The qualities required in a sommelier or wine steward…

Penelope Horwood gives us a meticulous count down to every detail that an aspiring young Wine Steward should note and take heed of. 

The qualities required in a sommelier or wine steward 

A sommelier or wine steward is the link between a client of a restaurant and its beverage offering.  Wine and food complement each other.  The excellent service of wine is the other half of excellent food service.  For it to be enjoyable for guests, the sommelier needs to be professional in dress and attitude, as well as skilled and knowledgeable.  The main attributes required are grooming, knowledge of social etiquette, a pleasant attitude and aptitude (skill, wine knowledge and experience).

  1. Grooming: neat appearance in all respects
  • Cleanliness of the person
  • Clean, manicured nails
  • Hair neat and out of the face
  • A clean, well-pressed uniform (no crease marks)
  1. Social Etiquette: 
  • Polite (greet your guests)
  • Discreet (not obsequious)
  • Do not encroach into the body space of the table guests (don’t crowd them).  Keep a respectful distance.
  • Address the host of the table first, introduce yourself and request their order for still or sparkling water.
  • Speaking to the host, recommend a wine to pair with the food choice, give a brief summary of the wine (varietal, brand, vintage, producer, any interesting details eg. Historic points or how produced).
  • Listen to the host’s remarks and any requests (do not interrupt the host or overrule his/her choice of wine, even if you know it may not pair as well as your recommendation).
  • Fill the water glasses of the guests, asking their preference for still or sparkling water.
  • Stand to the right hand side of each guest to serve the wine and water. (Never stretch over a guest to pour!)  
  • Thereafter, pour a tasting sample of the selected wine for the host, let him/her sample it, once he/she has approved it, then ask each table guest if he/she would like a glass of it before filling their glasses.  Finally, top up the host’s glass.
  • Be attentive to topping up the diners’ glasses as they near empty.
  • Advise the host when the bottle is almost empty.
  • Ask him/her if they would like to re-order the same wine or another wine from the wine list.
  • Any problems at all – remember to speak to the host.  Always honour him/her.
  1. Attitude: Body language and communication skills 

Remember that body language is 80% of communication!  Your posture and spoken manner are important. 

  • Be confident: hold yourself erectly, introduce yourself with a friendly smile, speak clearly.
  • Be courteous. 
  • Be helpful.  Let the guests feel you’re happy to serve them.
  • Serve water and wine promptly.  Diners do not want to wait long for their glasses to be filled once the wine has been ordered.
  1. Aptitude:  Skill, wine knowledge and experience in serving wine

Know your wines!

  • Know the varietals/brands/vintages/producers and interesting production or historic details of each wine, Champagne etc.
  • Ensure you have the necessary equipment: a corkscrew or waiter’s friend, an ice bucket, a napkin, a tray, the correct stemware eg. flute or coupe glasses for Champagne/MCC/sparkling wine, red or white wine glasses etc.  The glasses must be sparkling clean.
  • Ensure Champagne/MCC/sparkling wine, white wine are chilled at the correct temperature (12  to 16 deg Celsius in SA).
  • Open Champagne by twisting off the cork – do not pop it!
  • Pour Champagne by holding a flute slightly tilted and allowing the liquid to flow down the inside of the glass, then as the glass fills, slowly return it to its upright position.  The top should be a froth of fine bubbles.
  • If the red or white wine has a cork closure, neatly cut the foil, before using a waiter’s friend.
  • If red wine, decant it to allow it to breathe.
  • Pour neatly – ensure you do not drip wine when pouring it.  Slightly twist the bottle to one side to prevent drops from falling, after pouring.
  • Do not overfill glasses: a red wine glass is half filled, a white wine glass is two-thirds filled.
  • Top up the water glasses frequently.
  • Put Champagne and white wine in an ice bucket near the table.  Place red wine decanter with the red wine bottle, on a serving table nearby.   
  • If the wine is tainted or faulty, offer to replace it with another bottle immediately.  It is not your fault if a bottle is corked, oxidised, contains Brett or VA (volatile acidity).
  1. Conclusion

Always remember – Being an excellent sommelier is a vocation.  The guests will remember your professional service, pleasant manner and well groomed appearance long after they have forgotten what wine they drank!

PIC: Sommelier Gregory Mutambe with Samantha Swartz, Distell Inter Hotel Challenge Wine Steward of 2018, representing The Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa.

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