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Service Excellence: The Holy Grail of Sommelier Life

Service is ever at the heart of global sommellerie. As the gastronomical world begins its slow return to pre-pandemic normalcy, sommeliers across the globe are polishing their wine glasses and wine lists and preparing to resume their front-line tableside service.

A bit of mental transition is required. For much of the past year, with restaurants in many countries shuttered, ASI and its national associations have been encouraging sommeliers to use the off-the-floor time to catch up on their studies. In a classic case of making lemonade from life’s lemons, sommeliers had an excellent excuse to put their practical skills aside for a time and focus on honing their theoretical chops.

So how best to re-awaken our innate feel for service excellence?

By letting the memory of Gérard Basset lead the way. On the occasion of the first annual ASI award in his honour, ASI will be conducting a webinar on March 15 entitled: “Service Excellence: A Celebration of the Spirit of Gérard Basset.” Four panellists, including the as-yet-unannounced recipient of the first Gérard Basset Award, will gather to explore the legacy of the great man, at both a personal and professional level.

This is important because Basset was a legend not only for his wine knowledge but also for his charisma and innovative ways of thinking about communicating with customers. Service for Gérard was not just a conduit linking customer and wine; it was an end unto itself. To his mind, the work of a fine sommelier could add as much enjoyment to a meal as any spice or dessert ever did.

To prepare for their gathering, we posed a few questions to the webinar’s three announced panellists: Piotr Pietras, Derek Li, and Maria Laura Ortiz. As a holder of the ASI Diploma, these somms represent the elite of the international sommellerie having proven their expertise and experience both on and off the floor, and culminating in a demanding series of blin tastings, essays, service tests and oral presentations.

The trio offered fascinating, and at times divergent, points of view on the state of the sommelier profession, what is needed to thrive, and the value of formal education in achieving service excellence. This diversity of opinions and viewpoints is not only expected, but also welcome — and fits entirely with the method of Gérard Basset, who showed unquenchable curiosity and openness to viewpoints beyond his own!

For those who cannot catch it live, the webinar will be posted on YouTube after March 15.

Dereck Li

Maria Laura Ortiz

Piotr Pietras

How would you define an exceptional sommelier?

For María Laura Ortiz, a well-known Argentinian sommelier, wine judge and entrepreneur, fine service is part knowledge, part soft skills: “An exceptional sommelier is a person with enough experience and knowledge to provide the best experience in a food and beverage service but with an enormous number of human skills.”

A similar sentiment was expressed by Derek Li, a distinguished floor and executive sommelier, competitor and wine judge, who also adds that a great sommelier aims “at the same time at maintaining the relationship with customers and making them come back again.”

An exceptional sommelier listens carefully to their guests, is a team player and has an open mind,” noted Piotr Pietras, a Master Sommelier from Poland who has worked at the highest levels of gastronomy, competition and judging.

 

What is for you the single most important quality as a sommelier and why?

All three of the panellists noted the importance of being aware of different perspectives and possibilities.

Humility is the most essential quality, the rest of the skills are easy to learn,” Ortiz emphasized.

Pietras noted that keeping an open mind is crucial to every aspect of a sommelier’s work: “It will definitely help you cross the boundaries.”

For Li, such curiosity is a necessity to growth in the profession. A sommelier who stays humble and happy “will be willing to learn something new and keep challenging [themselves] every day.”

 

How do you feel that preparing for the ASI Diploma challenged you to become a better sommelier?

Pietras saw a direct line between the work involved with the ASI Diploma and life at a restaurant: “Attention to detail, consistency, blind tasting, wine and food pairing ideas, multi-tasking – this all was an important aspect of my preparation which directly influenced my everyday job on the floor.

Noting that “it is one of the strictest exams in the wine industry,” Ortiz felt the exam helped her understand just how much hard work and knowledge is needed to excel.

 

With over 300 ASI Diploma recipients, you are now a part of a group of sommeliers from all corners of the globe. What have you learned from the other members of this community that impacts your work on the floor?

Li was pragmatic: “I believe that ASI is showing us what the international sommelier’s standard could achieve… with those manners, we can enhance our reputation in our global community over the world.”

Pietras described a motivational boost: “I got inspired by their talent, creativity and perseverance.”

I have learned that it is impossible to know about everything and that there is always something extra to know. I have understood that we don’t sell or serve beverages, that our mission is to improve the experience of guests,” said Ortiz philosophically.

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