Why are sommeliers so influential?

Wednesday, 6. March 2019 - 14:15


Photo by fran hogan on Unsplash

According to the Japan Times, more than 100 sommelier lapel pins have been auctioned online, against the rules of the Japan Sommelier Association (JSA), which has so far issued pins to the 30,000 or so people who have taken and passed the qualification exams.

Worse still, some of the pins being sold are apparently fakes. Indeed, in a recent case, it was revealed that 38 buyers had been prepared to pay an average of over $300.00 for a forged sommelier’s badge of office.

In Japan, wine service leapt into the spotlight in 1995 when the local contender, Shinya Tasaki carried off the Best Sommelier in the World trophy. In a country with no history of authoritative wine criticism, the men and women responsible for wine service almost instantly achieved star status.

A year or so later, when I chaired the first Japan Wine Challenge in Tokyo, I learned that, rather like Paris Hilton, sommeliers routinely demanded – and received – payment simply for attending events. Sommelier competitions were televised (making for some extraordinarily tedious watching), “How to Be a Sommelier” handbooks were printed and, in 2004, a popular manga comic called the Drops of God appeared in which the hero was, yes, a young man with a corkscrew plus comprehensive knowledge of grapes and soils.

When it came to selecting a career, ‘sommelier’ suddenly leaped into the ‘desirable’ category. Possibly uniquely in the world, young Japanese women joined the profession in droves. Today, they represent 13,000, or nearly half, of the membership of the JSA.

Watching this unfold, I had no reason to imagine that the Japanese were simply a few years ahead of the rest of the world. I never foresaw that the word ‘somm’ would find its way into Anglo Saxon dictionaries, much less provide the title and subject for a couple of movies, or that PR professionals would have to start communicating to sommeliers as well as wine writers.

All of which begs the obvious question: why?

First of course, there’s the partial vacuum caused by the decline in the influence of traditional wine media, along with confusion over the value of critics, lifestyle writers, bloggers and ‘influencers’. Sommeliers are a known value who have the additional quality of actually buying the wine rather than requesting free samples.

But there’s more to it than that. Today’s sommelier is a very different animal to her counterpart of previous generations. The man – and it was almost always a man – with the tastevin hanging around his neck in the Michelin-starred restaurant of the 1980s didn’t have to keep up with trends and to know what was ‘hot’. He merely had to have, and know how to serve, the right classics from the right vintages.

He was also a lot less focused on a career path that would involve changing jobs every year or so, with a possible goal of becoming a ‘group sommelier’ or consultant who doesn’t have to spend their evenings dealing with customers.

Today’s sommelier is a brand in their own right. They almost certainly have a sizeable socal media following – a key requirement when applying for a new job – and a blog in which they can tell the world about their latest discoveries.

And ‘the world’, in this case, means other sommeliers. As the local and international competitions illustrate, wine service is a highly competitive business these days. Wine critics pay little attention to what their colleagues have recommended; sommeliers, on the other hand, are paranoid about missing out on a trend that might have caught the attention of some of their top customers. So when a Manhattan somm blogs about the exciting mud-hued Albanian rosé he’s just listed, his counterpart in Moscow or Madrid will make a mental note about it and, before long, there will be a minor international outbreak of Albanian wine.

Nowhere has this been more visible than in natural wine, which is still almost invisible in most retail stores, but is almost obligatory on the lists of restaurants with any kind of aspiration to be taken seriously.

I’m writing this as I prepare to head to Antwerp to attend the Meilleur Sommelier du Monde competition, at which there will, of course, be some terrific masterclasses hosted by sponsors who are eager to build relationships with the international competitors.

Fortunately, as a judge, I’ve already received my invitations. Otherwise I might have had to contact a friend in Tokyo to see if they could sell me a pin…
Robert Joseph