The Sommelier profession comes of age in South Africa

In a recent piece from the respected pen of Michael Fridjhon (see article below) he makes mention of the considerable strides made by the likes of SASA member Gareth Ferreira in the international competitive arena. We are immensely proud of Gareth’s achievements, but it is also important to note that these opportunities are a result of the work that SASA does locally as an organisation. We are increasingly providing a platform for young sommeliers to train and qualify here, with the chance for those rising above their peers to compete internationally and thus launch their careers. In the same sense Gareth has trained under Francis Krone at the Saxon in the early part of his career. Francis was a founding member of SASA and Gareth himself has served on the SASA board in 2014.
Also important to mention that our profession is maturing in South Africa, allowing for more specialization opportunities. While some of us are currently well prepared for competition or exam pressures, others may be more advanced in tasting or teaching, or specifically suited to the customer interaction within their specific establishment. As both our hospitality and wine industries develop, the opportunities for sommeliers to apply themselves professionally arise in varied branches of the industry.
Perhaps the most interesting question raised by Mr Fridjhon is that of whether local restaurants are getting on board to offer appropriate remuneration for professional sommeliers, or will we lose the talent to other sectors of the industry, or even to other countries.

-Higgo Jacobs

Enthusiastic wine waiters get a taste for knowledge

First published in Business Day on 28 April 2017
By Michael Fridjhon

Until quite recently the culinary world was not considered a desirable career choice at top-end South African schools. When I was at school it would never have made its way onto our guidance teacher’s C List. If you knew you weren’t cut out for an academic matric, you either gravitated to Woodwork/Metalwork or else you tiptoed quietly away for a cram-college matric, followed probably by a B.Com and a world of risk and riches. More or less the same views prevailed at our sister school, where the girls with academic prospects avoided Domestic Science with the same dedication we put into keeping out of the Industrial Arts class.

Fast forward a couple of decades – and even before Masterchef transformed fast-food freaks into food voyeurs, the world of hospitality had become an acceptable career choice for the children of the gentry. The UK set the trend, where smartly brought-up debutante-types did cordon bleu courses to secure cooking slots at the City’s executive dining rooms. Gastro-pubs took on gap-year students who emerged from the experience ready to go into hotel management, cooking and wine service. Suddenly being a sommelier was potentially as respectable as a position at a long-established wine merchant – not the same thing as a Bonfire-of-the-Vanities job in the banking sector, but much more fun.

South Africa has been slow to follow the lead, though Cape Town with its wealth of restaurants surviving off the Euro-Dollar-Sterling trade appears to have filled its front-of-house positions with private school accents. Sooner or later someone was going to say  “it’s no longer acceptable to have a wine waiter, let’s find us some sommeliers.” At first this was simply a linguistic sleight of hand: jumped up wine stewards with gold-plated lapel badges in the form of bunches of grapes to denote some special expertise in getting the punters to part with more money for the same-old, same-old wines. But then a strange thing happened – the wine waiters were bitten by the wine bug and they got together, formed an association, connected with international sommelier associations and started the long and arduous process of becoming real sommeliers.

Make no mistake, there’s a world of difference between wine waitering and what is required of a specialist. Gareth Ferreira, who hails from Johannesburg and began his career at the Saxon before continuing it abroad, is living proof of the requisite upgrade. Last year he finished 15th in the World Sommelier Championships – an achievement which sets him way ahead of anyone else who has ever come into the profession from South Africa. However, he still has to pass his Master Sommelier exam. In anticipation of the obscure information he will need to have at his fingertips, he walks around with an app he has pre-loaded with 4000 arcane questions against which to test himself. These include details about hitherto unknown appellations in Spanish Basque country, and the name – in the local dialect – of the major grape varieties. That this information is likely never to be required of him in the daily performance of his duties is irrelevant to his examiners: the mere fact that it exists is sufficient reason to contemplate it for the exam.
While there are no such outrageous demands made of members of the local association, their service skills have to be significantly better than those expected of wine waiters. Standard tests include dispensing a bottle (or for the more advanced, a magnum) of Champagne so that, when the bottle is empty, each glass in the line-up has exactly the same amount, without any second pours or topping up. Knowledgeable, competent and polished serving staff (food or drink) enhance the dining out experience. The work should not be interim employment. It requires appropriate training and it should attract appropriate remuneration. The training protocols are in place and the aspirant sommeliers are committed. Whether the employers are on board is less certain: this may explain why we find great service such a rarity.

-Michael Fridjhon

In a recent piece from the respected pen of Michael Fridjhon (see article below) he makes mention of the considerable strides made by the likes of SASA member Gareth Ferreira in the international competitive arena. We are immensely proud of Gareth’s achievements, but it is also important to note that these opportunities are a result of the work that SASA does locally as an organisation. We are increasingly providing a platform for young sommeliers to train and qualify here, with the chance for those rising above their peers to compete internationally and thus launch their careers. In the same sense Gareth has trained under Francis Krone at the Saxon in the early part of his career. Francis was a founding member of SASA and Gareth himself has served on the SASA board in 2014.
Also important to mention that our profession is maturing in South Africa, allowing for more specialization opportunities. While some of us are currently well prepared for competition or exam pressures, others may be more advanced in tasting or teaching, or specifically suited to the customer interaction within their specific establishment. As both our hospitality and wine industries develop, the opportunities for sommeliers to apply themselves professionally arise in varied branches of the industry.
Perhaps the most interesting question raised by Mr Fridjhon is that of whether local restaurants are getting on board to offer appropriate remuneration for professional sommeliers, or will we lose the talent to other sectors of the industry, or even to other countries.

-Higgo Jacobs

Enthusiastic wine waiters get a taste for knowledge

First published in Business Day on 28 April 2017
By Michael Fridjhon

Until quite recently the culinary world was not considered a desirable career choice at top-end South African schools. When I was at school it would never have made its way onto our guidance teacher’s C List. If you knew you weren’t cut out for an academic matric, you either gravitated to Woodwork/Metalwork or else you tiptoed quietly away for a cram-college matric, followed probably by a B.Com and a world of risk and riches. More or less the same views prevailed at our sister school, where the girls with academic prospects avoided Domestic Science with the same dedication we put into keeping out of the Industrial Arts class.

Fast forward a couple of decades – and even before Masterchef transformed fast-food freaks into food voyeurs, the world of hospitality had become an acceptable career choice for the children of the gentry. The UK set the trend, where smartly brought-up debutante-types did cordon bleu courses to secure cooking slots at the City’s executive dining rooms. Gastro-pubs took on gap-year students who emerged from the experience ready to go into hotel management, cooking and wine service. Suddenly being a sommelier was potentially as respectable as a position at a long-established wine merchant – not the same thing as a Bonfire-of-the-Vanities job in the banking sector, but much more fun.

South Africa has been slow to follow the lead, though Cape Town with its wealth of restaurants surviving off the Euro-Dollar-Sterling trade appears to have filled its front-of-house positions with private school accents. Sooner or later someone was going to say  “it’s no longer acceptable to have a wine waiter, let’s find us some sommeliers.” At first this was simply a linguistic sleight of hand: jumped up wine stewards with gold-plated lapel badges in the form of bunches of grapes to denote some special expertise in getting the punters to part with more money for the same-old, same-old wines. But then a strange thing happened – the wine waiters were bitten by the wine bug and they got together, formed an association, connected with international sommelier associations and started the long and arduous process of becoming real sommeliers.

Make no mistake, there’s a world of difference between wine waitering and what is required of a specialist. Gareth Ferreira, who hails from Johannesburg and began his career at the Saxon before continuing it abroad, is living proof of the requisite upgrade. Last year he finished 15th in the World Sommelier Championships – an achievement which sets him way ahead of anyone else who has ever come into the profession from South Africa. However, he still has to pass his Master Sommelier exam. In anticipation of the obscure information he will need to have at his fingertips, he walks around with an app he has pre-loaded with 4000 arcane questions against which to test himself. These include details about hitherto unknown appellations in Spanish Basque country, and the name – in the local dialect – of the major grape varieties. That this information is likely never to be required of him in the daily performance of his duties is irrelevant to his examiners: the mere fact that it exists is sufficient reason to contemplate it for the exam.
While there are no such outrageous demands made of members of the local association, their service skills have to be significantly better than those expected of wine waiters. Standard tests include dispensing a bottle (or for the more advanced, a magnum) of Champagne so that, when the bottle is empty, each glass in the line-up has exactly the same amount, without any second pours or topping up. Knowledgeable, competent and polished serving staff (food or drink) enhance the dining out experience. The work should not be interim employment. It requires appropriate training and it should attract appropriate remuneration. The training protocols are in place and the aspirant sommeliers are committed. Whether the employers are on board is less certain: this may explain why we find great service such a rarity.

-Michael Fridjhon

Leave a Reply