Learning to love wine — and serve it well

Thursday, 5 September, 2013
Penny Haw, BDlive
Once upon a time, a sommelier was that stern-looking, older gentleman in a stiff white shirt and solemn tuxedo who handed you his restaurant’s wine list as if parting with a cherished love letter.
The closest he came to smiling was when his mouth twitched slightly as he sneered at your mispronunciation of Viognier and/or because you couldn’t afford the first of his recommendations. It wasn’t a sommelier’s responsibility to put you at ease. His motto might have been "intimidate and rule against all odds", and certainly, for a long time, sommeliers cowed diners in up-market eateries around the world.

British Master of Wine and wine writer Tim Atkin relates a story, told to him by a Las Vegas sommelier, about a nervous young couple dining in his posh restaurant on the night of their prom. "Er, are you the Samurai?" asked the young man, as the sommelier handed him the wine list. "Some people call me that," replied the sommelier, "but tonight I’m just your wine waiter."

But Darwin has had his day and sommeliers have evolved. It’s as master US sommelier Roberto Viernes says: "Today’s sommelier is a new breed … (and) ‘sommelier’ isn’t French for ‘snob’." The new-generation sommelier is younger, hipper, more accessible, and sincere about service.

They’re enthusiastic about sharing their wine knowledge and encouraging diners to try something new. What’s more, says Farai Magwada, sommelier at the Mount Nelson’s Planet Restaurant in Cape Town, sometimes sommeliers are black. He makes the point having noticed how some diners brush aside his wine suggestions but, almost immediately thereafter, respond to the same recommendations made by his white colleague, Carl Habel. It’s not, he says, necessarily because they’re racist, but rather (or also) because people are unaccustomed to black men (or women) being knowledgeable and passionate about wine.

Magwada — a finalist in the inaugural ShowCook Inter-Hotel Challenge, the results of which will be announced next month — was introduced to wine while a waiter at Riboville, in Cape Town, almost a decade ago. The restaurant, now closed, was renowned for its extensive wine collection, which comprised more than 15,000 bottles.

"Wine makers and wine reps visited Riboville all the time," says Magwada. "We were included in wine-tasting sessions and, even though I didn’t speak ‘wine language’ at that time, I just got it. I found it easy to identify different wines, and to distinguish good from bad. Mostly, though, I learned to love wine and, the more I enjoyed it, the more I wanted to learn about it."

Because, he says, wine is "an inexhaustible subject", being open to new experiences and a love of learning are basic requirements for a sommelier.

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