Michael Fridjhon: Sommeliers and the state of restaurant wine service in SA

Tuesday, 1 August, 2017
winemag.co.za, Michael Fridjhon
Ten years ago the word “sommelier” did not exist in the active vocabulary of any but the most wine-literate of South Africans. “Wine steward” was the jumped-up version of “wine waiter” but even in the best of establishments the maitre d’ would usually say – having taken the meal order – “should I send the wine waiter to you?”

We like to think much has changed since then – after all we have a national sommelier body (South African Sommelier Association) and there have been a number of sommelier competitions – some sponsored by overseas brands such as Bollinger and Riedel, others by Wines of South Africa, and now, more recently a Young Sommeliers Competition sponsored by Moët & Chandon Champagne and driven by the sommeliers themselves.

But how different are things once you take away the cosmetics of the language? How many establishments are willing to pay for professional expertise? How many of them can afford the investment? How many sommeliers are properly remunerated? How many of the somms have the professional competence which might justify the higher pay grade? And for that matter, what are the producers doing – if anything – to make progress possible?

Some of these questions are easily answered. In the past seven years the number of signed up members of  SASA has grown from zero to 300, of which roughly 100 are active professionals. To qualify as a professional member, an applicant must have – as a minimum requirement – a recognised wine qualification (such as a WSET certificate) and three years’ wine service experience in an on-consumption environment. At least twenty of these professional members hold at least one international sommelier qualification, such as certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers or a diploma from the Association de la Sommellerie (ASI).

SASA has now launched a three level qualification process which enjoys the endorsement of the ASI. However, when it comes to sommeliers at the top of the qualification ladder (in other words, passing the Master Sommelier exam), only Gareth Ferreira – who finished in the top 15 at the World Championships – is anywhere near the finishing line. To do so he has dedicated several years of his life to the challenge and has had to move his residence to London (for the time being), simply to get the work and tasting experience.

To read more online, click here.

Thomas Davidson

Thomas joined wine.co.za in May 2019 after graduating from Stellenbosch University with a BA in History & Ancient Cultures and completing a certificate in Business Management and Entrepreneurship at the Graduate School in Stellenbosch. He moonlights as a radio presenter at MFM - and has an incredible passion for wine. 
We are delighted to have him on the team.