A nose for good grapes

A nose for good grapes

Sommeliers need a good memory, a keen sense of taste, and a passion for wines

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James Wong says matching food and wine is one of the main responsibilities of a sommelier.
James Wong says matching food and wine is one of the main responsibilities of a sommelier.
Photo: Nora Tam/SCMP
Interviewee: James Wong, sommelier at The Mistral restaurant at the InterContinental Grand Stanford Hong Kong

Get started

Those with a few years' experience in the food and beverage sector who are interested in wine can get basic training by studying for a Wine & Spirit Education Trust qualification.

Moving up

Newcomers focus on serving wine. After two years, they may be promoted to sommelier, and will oversee the buying and selling of wine for the restaurant.

The responsibilities of a sommelier go far beyond serving wine. They should have a good understanding of the wine market. With more experience, they will focus more on selling wine and doing staff training. Sommeliers can also move up to be wine consultants, helping hotels and restaurants compile their wine lists and teaching staff about wine. High-flyers may even write books about wine.

Race to the top

Wine is a huge industry, and sommeliers have a lot to learn about it. Almost every bottle of wine has a story. There are different climates, types of soil, and species of grape to consider, as well as the year the wine was made and which foods go well with it. A sommelier has to memorise all of these by heart and answer customers' questions on the spot.

Food and wine are inseparable and a sommelier needs to acquire a good knowledge of both, including the ingredients and cooking methods of dishes.

Matching food and wine is one of their main responsibilities.

A sommelier should always try the wine before commenting on it.

A sommelier must never smoke, as this affects their sense of taste.

Rewards and benefits

A wine waiter or wine server receives a salary of around HK$10,000. A sommelier can make between HK$13,000 and HK$30,000. Besides the money, the chance to try different kinds of wine is also very rewarding.

Where to apply

Hotels, restaurants, wine shops and winemakers.

A day in the life

Sommeliers work during lunch and dinner in restaurants. They usually come in at around 11am and go to the cellar to make sure there are enough stocks and every bottle is in the right place.

After lunch, sommeliers may meet suppliers to talk about bringing in new wines, and will prepare the wine list.

Dinner is usually busier than lunch, as there is a higher demand for wine from evening guests. Some bottles of wine have to be opened 12 hours before they are served. This is because the wine's exposure to the surrounding air will help improve its flavour.

After dinner, sommeliers have to clean and pack up before calling it a day.

Jargon

Decanter - A device which allows the wine to "breathe" before serving. It comes in all shapes and sizes. A sommelier will pour the wine into a decanter before serving it to guests. A decanter is made from glass or crystal, and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Tasting notes - Information sent to a sommelier from the wine supplier. It contains details of the wine, such as the grapes used and the food that goes with it.

Dry - This means the wine is not sweet.

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