A Somm life - an honest account (#4)
Hey wine lovers,
Ever thought about becoming a sommelier? The most ‘glamorous’ role in the trade. Want to know what it’s all about? Well, keep reading for my personal review (as well as a friends), on this sought-after wine career.
In my last post, I spoke about studying for my WSET Level 2 in great detail, but today I’m only going to skim over Level 3, as I’m keen to take you all to the bright lights of London with me within this read.
So, WSET Level 3 was Mega! Level 2, but on steroids! What a jump - but in a fantastic way. Our tasting game was upped, our knowledge of specific regions and micro-climates stretched. I was now head over heels with the nectar that is wine. By the end of the course, I felt like my knowledge levels were good enough to really make a career out of this.
Before I had thought hospitality in general was my route, but now, after being surrounded by numerous ‘wine people’, my WSET educator and hearing stories of people earning their living (in the big cities) by simply knowing heaps about wine, I realised that wine on its own was also an option. So, I left my little hamlet (even smaller than a village) on the edge of Dartmoor (it really doesn’t get more rural than that in the UK), and headed to the ‘Big Smoke’. London was calling.
I had trial shifts as a Commis Sommelier lined up at the biggest and best restaurants in London. After a week of gruelling back-to-back shifts, I was lucky enough to have my pick from each establishment - an instant confidence boost that the head Somm’s could see some talent in me. This experience was also terrifying however, as I had just moved 5 hours away from home to make it to the big time. I had a point to prove to myself and didn’t want to have to slink back to Devon having failed before I’d even started.
In the end it was at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, in the Mandarin Oriental, Knightsbridge, (which was the Number One restaurant in the UK at the time) where I accepted my new role.
S**t was getting real …
Everyone at home was so impressed at this new life I was building for myself including my Dad, an ex-chef, who shared a photo of me in my new uniform (which was very swanky indeed) on his social media. I didn’t want to let him, or any of my friends and family down. Pressure.
I could write for days about the experiences gained at the Dinner. The good, the bad, and the ugly. And believe me, aside from the showy ‘good’ that our guests could see during service, for me, there was a lot of ugly. I think it’s fair to say that being a Sommelier didn’t necessarily come naturally to me despite how hard I tried to fall in love with the job. I found this surprising and massively frustrating, as being on the floor was in my blood and what I lived for. It really is such a unique role within the restaurant team and dynamics are so different to commanding a service and looking after the guest’s total experience.
Being a Somm, you are on your own in your section only having to nagivate around the plates being delivered to the table, and I missed the social team element from my past experience (although I loved the Somm team!). I had gone from being a chatty, personable floor supervisor (greeting guests, taking orders, serving wine, delivering plates, managing a team, etc), to - in my eyes - becoming a robot. A cog in the machine. Small fish, big pond, I guess?
The role itself is as brutal as any other hospitality job. The hours didn’t bother me, nor the physical aspect (I dropped a dress size in about 3 weeks of working in London). It was the drain of constantly requiring utter perfection that dampened my sparkly spirit. A ‘speak when spoken to’ and ‘stand to attention’ when not engaging with customers feeling was tough for me. I wanted more of the action like the food team were experiencing getting much more time to socialise with guests and really add to the overall experience of the evening. Of course, sommeliers add to the experience of wine engaged guests too, but not in the way I was used to.
What exactly does a Somm do? Polishing glasses really is the bulk of what commis (junior) sommeliers do outside of service. You need to earn your stripes and get all of the menial tasks nailed as well as having confidence on the floor, and a mega wine knowledge before gaining that promotion to Sommelier and dropping the ‘commis’ title. Again, personally I didn’t mind the menial tasks like polishing glassware. To be honest, it was a chance to rest from the constant adrenaline from service, but I know for other Somms this was the pits of the job and often the reason people dropped out. As well as being pro’ polishers, dusting glass cabinets, replenishing ice buckets from machines miles away, and checking-in orders to the cellar were more of these repetitive tasks carried out when not in service.
Not sounding too glamorous so far is it?! However, I don’t want this to sound like a negative experience, and although I quickly knew the Somm life wasn’t for me, what a great life it is for those who were born to pour!
To ensure this in an unbiased review, I’ve roped in my good friend and ex colleague Tariq, to share his view on the Somm role, which is a bit more positive than my own. ‘Day after day, you work tirelessly to improve your craft, tasting hundreds of wines a week to build up your taste buds and knowledge. You meet new, interesting people who share your passion, and even clients who become extremely close friends (last year I went to the wedding of a couple I met in the restaurant!). You speak with the real people in wine, producers and people who simply had a dream, and turned dirt, seeds, and some good old-fashioned elbow grease into some of the finest nectar on the planet.
So, you see, I find being a Sommelier is something truly special. It's a noble, ancient craft that provides not just great and professional service, but also takes people on an incredible journey - one they'll never forget. It's led to a career filled with exciting challenges, friends that will last a lifetime, and ultimately, a great deal of self-satisfaction and affirmation. What more can I ask for?’.
Tariq and I were lucky enough to be trained by an MS (Master Sommelier) and a fabulously passionate Italian head Somm, who set us homework daily and made sure we were always on the tips of our toes! Being able to call out specific vintage conditions from random years, know all of the villages in an appellation or local grape varieties from an obscure region were facts tricky to retain, but necessary when you are trying to sell bottles costing £10,000 to wealthy diners wanting the most prestige wine on offer (which is currently the 1989 Petrus at Dinner).
From my time working as a Somm I learned a lot about wine (and myself as a person actually), but also how to execute tasks with perfection and focus and the importance of ‘nerding up’ on wine. No room for blagging which is one of my best personality traits in general!
Again, I will keep coming back to it, and really want to reiterate this, but the people in this trade are incredible and I have gained friends and contacts for life. The wine community is so tight in London. Everyone knows everyone, and their CV off by heart once in the circuit. A community that is giving and nurturing and always looking out for each other. Not only in a career sense, but in a personal way also. An industry of caring professionals. True professionals. That’s what makes Somms (and hospitality folk) special.
For my next blog entry, I’ll be re living my first ever wine trip and harvest – Bordeaux! Anyone looking to break their backs in the blazing heat of the sun picking grapes, do join me next time.
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