Sommeliers Association helping to uplift the industry
01 January 1970
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Thanks for joining me for another episode of Old Mutual Live Wine edition, I’m Jenny Crwys–Williams . Higgo Jacobs is the Chairman of the South African Sommeliers Association and he’s just finished working on the 2016 Wines of South Africa International Sommelier Cup. It sounds very intense.
I’m told it was and also a bit rarefied and it started me asking myself what the real value of a qualified sommelier is in this young country of ours. So I gave the floor to Higgo. All of a sudden people are talking about sommeliers in SA and I don’t think they have been doing that for very many years, tell us why?
Higgo Jacobs: Yes, we formed the association in 2010 and then officially registered it in 2011 and with that, there’s two answers to the question. I think the reason we formed it was because of momentum starting to gather with the profession in SA. Then we obviously also created a lot of awareness and momentum by having formed the association, so that’s fuelled it on.
I think it’s a combination of those two factors. Us putting a lot of work into training and facilitating and networking with sommeliers. But also I think the time was quite ripe in terms of where the industry has developed to in hospitality in South Africa.
More restaurants are seeing the value in a sommelier
JCW: And possibly why we are noticing sommeliers so much more is there’s more publicity because you’re feeding off the last few years and it’s been growing imperceptibly.
HJ: That’s right, we’re still very far from where we should be. I think, in terms of where the rest of the industry is perhaps. There’s still a lot of development that needs to happen, maybe more competition in terms of qualified people available to give positions. But it’s a little bit of a chicken and egg situation as well because we’re still also trying to increase awareness from restaurateurs points of view to actually value the position and therefore providing good packages. Then attracting the right sort of people.
It’s a little bit of both, but at the moment there’s certainly and under supply of good candidates for the positions, so that’s both challenging for us to fill that demand, but also encouraging. Meaning that there’s a lot of restaurants realising that they need someone professional on the floor.
JCW: And also, I think it’s a very specific person you want because they’ve got to be able to communicate really well and not everybody has got the gift of the gab, they just don’t. Also, I presume that there’s some kind of qualification that you have to have in order to be a successfully ranked sommelier in South Africa or anywhere else for that matter.
HJ: That’s true Jenny. When we set up the association, the group of interested people that pulled together and started and formed SASA were all internationally qualified. We did in terms of just maybe organising ourself formally for the industry sake.
We had a criteria in terms of membership to have internationally recognised professional qualifications as a distinction for our membership. But we’ve moved away from that and what we’ve also started doing is offering certification and education here in SA.
It’s unfair to expect from everybody to have to travel overseas to go and get an international qualification, just to call him or herself a sommelier. We had to initially because it was at a time that people left right and centre, without any sort of wine qualification, or beverage qualifications were referring to themselves as sommeliers. It was a little bit gung-ho and Wild West.
But there’s been a lot of increase and awareness and now we’re at a place where we’re way more inclusive and we’re also offering education and certification here. We’ve been welcomed into what is called the ASI, the Association Sommellerie Internationale, it’s a French association. They’re the international governing body of national associations around the world and we are now members with them. They are recognising our qualification. We have international recognition with our certification here in SA now, so we’ve come a long way from 2011.
What makes a good sommelier?
JCW: Higgo, what is involved, what do qualified sommeliers have to do in order to become a successful sommelier? Taste has got a huge amount to do with it, but so has food.
HJ: Yes, absolutely. The qualification in terms of if you want to come and sit the exam and we do allow industry professionals that haven’t necessarily done our courses to just come and enrol in the exam. It works like that with other institutions as well, the certification that I did in the UK, for instance, with the Court of Masters Sommeliers, you can simply go and do their exam. They certainly don’t encourage it, but you can take the chance to enrol in their exam which is a one-day exam.
What you need to be able to pass is quite a strict theory on wine and also other beverages. That’s maybe important for listeners to realise that it’s not only wine in terms of sommeliers beverage demands and knowledge specifications. You need to have quite a good grasp of spirits, beers, even coffee/tea/water and so forth.
The first part is theory and then there’s a tasting test as well, a blind tasting test that would have mostly wines, but also include a few other alcoholic beverages. Then very importantly, there’s a practical component which is mock-up setting in a restaurant. We throw some challenges that would occur on a restaurant floor, we throw at the candidates and see how they handle that and that’s the same on an international format as well.
JCW: What about putting together a wine list for a restaurant, because I do notice that some of the sommeliers that I’ve come across and have worked with to a limited extent. They are all putting wine lists together and I think that’s a complex thing to do.
Having a hand in the wine menu
HJ: Absolutely. It’s actually a very contentious point in the SA context. Because we’re not very far from where we were when we were in a bad place where wine lists were mostly compiled by distributors and suppliers. If you have a professional in the restaurant, that brings a lot of creativity.
Because that person is looking after the client and the restaurants needs rather than making profitable sales for the producers. It brings a lot of creativity having a person on board who specifically runs the beverage programme, compiling the list. Then also selling it on to the customer at the end. So the person who actually does the purchasing is the person on the floor selling it on. That’s a very key component for being a sommelier.
Also to answer your question, we would have, correct the following mistakes on the wine list as part of the theory test, but it would seldom be part of an exam set-up. But what we do in our courses and in our qualifications and that’s another key differentiator for what SASA is providing with education in SA now; is that we teach front of house elements, we teach stock control, stock management, even how you store your wines, how to compile a wine list, how to work out your mark-up, what is competitive pricing structures in the industry.
These sorts of things and that’s never been taught as part of a front of house module. The only reason that we’re doing that is because we have international experience and qualifications to people teaching the courses. So we know what it’s about in order to be able to teach it.
It’s quite exciting and it’s exciting also for the candidates. What’s also really cool is we’re starting to get industry support in terms of bursary sponsorships for students coming our way. So there’s quite a bit of that happening and we’re feeding more qualified people into the trade.
JCW: There’s been an explosion of South African wines, all you’ve got to do is look at the size of the Platters that comes out every single year, it just gets bigger and fatter and fatter. There’s just the most extraordinary range of wines and one hasn’t even touched on international wines. Because in many places that you go to eat there is a category for international wines. These guys and of course there are female sommeliers as well, they’ve got to be au fait with international wines as well as the broad range of SA wines. It’s a big job.
A challenge to keep on top of wines?
HJ: Absolutely. Wine is a very humbling thing, so you can never know everything. Just when you think you have a certain country under the belt, it changes its regulations and its fashion again. It certainly keeps us all humble, but you do need to have a very sound understanding.
If you want to call yourself a qualified sommelier working in a serious restaurant, you need to have a very good grasp of at least the basic categories of wines around the world. The key component there. I think a lot of people would think that it’s being unpatriotic if you’re not promoting and selling South African wines and the country really.
We want to also be able to offer a good quality selection of international wines available in SA because it’s not saying that we believe they’re better or worse than SA wines, it’s putting the SA wines into context. Really seeing ourselves as a quality international player in that sense.
A local sommelier needs to be able to, when a tourist walks into a restaurant and says: I really like Chardonnay in the Chablis style of the wine. Then the sommelier shouldn’t stand there with a mouth full of teeth, you need to know what style they’re referring to in terms of Chablis. To then make a really good local recommendation. Would be bone dry, lightly wooded style of local Chardonnay that you then recommend.
To be able to do that, you do need to have a grasp of the, as I said, at least the major producing areas around the world and where we fit in, in context. Just a quick note on that, the SA wines are so highly regarded at the moment and that’s maybe part of what I was referring to earlier. Part of our challenge at SASA is to keep the service industry on par with where our wine industry are, because we’re extremely proud of the quality of our wines at the moment.
JCW: You haven’t mentioned food in terms of the sommelier because he or she has got to understand what goes into certain dishes or certain sauces and things like that. In order to make a successful pairing.
Understanding how they pair with food
HJ: Absolutely. We don’t teach food in terms of cooking and that sort of thing, but we do, one of the modules in the courses are food and wine pairing. What forms the foundations of textural complements and flashes on certain food and wine. Acidity, sweetness, richness, fat and so forth. So we teach that as a module.
Then in the exams there would always be, and that’s usually part of the practical component, giving the candidate a menu with say what’s meant to be a bigger station menu of say six or an eight course menu. Then asking them to pair and suggest wines and explain to the guests which is then the judges why they did the pairings and so forth. Sommeliers certainly need to have a very good understanding of food.
The industry has maybe moved a little bit away from where it used to be decades ago that a sommelier is also meant to be able to peel an orange with a spoon for you table side. Flambé your steak or something like that because wine is becoming such a strong focus and such an interesting category for restaurant diners. That it’s good enough that the sommelier is someone who is really passionate and informed about the wine.
But of course he needs to have a very good understanding, or she, needs to have a very good understanding of the restaurant that they’re working in. Their food style and offering, in order to be able to talk well about why the pairing would work well.
JCW: I’ve been astonished at the broad range of knowledge of some of the sommeliers that I know and also how hard they work at tasting new wines and different varietals in South Africa.
HJ: You’re absolutely spot on Jenny when you’re saying new things and that’s challenging. Not only from an international wines point of view, but also locally. There are new varietals being approved to be planted in SA, coming into the mix. It’s a really exciting space. South African wines are probably the most dynamic and exciting and progressive it’s ever been.
Sommeliers is one of the key components as a job description for sommeliers to stay on top of industry dynamics and knowing what’s going on. Playing around with new and interesting wines and seeing how they fit into the restaurant menu. Which is why for me it’s such an important point that I made earlier, that the restaurant wine lists should not be compiled by the industry suppliers. But it should be compiled by somebody at the restaurant, at the establishment itself.
There is sustainability in becoming a sommelier
JCW: There’s no question of it, otherwise you’re totally limited in a wine industry that is exploding with talent.
HJ: Exactly and maybe also another quick comment worth making, there’s been criticism in SA before of sommeliers, especially some of the senior people that’s founded SASA and still working quite closely. Doing a lot of the teaching, having moved on and not necessarily working. Might be restaurant owners now, might be industry commentators, all sorts, not necessarily working the floor anymore.
This is not an isolated thing in SA, it works that way worldwide. People don’t necessarily want to be working late hours in restaurants when they have families and when they move into their 40’s and 50’s. That’s really the exciting thing that sommeliers are really being embraced and regarded as serious objective, impartial wine commentators.
They’re being pulled into all sectors of the industry in terms of wine journalism, just for general commentary, consultation, buying positions, even retail and so forth. In terms of maybe young people listening or people keen to get into the industry, it doesn’t need to necessarily mean that you are limited to having to serve customers at restaurant tables. But it certainly is something if you want to call yourself a sommelier, it’s a minimum experience requirement that we have in our membership and in our qualification. You have to have practical floor experience.
JCW: Which is why I said you’ve got to have good communication skills, it is difficult. If somebody wanted to get hold of the South African Sommeliers Association, how would they go about it Higgo?
HJ: We have a website, it’s being renovated at the moment, but it is active. The website is www.sommeliers.org.za and all the contact details are on there. We are a board of seven people on the SASA board, and that changes on an annual basis as well, so it’s always pulling in dynamics from all sorts of new players as well. We’re a not for profit organisation, it’s membership driven and the members vote for the board members.
It’s actually a super system at the moment and it’s certainly adding a lot of value to the industry and we see more and more, if there’s conferences or wine shows, internationally and locally being hosted, then there would always be a sommelier being included to comment on. Whether it be commenting on a varietal or commenting on another state of the industry.
HJ: It’s certainly a growing profession for us in SA.
JCW: Higgo Jacobs, Chairman of the South African Sommeliers Association, thank you so much.
HJ: Thank you Jenny.
JCW: Join us again for another episode of Old Mutual Live Wine edition, subscribe to the show on iTunes, just search, Old Mutual.