Sommeliers - do we need them?

How are we going to raise South Africa's per capita wine consumption from 7 litres per annum? With #RootstockSA trending just below #Rhodesmustfall during the Rootstock event on Thurs 9th April, perhaps we are already on our way - by raising the profile of wine through initiatives like this!

The Rootstock event held at LÁvenir on Thursday 9th April saw the board members of the South African Sommeliers Association (SASA) share their portfolios and thoughts with the 160+ strong keen wine-loving audience. 

Going back 20 years, there were hardly any chefs schools, there were very few restaurants and my thinking is that the word Sommelier was hardly heard in South Africa. Chef Schools and hospitality training offerings have grown exponentially over the last 2 decades but we are still in the infancy regarding professional wine stewards. Going forward, the only way we are going to raise the consumption of wine is to ensure that the consumer's food and wine experience is truly memorable.  How do we do this?

Education, education, education - the constant refrain which I hear from marketers, wineries, winemakers, wine stewards, as well as consumers.

Many wineries or restaurant owners may say 'But what if we educate them and they leave?'  and my favourite answer to this -  very true quote which Cathy Marston reiterated at the gathering is  'But what if you don't educate them and they stay?!'

There is no doubt that the experience that the consumer has with wine, especially a positive first experience, will convert them.  A wonderful warm nurturing journey of discovery will lead them to explore further.  An uninformed, cold, badly matched food and wine experience will undoubtedly move them on to another beverage.  So as an industry, we have to educate our wine service professionals as much as possible.  The tasting room staff, the wine waiter, even the kitchen staff - the more they know and understand, the more likely that they can create a memorable experience for the wine-drinker. 

1969 saw the establishment of the internationally renowned Court of Master Sommeliers in the UK, and by 1977 it was established as the premier examining body for Sommeliers worldwide. Their role is to encourage improved standards of beverage service in hotels and restaurants.To date, it has seen 220 Master Sommelier graduates qualify. In order to do the Court of Masters, a hospitality qualification is a pre-requisite, highlighting the fact that this is a major part of a Somm's responsibility, as well as knowing all about the beverages they serve. 

In South Africa, we have not had anything in place as a body to oversee any of this Sommelier training, but in 2010, a number of like-minded individuals saw the light and established the South African Sommeliers Association(SASA). Their goal too, is to uplift the level of wine service in South Africa. The current executive members of SASA, viz Neil Grant, Higgo Jacobs, Jörg Pfützner, Jean-Vincent Ridon, Joakim Blackadder, David Clarke and James Pietersen all have international qualifications and are working hard to introduce an internationally accepted course in South Africa. The Cape Wine Academy and SASA are working together on this project. Elizma Myburgh, great South African wine proponent also works with SASA and her extensive international experience and training are already making a difference at SASA.

Being a Sommelier is not necessarily just about knowing your wine - it is about service, hospitality, understanding your guest, your menu, your establishment, knowing your wine cellar and your wine list, as well as having a host of other skills and talents which include knowing cigars, aperitifs, beers, spirits, water, other beverages and everything else to do with providing an experience for the guest which is memorable.

At the Rootstock event held at L'Avenir on Thurs 9th April, various SASA board members presented their portfolios to group of 130+ interested parties. The board are all very passionate about bring the best possible experience to the guest. Wine by the Glass is the biggest trend hitting restaurants and wine producers need to understand this phenomenon and look at packaging with this in mind. Bag in box, which is so popular internationally, especially in Sweden, should be a serious consideration, even for good wines.  

James Pietersen, consultant to Wine Cellar, spoke about the young Millennial, (Generation Y) the new young hipster consumer. 'Think about the demographic & geography of your establishment - what wines/beverages do they want? Millennials are tech-savvy - they have information at their fingertips, they are cash strapped, and they are interested in adventure. If we can entice them with a glass of good unusual wine to start with, they are likely to continue along the wine journey.''

''Your meal has to be an unforgettable experience''  - according to Jean-Vincent Ridon, who has made wine, owned restaurants in France, brokered wine and done plenty more in the wine world.  ''Ýou need to sell dreams, you need to tell the story. Don't be an arrogant prick, but be the captain of the team serving your guests. My advice to producers is not to focus on the PH when training wine stewards, but to romance them with the story!  Spend time with Sommeliers selling your brand so that they can share your passion'' - spoken like a true Frenchman!  Click HERE for more about Jean-Vincent's time in South Africa over the last few decades.

Jörg Pfützner's advice is ''Creating the wine list and managing the stock in the wine cellar is part of your job as a Sommelier - so don't buy pre-digested wine lists - choose the wines that suit your establishment. Help guests to have fun, to create memories. A guest wants to have what they like (usually the food) to be matched with something they don't know. They don't come in to a restaurant to be educated, they come in to have fun!

As a Sommelier, you have 3 distinct responsibilities, with a clear view to increase profits for the owner of the establishment: 

  • to the guest
  • to the restaurant/hotel
  • to the wine producers ''

Neil Grant, owner of Burrata and Bocca, very popular restaurants in Cape Town, shared his views ''Lunch time drinking has slowed down extensively, but dinners are still good. Uber has been a great saviour, allowing guests to drink responsibly. The liquor laws are there to be obeyed, and I would not risk losing my licence by opening early for a guest, but you still need to make the guest feel welcome''

A great example of how important it is to work with restaurants where wine is served, is the WOSA Benelux sponsored Lady Chef of the Year competition. Elizma ran a workshop for chef Lisa Calcus from Les Bribaumont Restaurant (Mons), (winner in 2012) and she is now a converted South African Wine ambassador.

Wines of South Africa (WOSA) organises an incredibly effective international competition: - the WOSA Sommelier World Cup. This program not only has the finalists from all over the world coming to South Africa to experience our winelands but each country exposes all their candidates to South African wine. A perfect opportunity to get South African Wines onto wine lists throughout the world.
I was fortunate enough to attend their 2013 finals at the Grande Roche in Paarl. I think it makes a great spectator event - see my video HERE of the winner Will Predhomme being put through his paces! For me a Sommelier is not so much about his or her knowledge, but about how that knowledge is shared in an inspiring, warm and hospitable way.

My thinking is that this competition should have a South African arm, similar to the Cape Legends Interhotel Challenge, which tests the young up-and-coming wine stewards and chefs. We do have the Bollinger Excellent Service Award competition, which is a little stiff but does put the Somms to the test. Would it not be great for these aspirant Sommeliers to test their mettle agains the WOSA World Cup winners in some way or another? Let's build some local 'gees' and put some energy behind this. When VinPro's WISE (Wine Industry Strategic Exercise) starts its work - I would suggest that this would be a great initiative in inspiring young Somms to a brighter future.

We at also believe very strongly in education and have created a set of basic waiter training videos to get on to the wine ladder.  View our NoseYourWine videos in our new LEARN environment on and let us know what you think.  Tweet @winecoza #NoseYourWine

SASA organise monthly tastings and it has various membership opportunities.
If you are keen to get involved (anyone can!) - see the options below:

  • Wine Enthusiast Membership (non-voting member) – R300 
  • Wine Advisor Membership (voting members) – completion of any formal wine qualification AND 3 years practical restaurant experience in wine service – R300 
  • Professional Membership (voting members) – Qualified Sommeliers with the Court of Master Sommeliers or other accredited Sommelier Schools, with at least 5 years practical experience – R500
  • Corporate Membership - (non-voting members) – restaurants, hotels, distributors, wine producers - R2000

Visit the SASA website for more info or contact them on

Rootstock is now under the active guardianship of Edo Heyns at WineLand Magazine and it is great to see the enthusiastic turn-outs at the events thus far.
Many thanks also to The Pebbles Project for managing the tickets (thanks to Angela Fourie and her team).   All proceeds from the Rootstock events go to Pebbles.

Keep an eye out for the next event on 



Judy Brower

Judy has been running alongside her hubby Kevin Kidson since 1996. She takes photos, attends functions, occasionally writes, sells services, is Mrs HR at the company, cooks yummy lunches from time to time and generally is the glue at

Jorg Pfutzner

Higgo jacobs & Neil Grant

The SASA Board

Rootstock @ L'Avenir

Joakim Blackadder & Jean-Vincent Ridon

JV Ridon & James Pietersen

The Pebbles team

Neil Grant, Jorg Pfutzner, JV Ridon & Higgo Jacobs

The lads in discussion at Rootstock led by Edo Heyns

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