Farewell to the Cult of the Somm

It's been a tough 15months for the somm trade, but there may be a silver lining.
© WSET | It's been a tough 15months for the somm trade, but there may be a silver lining.
Wine industry figures suggest the pandemic might offer a chance for sommeliers to reset and thrive.
By James Lawrence | Posted Thursday, 01-Jul-2021

"The pandemic has probably diminished the 'cult of the sommelier'. Recent events may have also subdued their profile/visibility in the US market. Perhaps we're moving towards a new paradigm: less aspirationally rock star - more humility?"

Who said that? A chastened former customer, pushed over the edge by 5000-percent markup on Petrus?

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It was actually Peter Gago, supreme head honcho at Penfolds. Like all of us, Gago laments the decline of the hospitality sector – particularly as restaurants in Sydney were recently told to cease trading. Citizens of the Australian state of Victoria have been ordered to close their restaurants four times since the pandemic became daily news. Australian sommeliers and their global colleagues have never known such adversity.

But, Gago also raises a possible silver lining: a sommelier reset with inflated egos taking a back seat to a passion for wine.

Since March 2020, many leading somms have lost their sponsorship deals and multi-faceted income streams. Tragically, at least 1000 hospitality venues have now closed in New York City, including some Michelin-starred ones. The cultural shift towards stay-at-home drinking and online retail is unlikely to simply evaporate once the world returns to a "new normal". Fine dining may be passed over for more casual experiences and lighter spends. It all begs the question: what will become of the somm equivalents of Bono and Taylor Swift? Their role as major influencers is under threat. Indeed, the loss of celebrity and adulation may well cause more pain than the loss of income.

It has certainly been a spectacular fall from grace. In 2017, wine importer Bartholomew Broadbent observed that: "Sommelier wine endorsements are now more powerful than critics' ratings.....they're usually ahead of the curve." Over the past decade, importers and promotional bodies have slavishly courted sommeliers, hiring them to organize tastings and plug products. The most famous individuals had cushy deals with brands like Latour. Some opened their own restaurants, others founded wine clubs and private organizations like the now defunct Pursuit of Balance. It was a glorious – and lucrative – time to be a first-division wine waiter.

One of the most congenial and generous men I ever encountered was a sommelier: Gerard Basset. He exemplified everything that was great about the wine profession. But I've also met a surfeit of somms, typically in their 30s and 40s, who were mindbogglingly arrogant. Their key focus was coining it from sponsorship deals, rather than actually engaging with consumers. If Gago is proven correct and the pandemic instills a little more humility in the profession, that is surely no bad thing. Do we need these rock star wannabes any more?

"Celebrity" somms

"While the 'cult' aspect of somm-dom was often unattractive, they still, as a community, were more experimental than other elements in the wine community as a whole," argues US-based wine writer Terry Theise.

"I also think that making celebrities of these people is something we bear most of the responsibility for. Sure, they were willing to play along (and to use it to make more money, nothing wrong with that) but the whole thing eventually got queasy. I'd be glad to see it return to something more durable – a due and proper respect for their professional accomplishments, but please, no more effing movies or TV shows."

Presuming the hospitality industry can recover some of its lost mojo over the longer-term, sommeliers will still have a role to play. As Theise underlines, somms are responsible for most restaurant’s primary profit centers, and owners may be tempted to hire them back sooner rather than later. Yet Covid-19 may put a permanent kibosh on lucrative endorsements and money being thrown around. The controversy surrounding the Court of Master Sommeliers will also not quickly be forgotten.

"The somm-i-verse took a hit with #MeToo recently, and as it reconfigures it gives us reason to hope it won't stay quite so adorable and trend-driven, as new kinds of people enter that world," adds Theise.

Of course, there are hard-working somms who have never so much as sniffed an endorsement deal. Their first love was always engaging with acolytes of the grape. Many sommeliers that I've spoken to concede that their profession must evolve and adapt, although not necessarily due to the pandemic's upending of the restaurant trade.

"As Australian restaurants reacted to skill shortages and operational challenges, the day-to-day work of a sommelier was already changing prior to Covid-19," says Leanne Altmann, beverage director at Andrew McConnell's Trader House venues in Victoria. Altmann was named Australian Sommelier of the Year in 2019 by Gourmet Traveller.

She continues: "These concerns have only been exacerbated by the last 15 months, and I see more sommeliers moving to combined wine and management roles, with perhaps more emphasis on guest-focused wine professionals as opposed to the sommelier as auteur. In the future, perhaps our guidance might be delivered in different ways, but I hope that an intuitive, personalized conversation about wine and food will always be relevant and valued."

If apathy is more undesirable than antagonism, then sommeliers can sleep easy tonight. The profession continues to attract strong opinions – and occasionally a hint of invective – from the trade. "My private view is that we'd be well rid of the whole rock-star somm business," said one individual, who wished to remain anonymous.

Others regard sommeliers as vital marketeers and ambassadors. "I can't think of a community that has had a more important role to play in our wine's initial success internationally; the endorsement of fine wine retailers is of course extremely important, but without a corresponding enthusiasm within the sommelier community, true success is hard to achieve. Sommeliers collectively remain one of the most important banks of wine knowledge and will continue to be trend-makers," observes Anthony Hamilton Russell.

I can dig somms as educators and restaurant profit makers, just not as glorified celebs in the influencer mold. If Covid-19 removes the delusions of grandeur and shifts the focus back to wine, then we'd all benefit. There are enough wannabe A-listers and vapid attention seekers in social media without sommeliers jumping on the pile.

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