We would like to think that in the twenty-first century there are no more “men's” professions . Still, it is not difficult to come across professional figures who still serve a cultural heritage deeply anchored in the gender. The sommelier is one of these and the same writing program Word seems to confirm it: trying to match the word sommelier to a feminine adjective, the software reports an error (not a serious one, but reports that something is wrong).
Try yourself to think about this profession and perhaps you will hardly see a woman materializing in your mind.
«Catering in general is a male world» observes Valentina Bertini , wine manager – role for which in Italian we should speak of wine manager – of the Langosteria Group. With her, the first woman in history to be named “sommelier of the year” by the Espresso Guide for 2019 – we tried to focus on what it means to become a professional sommelier, especially for a woman.
It is perhaps obvious, although not useless, to underline that not all sommeliers work in the world of wine. The courses of the AIS and FIS can be followed by everyone and many attend them out of passion rather than work. In fact, a course is not enough to become a professional sommelier. During this training course many notions are learned, «but the working reality is different. To give an example, nobody teaches you how to really build a cellar in the course “.
The error to avoid
So, what is one of the mistakes to avoid absolutely when creating the cellar of a restaurant? According to Bertini, it is necessary to escape from a certain aesthetic egocentrism of tastes. In short, the wine professional must avoid “choosing only the wines he likes”. The risk of not selling them and a cellar that does not work has a profound effect on the economic balance of a restaurant.
Professional opportunities and salary
In addition to the foreseeable role within the restaurant scene, those who become a wine professional can also find other professional outlets such as the commercial director or the brand manager of wineries.
For those who work in the restaurant sector, salaries, the regulation of which is not entrusted to a dedicated collective agreement, may not be stratospheric. “Sommeliers in Italy are a bit underpaid, in some cases also due to the professional's failures. In Milan we wander about the 1500 – 1600 euros, but we must consider that you work six days out of seven for twelve hours a day. In the general budget, room service is perhaps the element that takes the least time and also the most fun “.
The question «What do you recommend?»
And the one that almost every customer addresses to the sommelier at the beginning of the meal. And we imagine that the sommelier is able to respond immediately with the most suitable wine. But in reality «with a paper made up of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of labels, it is very difficult to immediately identify the right one for that customer. Other questions are needed to hit the target: what do you usually drink, what areas do you prefer. Furthermore, with a few questions we understand the level of knowledge of the customer's wine. The sommelier must be good at perceiving the customer's needs “.
In this sense, in addition to the knowledge of the labels available, a certain reading ability of those in front of you is essential. A relational ability to be calibrated also according to situations: there are those who want to celebrate, for example, or those who want to make a good impression on other diners. «A good sommelier must first of all know how to interpret the customer. That is the winning weapon and it is a very subjective trait, regardless of sex “.
The obstacles women encounter and how they are overcome
A female sommelier clashes with the stereotype that wine is a men's affair. This requires an extra effort, especially in terms of knowledge. “My colleagues must have more of them than male colleagues because they must defend themselves against any attack of incompetence that may come to them”.
It is a more difficult path, theirs, but “it takes the courage to insist on getting what you believe in”. After years of failures and failed hiring, many sommeliers become discouraged; and although according to AIS data, approximately one third enrolled in courses in 2019 (32, 6%) of the total, for Bertini those who come to carry out this profession are about 10%. Nonetheless “we must not break even when the obstacle seems insurmountable”.
And many sommeliers in fact have not been discouraged by a professional context in some aspects adverse. Indeed some have reached very high levels, managing to manage the wine sector in very noble contexts: in the gallery you will find some that we have selected together with Bertini.
(In the photo Valentina Bertini, © Langosteria).
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