the ultimate light reds and rosés to pair with spicier foods. So those have been my lockdown wines. But recently I’ve also discovered the wonderful world of cider! It’s amazing. It’s like when you think you love one beverage and you find your heart can open up to the others. So there’s been some interesting discoveries in cider. I’ve bought a perry aged in Sauternes and Meursault barrels and I’m like…wow.
SB: so the cider world is your next mountain to climb?
AA: yeah, it’s interesting to see over time how these worlds, the barriers of separation are becoming less, and everyone’s just like let’s add grapes into this, use wine lees in this, use yeast or barrel for that.
SB: Audrey, thank you, it’s been such a pleasure!
AA: thank you
Jason Wise (JW): Well, it’s funny, to look back at that question, I can answer it more completely now, but back then it was more chaotic. I was directing a travel show, right out of film school, but I was still bar tending. I was travelling all round the world, it put me all over France, Italy, and while in France I’ve always been a big fan of history and I was writing a film during WW1. I was going to set it in Champagne, all my work to that point had been with narrative, with actors. When I couldn’t get that film off the ground, in retrospect – no kidding, it was a huge budget WW1 movie, one of my friends Brian McClintic was working at a restaurant and going through the Master Sommelier exam and I went and watched him blind taste and that particular movie, I played sports my whole life, and a lot of people have commented that the movie plays and looks like a sports movie and I kind of looked at it that way. So when I walked into Somm, I never looked at it as a wine film. So it was a very chaotic process of getting myself, you know, as a young film maker into the process of making this movie about sommeliers. Which, you have to look back – I feel like the most part, the word sommelier was not a vernacular word, at least in the US, so everyone thought I was making films about Somalians. But to answer your question the most concise I can: that’s what put me adjacent to wine. But I looked at Somm as a sports film, a very competitive bunch of guys treating each other bad, it’s very similar to a locker room, so…
Peter Richards MW (PR): fantastic to hear you say it like that. Now you say that I can really see it. It’s about the relationships between people, the dynamics, the competitiveness. But, so you’ve sort of answered my follow up question which is it’s often said wine doesn’t work well on screen, so what’s your secret?
JW: I do think wine can be pretty boring but I think any subject can be boring. It’s one of these things, I walk into the room with wine and I don’t believe wine is a niche, I think it’s a universe! My next 3 or 4 films, they’re about wine, set in that world, but they’re not. One’s about ghosts and three haunted wineries, ghost wineries in Napa. Another is about the origin of wine and religion – Judaism, Christianity, and we filmed all over the Middle East and Armenia and other places. I look at wine as an incredible springboard into anything else. You can talk about anything from religion to politics to war to sex to anything when you talk about wine. So it’s necessary to talk about what does it taste like, look like. But I’m more interested in what was going on in the world when it was made and what happened to the winemaker and why did it survive and how did this bottle get so expensive. That’s not a secret but I’m relentless and I’m terrified of putting out something bad. So the more I’ve gotten into this world, the more comfortable I feel. The other thing is, the people who work in wine, even you yourself, it’s filled with such great story tellers. You don’t see this much in other professions. You can make a film about motorcycles but by nature, motorcycle people aren’t story tellers. But wine people are. They want to tell you where they found this bottle, when they walked the vineyards, when it was owned by the Romans. They want to tell you it all. So it’s kind of naturally built for me.
PR: You’ve focused a lot in your movies on Master Sommeliers in the US. Recently, we have to bring this up, the Court of Master Sommeliers-Americas has been embroiled in a series of scandals, including recently some serious accusations of sexual harassment. Do you think what might be termed the ‘cult’ of the Master Sommelier, or the deification of Master Sommeliers, has played a part in that?
JW: It’s a tough question to answer. It’s impossible not to say yes to that, to be honest. And of course being this weird window into that world, I don’t think people realised the lack of access I actually have. But there’s a lot of people who looked at us and said: hey, you’re to blame of this. But I think Somm and these other films are also recognising what was already there. I do believe this very strongly. Not to defend myself or my team but we’re a women-led company, the women in this company are the reason why the films are good and it gets done, and I really mean that, it’s not lip service, my wife and Nadine the producer are the most talented people I’ve ever worked with. But when this whole thing came out, it was funny to watch them read the article, be disgusted and yet not be surprised. It’s like – they didn’t know but also they weren’t surprised when they found it. Which is like, a real telling, horrible thing. For women in any professional world to have that feeling. That opened my eyes more than anything. When it comes to the Court of Master Sommeliers, we don’t actually work with them, a bunch of their members have been in our films. This hit me like a ton of bricks, it was a very personal thing for me, because I can tell you: the casts in the next films will be very different. And that organisation has a hell of a lot of work to do. If they even can bring themselves back to a reputable situation. There’s so much stuff that I’ve heard since that I wish I’d known. It’s one of these things, when you find out that somebody for any reason other than ability wasn’t able to do a job that they wanted and were qualified to do, it’s terrible. There’s no excuse. There’s so many people saying – well. This is the type of situation where, I’m not talking about cancel culture, I’m not talking about removing people, but I think everybody, top to bottom, bosses, film makers, that organisation, anyone working in the wine world, everyone needs to look inside. And say: you can’t blame 1 or 5 people. But you can blame 10,000 and all of us are at fault. And we all need to figure out how to move forward. Cos frankly there’s so much more in the wine world to explore, and there’s so many smart people out there doing it, but there’s so much room for more people.
PR: And you’ve said the next films will have a very different cast. What do you mean by that?
JW: First of all, a lot of reasons for this. I’m not cancelling anybody but part of this is just: we need to move on. In other ways, there are so many, a lot of these films take years to make. It’s a funny thing, a film come out and current events…you filmed this 3 years ago and wish I hadn’t put that in the film or wow, this is so timely, that’s great. So it can go both ways. Making Somm TV putting out new content almost every day. You meet a lot of new people. And certain people: this will sound pretentious and I don’t mean for it to be, but I look at the Somm films like a Marvel universe, so the people who are in it are going to keep being in it. So people who I bring in, like Jancis Robinson, or Steven Spurrier, they become part of this little world we’ve created. People don’t think of film this way but it’s between two walls, they have to exist there, they’re characters even though they’re real people. So I’ve met a woman named Shakera Jones, met making Somm 3, she’s become not just a cast member but a writer, podcaster, she’s hilarious as a character and a good friend. She’ll be in two of the 3 films…and a feature film and – I’ll get in trouble for saying this but we’ve got a feature film coming out about the Rothschilds and she’ll be in that one as well
PR: we need the odd scoop or two… You released Somm in 2012, you’ve gone on to release two other Somm movies, with others due for imminent release, and you’ve also created Somm TV, a food and wine streaming service, and your podcast. So you’ve kind of got a mini Somm TV-empire! Was this always the plan, or has it just evolved over time?
JW: I’d love to say it was always the plan. It’s funny. Steven Spurrier’s the one who walked me into taking the dive on Somm TV. When I made Somm 3 with him, it was a dream to work with him and Jancis. As soon as I got into the world I realised: here are the people I want to work with at some point. And we were chatting and he said: you could make 4 of these a year. I said: sounds expensive and tiring. But I thought about it and Somm TV kinda came out of the idea: maybe he’s right. Maybe the energy is only being held back by others telling me to make stuff. So we created our own distribution platform so I could make stuff whenever we want! I don’t know if empire is the right world because all the cast and crew has ownership of the company so it’s more of a big family that’s always drunk than an empire! But it’s great, I can’t express how much fun this is to play in this world and I’m amazingly lucky people let me keep doing it.
PR: so we can call it a commune rather than an empire!
JW: right, a hippy commune.
PR: And wine should always be about fun, you’ve got that nailed too – Jason Wise, thank you.
JW: Thanks for letting me ramble, I appreciate it Peter.