Samuil Angelov, Deputy Treasurer and former president of Finland’s Suomen Sommelierit Ry, laid out the stakes with remarkable clarity: “The main thing for me is holding onto my staff and continuing being able to give them jobs. The sommelier profession in Finland is not particularly well protected and our profession is very vulnerable right now. I’m afraid this is only going to make it worse. If we lose the current crop of sommeliers, we will lose an entire generation of somms. And I don’t know how we would get them back. I’m going to do everything I can to hold onto them for as long as I can.”
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented solutions, including from those of us in the hospitality industry.
Different countries are taking different approaches to managing the Coronavirus, and so too are the ASI’s many different member associations. We queried national association presidents from around the world and received back details on a fascinating number of initiatives, many established almost overnight, to support both our beloved sommellerie and the communities we live in.
IN THE VINEYARDS
Some national associations are seeking to redirect their idled workers toward an obvious outlet: agriculture. The need is great; the migrant workers who often handle this work cannot travel from country to country and region to region this year. The newspapers are filled with reports of nervous farmers who are uncertain who will help them with digging, picking and planting. Hospitality workers from shuttered restaurants represent an ideal workforce in this area.
In wine producing countries, this temporary turn to agriculture is being recast as an excellent opportunity for sommeliers to gain first-hand experience in the vineyards that many desire but lack time to achieve. The Sommelier Union Deutschland, Germany’s representative to the ASI, quickly organized the “Side by Side in the Vineyard” initiative in coordination with Germany’s leading winegrower’s association VDP: “This work is like a mini-internship with a winemaker, and is worth its weight in gold,” says association President Peer F. Holm. “If we can take this crazy, existentially threatening situation and turn it into a positive for winemakers even while we’re expanding our personal horizons, then we’ve killed two birds with one stone!“
The efforts are hardly limited to Europe. With the crisis arriving as southern hemisphere countries, including SA, NZ, AU and South America, are in the middle of harvest, the need for additional hands in the vineyards is enormous.
Many countries have also begun delving into virtual tools to continue competition and preserve community. Philippe Faure-Brac, President of France’s Union de la Sommellerie Française (UDSF), reports proudly that one of his country’s winegrowing regions, South West Occitanie, successfully conducted its first online contest: “I am proud to see such technical and human involvement to maintain the sommellerie activity! A young woman, Marie Wodecki from Savoie region, won this contest.”
There are also a diverse range of efforts to improve online wine education. Matias Prezioso, president of the Asociación Argentina de Sommeliers, has helped organize a cycle of master classes on the Zoom platform. Up to 100 members can participate in each moderated talk, which feature Argentine and international wine producers, as well as prominent personalities (sommeliers, journalists, Masters of Wine, key opinion leaders).
Italy’s ASPI is using its social media presence on Facebook as a platform for its prominent personalities to share wine knowledge with the general public. The association’s Best Sommelier and other national and international award winners are posting 3-5 minute videos expressing appreciation and presenting a wine.
Just as millions of people around the world are using this downtime to do a deep cleanse of their houses or apartments, so too are some associations undertaking a review of their educational and promotional content. Eesti Sommeljeede Assotsiatsioon, Estonia’s association, for example, is planning to use some of the members to produce content and asking for updates – very useful for updating the materials for theory studies etc. and at the same time keeping motivation up. Mark DeWolf of the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers similarly reports that he and his team are exploring ways “of overhauling our notes packages and PowerPoints for our sommelier programs. We see this as another opportunity where we can hire some of the top sommeliers to be content developers for that program. Many of our top somms will likely take this time to dive deeper into studying. I think we have a good opportunity to support them with information and learning opportunities. I think it’s in times like these that we need to be leaders.”
Many other countries confirmed that the fluid nature of the pandemic has left them still in the early stages of planning their responses. One common theme emerged: a gratitude for the encouragement of the ASI family and the knowledge that that family will emerge from this crisis even stronger:
“I am also very impressed with all the emails and am deeply grateful. I hope that we will get out of this difficult situation in a short time and go back to our daily lives to make ASI more active,” wrote Jae-Youn KO / President of KISA (Korea).
“Now, more than ever, it is vital that we keep open the lines of communication and support one another in solidarity.” Andrew O’Gorman (Secretary, Irish Guild of Sommeliers)
“I would like to thank you for your communications, and I hope that this global pandemic will be minimized in human and financial damages as soon as possible.” Dashamir Elezi, President of iOSHS (Albanian Sommeliers Association).
“Denmark is (like many others) in a total lockdown – we mostly stay indoors and enjoy some good wines.” Tim Vollerslev, Dansk Sommelier Forening (Denmark)
“These are really not easy times. But these are the times when we have to stand together. In Cyprus, certainly, but also in full solidarity with our Sommelier friends in Europe and the whole world. Spring is coming, it is clear to us that there will certainly be an “afterwards” and that there will be good eating and drinking again.” President Georgios Kassianos, Association Chypriote des Sommeliers (Cyprus).
Just as our first words were provided by Samuil Angelov of the Finnish Association, it seems fitting that the last one goes to him as well: “Sommeliers are especially creative. If there’s something to fix, usually a sommelier is the one to fix it. No matter how hard we’ve been hit, we will get through this and come out better on the other side. No matter what happens in this world, there will always be a need for our profession, people will always want and need to be served. When this comes to an end, and the restaurants reopen, this will be our time.”