Uncorking the Wine Steward Profession
Written by: Chan Wan Xin
With the dust of the inaugural Michelin Guide Singapore finally settled, we have just witnessed how strongly opinionated our society is when it comes to food. Pitchforks raised, sarcasm abound, Singaporeans are breaking the internet over dishes and cuisines. But behind the noise, the question on who has a better wine list among the restaurants is all but responded with crickets' chirp.
Without proper knowledge of wines, Singaporeans are indecisive with the wine list. Very often, the result is ice water with dinner.
So what are we to do if there's a problem in finding the right wine? Wave and ask a sommelier!
Who is a sommelier?
Sommeliers pouring at a local wine judging event
A sommelier, or a wine steward, is the person responsible for providing wine services.
A proficient sommelier advises customers on areas such as how to distinguish Moscato from Champagne and explains price differences. The sommelier is also responsible for designing wine lists that complement the chef's menus. He/she also works with importers to source for suitable wines, and recommends wines based on the customer's budget.
One might expect a cosmopolitan city like Singapore to have a wide selection of wines, but alcohol levy makes wine importers very cautious, importing only what they can sell. To help overcome these limitations, some sommeliers travel to wine producing countries, observe dining cultures, work in overseas restaurants, and recommends wines to local importers. The experience offers perspectives and inspires better wine lists at home.
Being a wine professional is not about how well you drink
A proficient wine professional goes beyond drinking a ton of expensive wines. Many times it is the inexpensive wines that offer us something to learn than the branded ones.
Wine tasting helps sommeliers to recognise wines from specific grape varieties and places of origin, like putting faces to names. It makes up one part of wine training.
The most authoritative and remarkably thick wine books to-date
The other part is studying a combination of GCE 'O' Level subjects. For example, wine production is closely related to chemistry and biology. Grape planting (viticulture) covers geography. Learning why some wines are made in certain fashion is like going through history lessons all over again. And if you ever need a reason to learn basic French, Italian and Spanish, wine will take you there.
So before you yum-seng away, a sober mind is still needed.
Tips from the industry
If you are still reading at this point, then you must really be interested in the sommelier career! We have gathered three sommeliers in Singapore and asked them what it takes to succeed in the field.
1. Yeo Xi Yang, Senior Sommelier, Les Amis
After completing his full-time National Service, Xi Yang joined the where he worked to become a sommelier. After four years in the trade, Xi Yang was recently named Singapore's Best Sommelier in French Wines 2016. Only in his mid-twenties, Xi Yang's achievement is already a role model for other young sommeliers, for whom he has this advice:
"Wines are tools to deliver fantastic service. A sommelier must have (an) understanding of food, cooking techniques, wines, beverages, spirits and dining etiquette. For me, a heart of service combined with empathy will go far in this line."
2. Alvin Gho, Beverage Director and Sommelier, The American Club
Alvin is among the first few Advanced Sommelier recognised by from Singapore. Now in his mid-30s, he has already managed wine lists for some of the top restaurants in Singapore, Shanghai, and now, The American Club.
His advice for aspiring sommeliers is not to get carried away with personal preferences and forget that the wine list should be less of self and more of others. He says a common pitfall for sommeliers is the tendency to list what they like to drink, thereby making themselves the greatest customer.
3. Kelvin Tay, Group Sommelier Mentor and General Manager, Lo Behold Group
Kelvin has been in the restaurant business for close to two decades. At Lo Behold Group, Kelvin is the group's sommelier mentor, where employees can apply for a mentoring programme designed for baristas, mixologists, and sommeliers.
For him, having an attitude to serve and the keenness to learn are important attributes to succeed; everything else can be imparted.
Are you ready to pop and pour?
While waxing lyrical about wines seem romantic, in reality, being a sommelier involves passion, humility, as well as a fun-loving and engaging personality.
The best sommeliers are not salesmen. They are experience makers who complete the journey from aperitif to dessert. In their hands, diners finish the meal feeling physically full and emotionally satisfied.
That is the best reward for the job.
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