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An Open Letter from The President of Sommeliers Australia

After several discussions, over several months, with several committees at Sommeliers Australia, the recent Fairfax article by Huon Hooke (19 August 2014) has sponsored an overwhelming desire from our membership to put forward some alternative views. It is on this basis that we write.

At Sommeliers Australia we acknowledge that our membership base consists of many individuals. As it is with society at large, these individuals have various strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, bias and objectivities. As such, it is irresponsible and indeed unfair to each of our members, and their guests, to assume they are a single homogenous entity. It is also important to acknowledge the inherent subjectivity of experience when enjoying the service, wine lists or food in a restaurant. To such an end everyone is entitled and encouraged to share their opinion of a given situation, good or bad. As professionals we must be prepared for the dissatisfied guest or unpleasant critique.

What follows is the essence of what has been discussed at length over recent days by our National Executive Committee, and while these views, experiences and interpretations are those of one person, they should be taken in the context of being shared by a great many.

It was 23 years ago that I began working in restaurants and the evolution of service quality, availability of education, product sourcing and customer 'thirst' has never been greater. Throughout the 1990's sommeliers were dealing with a subtle undercurrent of misunderstanding, leading to distrust from some restaurant goers. The dual increase in professionalism and customer understanding has allowed us to engage with more guests, more easily, and in turn share more stories and vinous experiences. This is a direct result of earning more trust and understanding from our guests. Articles like these do little to help this trust and, therefore, little to help our guests.

The individuality of any professional in a creative field is to be celebrated. Taking guests on a gastronomic journey of food and wine requires creativity. This creativity should be laced with integrity, value and consideration. It is bothersome and inaccurate for us to be continually 'tarred with the same brush', a disservice we would certainly not look to offer Chefs, Winemakers or Journalists in the professional sphere.

There are as many sommeliers in our membership who support amber hued wine, as those who don't. Personally if a wine is delicious, has a gastronomic purpose, and expresses some details about what it's made from, or where it comes from, I care little what colour it is. In my opinion it is harder for amber wines to express these things, not impossible, just harder.

Further to a particular grievance;

The wines often seem selected on rarity and trendiness rather than quality or value-for-money. Wolf Blass, Penfolds, Wynns, Lindemans? Forget it. You're lucky to see anything from these wineries on these lists, except for the token Granges…It's a standing joke in the wine trade that Hardys, Jacob's Creek, Lindemans, Yalumba and McWilliam's will sooner fly to the moon.

There is an errant presumption here, and it lies in the suggestion that the reasons for product selection are something other than quality or perceived value. I have certainly supported listings of Lindemans Hunter River Burgundy, Wynns John Riddoch, Penfolds, McWilliams Semillon and Jacobs Creek Steingarten. Perhaps some of these mentioned labels are not presented for consideration to many restaurants, preferring to inhabit the shelves of some larger scale retailers where consumers can be left to make decisions without any advice. For the consumer this decision for a producer to support this kind of retail presence can directly compromise the perceived value of a given wine in the restaurant setting.

Reverting to first principles, one of the main points requiring consideration are the costs of wine service in a restaurant as opposed to that of a larger scale wine retailer, yet again this is raised as a point of comparison. There can be no doubt that we need to encourage guests to drink wine, not penalise them. It would be some kind of utopia to be able to give wine away, not have to pay for staff, product or tenancies, which while a fantastic scenario to ponder in the abstract would ultimately be an unsustainable endeavour.

Sommeliers are there to add value to a vinous experience in a restaurant. Making sure storage, glassware, temperature, food choices, knowledge of the wine, its place and producers are all delivered accurately to a willing guest. I am keenly aware that there exists both restaurateurs and sommeliers that do not uphold or even understand these foundations of wine service; happily, I feel they are in the absolute minority. It is however of utmost importance to maintain this evolution of education and understanding so as to relegate these flaws to the most rudimentary of sommelier-less environments.

Support of Australian wine is an important issue. I think balance is key to a developing and maintaining a successful wine offering, however, I also see this as a fluid element. Perhaps if you were to put a list of wines together without consideration of menu, chef, location, customer, storage capabilities this could be a uniformly static equation, albeit a boring prospect with which to be faced.

A 'massive tome' is cited as listing 1900 wines, with 'only' 500 Australian wines (and, yes, this is a restaurant in the group that I work for). Is a list of 500 Australian wines not supportive? If not the question then surely begs what would be required to be seen as being supportive of this important industry. At 1900 wines, you would hope to have a global perspective of the wine world. I absolutely feel that an Australian sommelier should acknowledge and support Australian wines where it is viewed as a suitable chapter in the story of that restaurants' experience. This is something that many sommeliers and restaurants do, in my opinion, support; even those mentioned in the original article. I have little time for wine masquerading as exotic and exciting just because it comes from an attractive faraway place, yielding little more than an expressionless alcohol delivery unit with a pretty story or picture. At best they are nothing more than a waste of valuable time and space.

We are in a world of rapid and reactive communication, my reticence to get involved is only in the hope that these words are considered in the knowledge that I have considered them and not engaged in the heat of social media. This letter is as much for our members, as anyone else willing to read. It is my hope that the sommelier community of Australia continues its upward trajectory, we have some layers of youthful exuberance to shed. We need to be mindful of the comparative youth of this profession in Australia, and accordingly to continue to foster the respect and diligence to ensure this maturation may continue, not simply for the good of the industry but rather to ensure our guests are eminently satisfied, both now and through the years to come.

David Lawler
President, Sommeliers Australia

(To download a PDF of the letter please click here)

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