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Waiter’s Friends
by Staff
Magazine Issue: AUS/NZ Issue Two
If your passion for wine and food is second only to your impeccable manners, becoming a sommelier might very well be the gig for you. If in fact you knew what they did. We talk to some of the country's top sommeliers to find out what they do, how to be one and just what it takes to outtalk a wine enthusiast.

You can tell the original service provided by sommeliers was exclusive to royalty. Back then, sommeliers were to the royals what roadies are to rock stars. It was their job to cellar, advise, serve and match wines for the blue blood -- make the good things in life easier for them. Over time the profession spread to restaurants.

Talk to sommeliers now and you still sense that pride in service, a loyalty to the cause, keeping up of old-school tradition and a perception that they are dealing with something as precious and important as royalty. Ah, wine ... royalty -- to these guys, they may as well be the same thing.

Today's sommeliers need to have an extensive knowledge of wine and their suitability with a quiver of dishes. Depending on the size of the establishment, they may also be in charge of cellaring and buying the wine and writing the wine list. Ben Edwards from Circa The Prince in St Kilda, a finalist in the Rosemount 2000 Sommelier of the Year award and winner of the 2000 Champagne Devaux Young Sommelier award, defines part of his role as "offering advice to the customers when they need it, providing information about the wines, helping them with wine choices, wine and food matches and giving them the opportunity to ask questions about what they're going to enjoy most".

Extensive wine knowledge means knowing individual characteristics of each wine on the list and how it matches with each dish on the menu. On top of this, it's the sommelier's job to know and advise on the basic rules of food and wine matching. None of the sommeliers I spoke to even hinted there were any short cuts to obtaining this level of knowledge. In fact, the harder thing is often getting a job.

In Australia it's quite difficult to become a sommelier for two main reasons. Firstly, few full-time sommelier positions exist -- you may score a gig as a waiter who gets to deal mainly with wine, but rarely in Australia is it a full-time job. Secondly, there are few formal training structures in place to becoming a sommelier, unlike in Europe where you can complete a sommelier's apprenticeship and the industry cultivates it as a profession far more than in Australia.

Formal organisations do exist in Australia, namely the Australian Sommeliers Association (ASA) which has branches in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. Aside from ASA endorsed courses (see sidebar) less formal paths to gaining knowledge for a job as a sommelier do exist. Although the advice from existing sommeliers to becoming one is quite varied, it all revolves around, well, the thirst for knowledge.

"Knowledge is power," states Patrick Walsh, who is the sommelier at Melbourne's Langtons restaurant and President of the Victorian chapter of the ASA. "You've got to take every opportunity, every day to learn something new about wine."

"Find a good tasting group," suggests Dave Chapman of Melbourne's European and Supper Club "One that's not really set in their opinions and tastes widely. That way you can become familiar with different wine styles and you won't straightjacket yourself into any wine preferences."

Nick Stock of Brisbane's Armstrongs restaurant feels the best way to learn is through a combination of tasting, reading and talking. And he should know. Nick won the Rosemount 2000 Australian Sommelier of the Year Award. "Taste as many new wines as you can and read a lot," he reckons. "Also, talk about wine to as many people as you possibly can, especially with people who know more than you do."

Nick Stock, sommelier of the year, likes to "take people where they've never been before."

Dave Chapman of Melbourne's European and Supper Club stresses the need for an open mind.

It's a slog, but well worth it ensures Andrew Guard, sommelier, President of the NSW arm of the ASA and wine buyer for the Ultimo Wine Centre in Sydney. "It takes about five years of hard work, tasting, travelling and talking. It requires a real diligence to read and research so you are able to form an opinion. It's hard work but I guarantee when someone's bitten by the bug, they'll be into it."

And it's this term "into it", that fluid statement that indicates everything and nothing all at once that appears to drive these sommeliers more than anything. It's more than just knowledge, you've gotta have that hard-to-define something extra.

"Nobody can give you the drive to keep learning more about wine -- it's gotta come from within," urges Ben. "You can give people so many opportunities to sit down and taste wine, go to wine events ... but so often so many people just can't be bothered to take the next step. And because there's no structured training per se it makes it even harder."

These guys are genuinely into it for the same reason many of their passionate patrons are. As Dave Chapman admits, "In all of my dealings I prefer to be around people who genuinely enjoy drinking and learning about wine and are humbled by its complexity." Clearly frustrated by anyone hoping to use knowledge of wine to improve their social status, he continues. "I can see that wine knowledge confers a kind of social status, but when this is used inappropriately I find it completely boring and annoying."

When questioned about what advice it takes to make it as a sommelier, Annette Mudie from Sydney's Banc restaurant and Rosemount Sommelier 2000 finalist nails the response from all. "As long as you're passionate and enthusiastic about it, that's half the battle."

But before you buy a waiter's friend, wash your hair and head off to wine school, know that knowledge and passion are still only part of the equation. You need the passion to learn the knowledge, but the people skills to deliver it and as Nick Stock explains, this can be harder than any element of the job. "Wine knowledge is just one of the tools. Developing techniques to find out what people's needs are is the hardest skill to learn - wine knowledge you can get from books, from reading, from classes and from talking to people. Becoming comfortable with the job takes lots of experience."

Indeed it'd take a fair amount of tact to tell someone, 20 years your senior, who's entertaining guests and spending enough money to buy a small car that actually, his choice of food and wine is appalling. For some sommeliers that may be tempting, but it's not their job, as Ben Edwards explains, "Some people want to have total control over the situation whether or not they're choosing something that's right. But you've gotta let people do that", and here's that quiet obedient servant vibe again, "It's not my job to stand there and preach to people, my job is to be a resource, to offer my opinion, but not to tell people what to do."

Everyone admits there are some sensitive and ferocious egos at work when it comes to wine and everyone is highly aware that making an accurate judgement is imperative. "If customers are hesitant on the food and wine matching angle, a good sommelier will politely step in and offer some guidance on what bottle will go with a particular dish," explains Patrick Walsh. "But not everyone is interested in it. As a sommelier, it's very important to know, but not always appropriate to say."

So much control, so much discipline, so polite. And that's their job. But when these guys get to drive, when they're given the royal nod and asked to choose something, the enthusiasm comes out and they take control. They can make your ride as wild as you like, tell you stories about the regions and wines and characters as they go; they can drive fast and crazy like they're on the Paris to Dakar or they can putter you from glass to glass like they're driving Miss Daisy.

"Just ask questions and use them as a resource," recommends Ben of what you should do next time you're offered the services of one. "Anybody who's involved in wine loves talking about wine, is passionate about wine, wants to show off how much they know about wine, hopefully in the right manner." Working with him might be a little safer than say, Nick Stock who, if given the opportunity, likes to take you on a wild ride. "I try to provide interesting and new experiences -- I like to take people where they haven't been before."

When used right, the service of a sommelier can be a pleasure for both server and customer, especially when wine's your thing. As Annette Mudie says, "You know you can talk about wine until the cows come home and you won't bore anyone." Now there's a skill.

Patrick Walsh of Langton's in Melbourne: "Knowledge is power."


AUSTRALIAN SOMMELIERS ASSOCIATION

VICTORIA
President Patrick Walsh 0417-376-983. Yearly memberships $75. Associate and corporate memberships also available. For information on courses endorsed by the ASA call the Wine Professionals on 03-9855-0255. The usual stream undertaken is the five or six-week Basics of Wine Course and the Intermediate Wine Course followed by the Advanced Sommeliers Course (four weeks). Courses start at $280. A year's membership to the association is provided upon completion of the course.

NSW
For information about the NSW leg, call 02-9518-4044. Memberships are $55 a year and wine enthusiasts and professionals alike are encouraged to join. The President for the NSW branch is Andrew Guard. An endorsed Introductory Sommeliers course is held at the Northern Sydney Institute of TAFE, call 02-9448-6249 for a course outline. The course runs for seven weeks, costs $300 and completion of it provides you with one year membership to the association.

QUEENSLAND
The Queensland leg is a little less formal, but still provides a network and forum for enthusiastic and budding sommeliers alike. The initiation of approved courses is underway now, and you can call Nick Stock, the country's top sommelier on 0413-176-940, for information about this.

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