Michael Fridjhon: Is the SA “Somm” movement losing momentum?

By , 28 February 2018



Several years ago the Cape Wine Academy launched a Cape Sommelier qualification – which turned out to be little more than an introductory course for wine stewards. I was suitably acerbic about the whole deal. I don’t know if the course still exists. I’ve never met anyone brave enough to put the letters “CS” after his/her name so I imagine that the formal title has been binned – though I hope that wine steward training at the CWA is still very much alive.

SommsI guess it was about that time that South Africans became familiar with the term “sommelier” and since then it’s become fashionable to call anyone who can open a bottle without leaving a forest of cork floating on top of the wine a “sommelier” rather than a “wine waiter” or a “wine steward.” This is not simply a matter of semantics. To become a Master Sommelier takes many years of intensive study: the closest any South African has come to the full qualification is Gareth Ferreira – who finished in the top 15 of the world championships and has still to pass his final exams. He works at 67 Pall Mall in London, where he has the opportunity of working with – and tasting – the kinds of wines with which he will have to be familiar when it comes to completing the requirements imposed by the Court of Master Sommeliers.

As things stand, you can be absolutely sure that if and when he qualifies, Gareth will not be able to find employment in South Africa commensurate with his skills, aptitudes and the length of time he has trained for the position. There are a number of people lurking on the periphery of our wine industry who have a similar background. Jorg Pfutzner does events and sells Cognac, David Clarke runs a wine distribution operation specialising in what might be called cutting edge/edgy small producers (which is arguably providing a sommelier service for the trade). Miguel Chan heads the wine operations of Tsogo Sun – where he is able to use his expertise to upgrade the group’s wine offering. (Incidentally, his impact is visible to anyone who has dined in any of the Group’s premium restaurants in the past few years – it’s worth comparing what sommelier skills can contribute to consumer choice).

What we have seen, however, is the arrival on the restaurant scene of an in-between class, some registered as students with the Court of Master Sommeliers, all employed in sommelier positions in those fine dining establishments which have come to recognise the value they add to the overall perception of service. Many (especially in Cape Town) are from Zimbabwe, whereas in Gauteng the talent is more local. Some of the outlets have played a key role in developing the category: the Saxon in Johannesburg has been extraordinary, recognising that even though most of the staff they employ will ultimately get poached by their competitors, its policy will contribute to the overall quality of the hospitality industry. Gareth Ferreira started his career there, so did Taryn Nortje who works at The Orient.

Local sommeliers now have an active association, with people like Higgo Jacobs driving the value-add it brings to its members. There are also several competitions aimed at recognising skilled exponents of the art of wine service and contributing to enhanced employment opportunities. An initiative started by Bollinger and Riedel almost ten years ago has been taken up by LVMH, and there are signs that Gaggenau is contemplating a similar project.

So what is there for me to grump about? For a start, it is clear that the relationship between the trade (meaning the proprietors) and those in wine service is still severely tilted in the direction of the employers. They want skills at the table – but they still want to make the purchase decisions themselves (probably so that they can optimise listing fee revenue). The result is that very few of the now increasingly qualified group of somms are permitted to perform the kind of tasks which would justify their earning more money. Delegating wine service – from purchase through to sales – to suitably qualified and experienced employees should, in theory, lead to a marked improvement in profits. This is how establishments internationally justify paying the kind of salaries which people who have worked for at least ten years to obtain their MS qualification are entitled to demand. If you don’t trust your somms to be arbiters of taste, you’ll never give them the freedom to prove their worth.

The result is a kind of glass ceiling – which leads to most of those who do have the skills moving out of service (where the hours are not conducive to a happy family life) and into distribution. Several of the Zim somms who play such an important role in the Cape Town restaurant scene are treated as window-dressing for the tourists rather than as wine managers with a more valuable contribution to make – if only they were given the chance.

These are not intractable problems – and the contribution of some of the Gauteng-based somms in making wine sales more profitable may set a paradigm for their colleagues (and their employers) everywhere else. Certainly the skills set is now more carefully defined, which makes it possible to recognise what is required, and to reward people accordingly. Change now will have to come from licensees – most of whom have yet to discover that their wine offering can work for them on grounds of merit, and not because they’ve held a gun to the collective heads of producers and distributors.

Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including: Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.


2 comment(s)

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    Michael Fridjhon | 28 February 2018

    Hard to argue with your logic Neil. I have heard producers confessing to their part in the deal, and like the folk who bribe policeman or Home Affairs’ staffers, they see only the “efficiencies” but nothing of the corrosive cost of corruption

    Neil T | 28 February 2018

    So, listing fees are holding back the hospitality industry because they restrict the most skilled from doing their job? Because restaurateurs are seeking out the most profitable listing fees for their own gain and, in doing so, are potentially missing out on higher profits and improved guest satisfaction. There is surely other fallout from the practice of offering bribery, let’s accept that is what it really is, and that’s the employee. Wages are oppressed, opportunities closed down and future stars unable to ever be a player in the industry. This doesn’t bode well for the future of the country.

    I also think it’s important to continue this thought process through to the damage it is possibly having to the entire industry. If a winemaker can sell wine simply by paying a fee then how hard do they have to try in the vineyard and winery? Is it not conceivable that this manipulation of the market is holding back the necessary increase in quality that South Africa needs to compete abroad? Let’s face it, the brightest stars don’t have to pay for their wines to be listed because they speak for themselves.

    It seems to me that that this practice, akin to bribery and corruption should be stopped for the benefit of the next generation and the future reputation of brand South Africa.

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