The traditional perception of the restaurant sommelier as the starchy in-house wine expert has encountered a major shift over the last few years, says Craig Allen co-founder of recruitment company Change, who is increasingly being asked by restaurant and hotel owners to find staff with a more relaxed approach to food and drink matching, both in selection and delivery.
"Currently we are inundated with requests for more informal and open-minded sommeliers,” he told BigHospitality.
"As we recruit sommeliers exclusively for Michelin, AA rosette and high-end restaurants and hotels across London, the people we place have the added benefit of working closely with some of the best chefs in the industry, many of whom will design their menu hand-in-hand with their sommelier, entrusting them to ensure the beverage pairings take the diners’ experience to a whole new level.
"Diners should expect their pairings to include beers, ciders and spirits as well as the conventional wine."
Allen said sommeliers, who can earn up to £60k per year when fully qualified, were expected to be more approachable towards diners than in previous years with many encouraging discussion around wines with their customers.
"Historically, when the term sommelier was mentioned, one would immediately picture an intimidating French sommelier who knew far more about wine than you ever would and would not be interested in your preferences," he said. "This is now a thing of the past. Modern day sommeliers are becoming a lot more approachable, not only in their rapport with customers but also in their methodology when creating a beverage programme.
"It is increasingly common for sommeliers to vary the price points of their beverage, offerings and focus more on the story behind each item."
Patrick Frawley, head sommelier at Restaurant Story, said he'd certainly noticed a change in the role over the last 10 years and was enjoying being able to be more creative with suggestions for customers.
"The pairings we do at Restaurant Story are not just wine, we range from craft beers to bottle aged cocktails we have in-house," he said. "Guests are really enjoying that we’re not just limiting ourselves to merely a wine pairing and I think now the role of the sommelier has changed in that you can’t just be knowledgeable about wine. When I take on assistants I need them to understand it’s not just about wine, you need to be able to cater for all different tastes."
Frawley, previously beverage manager at Rosewood London, said customers were increasingly more knowledgeable about wine today.
"People aren’t just going for the safe choices of a dry white wine or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, they’re really happy to try new wines from regions that wouldn’t be seen as fine wine regions 10 years ago, like Portugal or Argentina," he said.