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We are writing at the beginning of 2020, not a speck in the air. The Millennium had just turned 20. The vines that were planted in 2000 are now mature . The millennials who want to dive into wine professionally are now ready to taste the real work “on the field”.
We traveled the world without any worries. From Ningxia to Napa, from Zaragosa to the extreme south of South Africa. Tastings were regularly organised for the general public, sometimes for a select group. The working week for most sommeliers was in many cases mainly the weekend.
The stock of wine had to be monitored everywhere. The accountant or the financial manager kept telling us that we had better be careful. But business was going well, the guests also ordered nice bottles. Now and then the choice was made on a budget, usually when it was for their own account.
We made plans for the coming weeks, months and even years. Which wine region did we want to discover on the spot? When would we head to our favourite winemaker or region again? We would want to revisit our meanwhile friends and like-minded people. And to taste and evaluate recent vintages and new wines. Very often, one or more “older” wines were tasted, in order to demonstrate how beautifully the wine can mature.

Lockdown 2020

March 18, 2020, Belgium goes into lockdown. Fortunately, the sun shines a lot. It would take three weeks.
Quite frankly, we had the impression that most of us didn’t mind at the time. Sommelier challenge groups were set up. On social media, it was widely shared which wine we were tasting again. Personally, I took the time to go through some old and new wine books a little more thoroughly. The evenings were warm and long, above all we had no obligations. The ideal moment to catch your breath in an instructive way.
But the weeks turned into months and everything had already been polished and polished a second time. The container with empty bottles to take to the glass container often turned out to be quite full. Here too we noticed that we were not the only ones. People found that they still enjoyed a glass of wine regularly and with pleasure. What a luck!
The first webinars were organised, some more professional than others. As befits a sommelier and the wine world in general, we are inventive, creative and professional enough to adapt. Not only the Belgian sommeliers, but also colleagues from all over the world did something in their own way online or on social media. All with the same goal: to pass on the passion and love for wine.
So and there is the trigger point of this sanitary crisis. After the first lockdown we luckily had a few summer months where we could perform the beautiful job full of surrender. It was extremely busy in most cases. The people almost all drank nice bottles, even if it was on their own account. They had left again and despite the many rules, everything went beyond expectations.
But most of us wouldn’t survive a second lockdown, yet it was inevitable and it was like that again at the end of October. They said it wouldn’t take very long. Unfortunately, we are now more than five months later and a clear perspective is still not available. Everyone has a certain date in mind, but nobody knows for sure when we can really get back to work. Which when, is a matter of time.

Time to taste and deepen our knowledge

In the meantime everyone had the time to think carefully, and many people came to the realisation that there is also a life besides that great job. I heard two clear tendencies from several like-minded people. On the one hand the group of passionate stress-seeking catering fanatics, on the other hand the rational and honest employee or employer who can now also appreciate life in a different way.
I saw sommeliers immersing themselves and deepening their already broad knowledge even further. There were Toppers in the trade who did winter pruning in Flemish vineyards. Others tasted more wines from our own regions than before. Internationally acclaimed colleagues were more easily accessible online (zoom, Teams,..) than before. Winemakers from all over the world made very instructive films about climate, terroir, new techniques, classical methods,…

The future of the sommelier

The profession as a sommelier was already a bottleneck profession. I’m afraid it won’t get any better after this crisis. But hopefully we are moving towards a brighter future. Why a bright future I hear you ask?
When everything can more or less go back to normal, more than likely, improved working conditions will be taken into account. This had been going on for a while, in an important part of the hospitality industry. But it will now have to be accelerated. The government will play an important role in this. If they do not do this rigorously, the sector will bear the consequences of this crisis for many years to come.
It will be no less than 9 months that we as a sector were technically unemployed. The compensation you got was really just a small cloth for the bleeding. Because (almost) everyone I spoke to is eager to pamper their guests again. To provide fun combinations of text and explanation, to introduce new and old discoveries. To launch or confirm tendencies and trends. To submerge the guests in a responsible way in a delicious and honest wine bath. To use the right glassware, the right temperature, the right choice. To do what we love to do: provide people with that little bit extra, the perfect wine experience.
Because no App, no webinar, no virtual wine tour or tasting can even come close to the original. Enjoy a nice bottle at a restaurant, together with friends, family, acquaintances or business associates. Be impressed by the right choice and passionate explanation of the sommelier.
However, in the future we will be able to travel from Ningxia to Napa, from Zaragosa to South Africa in a few seconds. I still wish to use ALL my senses when we talk about wine. Feel, smell, see, taste and hear what the sommelier has to tell us. Because it is precisely the latter that is the extra added value that people are happy to spend some money for. There has been a lot of time to learn and hopefully the right lessons will be learned. But mainly because sommeliers are positive people, who want to take good care of the guests.
Finally, tools and systems have also been developed in recent months that can support the profession even better. The most important thing will be that, just like with a good wine, the right balance is found between all elements. Then you can be sure that we still have a very bright future ahead of us.

Contributing author : Kris Lismont, DipWSET