“I don’t like most sommeliers, as I usually know more about European wine than they do” my client expressed to me a week ago. It made me rethink what the job of a sommelier actually is: If being a "storage of wine information” is the definition of a good sommelier, then isn’t Google going to do a better job of this with its endless information and quick access to data? Moreover, can a human being even compete with this highly accessible information that the internet has to offer? How is the sommelier profession adapting to the change of time, and what is the 'value' of a somm in 2020?
Every job changes with time. And it should - otherwise it becomes irrelevant and usually fades away. If a carpenter needed specifically strong muscles to cut wood 100 years ago, today machinery does most of the heavy labour and has therefore changed the qualities that constitute a good carpenter and the qualifications of the profession.
Restaurants needed the sommelier position, the job was to store information about the wines (characteristics, technical notes, etc) and regions on the list amongst other tasks. The somm acted as a replacement to running back to a thick wine books - a knowledge base that no client would want to carry with into a fancy restaurant. It made it easy and accessible for guests to get information about any of the wines on the list through a discussion with one person - the sommelier.
Nowadays, most diners have their cell phone within reach while dining. Information is ultra accessible - every person in a split of a second can get information about a wine, a region, or a pragmatic suggested pairing without the need to wait for the sommelier, and many patrons choose their own wines this way. That leaves us with the question: How relevant is a sommelier today if all they are is "walking wine database?"
Thinking about it further - as this is a question that we can ask about any profession today - isn’t google a better doctor than your doctor? What makes a good doctor? Someone who has theoretical knowledge, or is it something else? Why do we need doctors where we can invent a machine that can diagnose your symptoms and prescribe a pill? should the doctor memorize the diagnostic book or can they have the knowledge at hand on a computer without the shame of looking at it - and utilizing more of their brain capacity to other tasks but memorizing daunting information?
We have to be honest with ourselves: We can’t compete with computers on storing knowledge, accurate calculations and quick precision. Listing all Bordeaux subregions to clients is a great party trick but everyone can google it in seconds, so what is the point? Yes, a somm needs to have some knowledge, but if that is everything they have to offer (or most of it) then they might as well give up now (or hop on a time machine and travel back to 1978!). What is it that we humans do have that computers don't (and probably never will have)? What does a doctor bring to a patient that a machine cannot? What can a sommelier give to the guests that google cannot? I want to dig into these questions to determine what the relevance of the sommelier profession is in 2020.
It is the personality of the somm that creates the experience
When I was a young sommelier, I watched the most successful sommeliers and tried to figure out what made them good at their job. I realized that it wasn’t the knowledge, it was their unique personalities that made them shine - the way they were with guests and walked through the restaurant. Their poise, personality, and demeanour is what attracted the guests to them. I noticed that just their presence in the restaurant made people want to order more wine, boosting the wine sales and energy of the space. There are plenty of professionals with knowledge, but the ones who let their unique personality shine through and pass their passion to the guests are the sommeliers who bring an experience that no computer can.
Breaking the rules creates magic
We could create a machine that will follow the rules of food and wine pairing - a formula that will measure different flavours and show us what wine will best balance the flavours. But we can’t teach a machine to not follow the rules while at the same time creating a unique, tasty and surprising flavour experience! Following the rules is the “safe” way of pairing wine to a dish, but it doesn’t take much challenge, creativity, or imagination.
When rules are broken in an intuitive way they bring pleasure and excitement to the palate, and this is where you can experience the underlying fun of experimentation. Where a machine can only give you an absolute truth, a person can give an expression: Their unique, human, experience-based interpretation.
Somm is essentially a wine server - intuition and conversation is everything!
Feeling out the client and gaining an understanding of what their wants are and how they wish to be treated is at the heart of the sommelier job. Often a somm needs to “read between the lines” to understand the guests real needs and wants. It takes intuition and experience to interact well with people - a quality a machine will never possess. At times a client would like to step outside of their comfort zone.
Without that human interaction I implement in one of the restaurant I work at, I would probably not need to cary anything in the cellar beyond a few Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. If the somm talks, listens and feels out the client, they can catch key moments to bring out wines their client wouldn’t previously gravitate to, and as a result widen their horizons and their wine experiences.
A good sommelier has excellent people skills and uses them for individualized service. This changes with the mood of each client that day and the vibe of the restaurant - something that a robot could never achieve as it cannot truly ‘feel' the hum of energy humans radiate on a given day!
Passion, love, sensitivity and excitement
Clients have emotions and feelings and therefore need a somm who also has emotions in order to get comfortable, excited, and fulfilled. Engaging in a warm way with clients - making them feel like they belong and are spoiled - is something that only a warm beating heat can do.
Research shows that a persons vibe and energy has a stronger effect than what they say. I have no doubt that the somms energy matters more to guests than their specific knowledge about wine. A Somm's vibe will even affect the way wine tastes to a client.
Drinking wine in a vineyard in Italy and then drinking the same wine in your basement makes you wonder what happened to the wine, as it doesn't taste as great as it did in Italy! The reason is because we don’t taste in a vacuum: Everything around us - the view, the company we are with, the vibe of the somm - will influence the way a person tastes wine.
A good sommelier can encourage you to explore!
It has probably happened to you before: You are thinking about traveling to Florida and shared that thought with a friend, and suddenly your phone is full of ads about vacations in Florida. The online world we live in today created a situation where you start seeing only what you are already interested in. As a result, we end up living in a vacuum of our beliefs, likes and experiences. If you google wine and you often order Cabernet Sauvignon, Google will show you Cabernet Sauvignon wines. It's designed to sell products to you and give you what is 'relevant' to you.
That being said, a good somm would want to expose you to different flavours you didn’t know existed by nature. And in that way, sharpen your tasting skills and open your horizons to the variety of flavours you wouldn't naturally go for.
The personal imprint of a sommelier
We are unique individuals with our own belief systems and values. A good sommelier celebrates their individual values by choosing wines that they stand behind, wines that have beyond good taste for a good price point. Computers have no principles or values to be guided by.
To give you an example, as a person who pushes for equality I make sure to have wines made by people of colour (especially if made in Europe or North America) as they are people who have had the most obstacles succeeding in the industry. I make sure to have women winemakers as well to pass on the message that women can make wine too, and they do it well. I will discuss the oppression of minorities in my industry with clients to bring awareness to this, and to start a change. That is my personal imprint - how I decided to make a difference.