Sommelier – Serving more than wines

Sommelier, a title that only started to gain local recognition in recent years, has often been considered a staff who handles everything about wines. 16th January at The American Club Singapore, I looked into the level of competency required for this profession. 

As part of the effort to boost the tourism industry in Singapore, the wine and dine scene has seen tremendous influx of celebrity chefs and cuisine-focused restaurants – with credits to the two Integrated Resorts. The demand for service professionals to offer recommendations, menu pairing and after-meal grows with the rising affluence of diners, both tourists and local. Similarly the expectation for modern Sommeliers is no longer restricted to just the domain of wine, but includes beer, spirit, cocktail and sake. And lastly, what I meant for the after-meal was tobacco, mainly cigars.

The word “Sommelier” can refer to either the profession or the degree of proficiency. Ever since the role appeared in restaurants, some had (sadly) claimed this title plainly by job association. Fortunately there are those dedicated to the path of professional development, with either Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) or International Sommelier Guild (ISG).

To gain a better understanding, I attended the National Sommelier Competition organised by the Sommelier Association of Singapore, a member of the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale. Under watchful eyes, the afternoon session was a final showdown between three participants, Alvin Gho, Ryan Gan and Matthew Chan. Divided into four sections, the participants were tested in the domains of wines, cocktail mixing, service and blind tasting. The event ended in a contest of Champagne pouring: 15 glasses with equal amounts from a single pour each. A fitting sparkling finish.

Master Sommeliers

The master judges invited were Franck Moreau, MS and Christopher S. Miller, MS. A Frenchman who represented Australia, Franck competed in the World’s Best Sommelier Competition and rank among the top 12 in the world. The charming young Christopher had previously won the Wine Spectator Grand Award in 2010. He was also named the Best Young Sommelier in America and rising star Sommelier for Los Angeles. From a distance, I could easily spot the immense amount of stress building up on the participants with their hyper ventilating posture and possibly, signs of pupil dilation.

The trial and tribulation

Among the various acts, the service section came across as being the most demanding. In six minutes, competitors have to proficiently execute: precise glassware placing, bottle presentation, bottle opening, careful decanting and proper sequential serving. Not intending to make it easier, the judges asked questions, as would  curious diners.

Sommelier winners The questions asked demanded not just a simple answer, but an answer so comprehensive and detailed it challenged their ability to balance between service and public relations. ”Can you tell me where this wine is from and how are their wines like?” “Does this winery produce other wines?” “What would you recommend to pair with this wine?” Simple questions for a calm mind, but competition anxiety can sometimes ambush our neuro-pathway and prevent a coherent response.

At the end of day, there were only winners. Winners who displayed courage and skill, strength of character and professionalism. For consumers, the next time a Sommelier demonstrated skill and service, please remember to acknowledge their efforts.

At least a nod and a smile.

Pictures courtesy of Morgun, Spice In Wine

About the author

Chan Wai Xin

Chan Wai Xin

Singapore based. University lecturer, wine educator, wine writer. Systematic, analytic, and at times pedantic. Mostly irreverent.

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