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The Sommelier's Apprentice

Ordering wine in a restaurant is enough to turn some people to drink. But wine waiters want to help, not intimidate. Luke Leitch of The Times is apprentice sommelier for the day.

It is barely 11am, I am dressed up like the Milk Tray man and drinking my fifth glass of wine of the morning. Sitting opposite me, across a table strewn with spent bottles, is Gerard Basset, the man who is overseeing my helter-skelter initiation into the world of the sommelier. This is a privilege: Gerard is a legend in the business. The master sommelier who put the “Vin” into Hotel du Vin (his cut was £2.5 million when he and his co-founder, Robin Hutson, sold out five years ago) is probably the greatest wine mastermind in the British Isles.

Twice winner of sommelier of the year, an MBA in wine, three times runner-up in the world sommelier championships and various other oenophile awards — he proved his credentials to me the night before, when he plied me with a tangy, buttercup Gewürztraminer and a deep, almost milky viognier (there was also a pinot noir and a nectary dessert wine, but I recall those less clearly). …

…I was invited to Hotel TerraVina, Gerard’s 17-room boutique hideaway on the edge of the New Forest, to experience service from the other side of the coin. The plan was to shadow Laura Rhys, the hotel’s 27-year-old head sommelier and the latest in a long line of Gerard’s protégées who, this week, won the Academy of Food and Wine’s sommelier of the year competition. “It is about psychology, salesmanship and knowledge of the wine,” Gerard says. “Laura is very good, very dedicated.”

Laura arrives at 9am, bespectacled, in her all-black work uniform, hair tied back in a businesslike bun. The first job of the day is the “mise en place, which means setting up the bar. As we check that the fridges are fully stocked, dish up nuts, cut fruit and polish glasses I assess Laura: she certainly doesn’t have the bearing of a sommelier who — unlike so many that I have encountered — would revel in giving diners an inferiority complex along with their wine.

“It’s very important that your customers feel comfortable,” she says. “Your job is to read them, but this comes from practice and there are never any hard and fast rules.”…

…For his wine MBA, Gerard wrote a thesis on the psychology of the wine list. In it, he identified a series of risks that deter diners from buying wine. These include the functional risk (“unable to determine if the wine is in good condition or if it goes well with the accompanying food”), social risk (“embarrassment resulting from choosing a wine not perceived to be adequate”), and financial risk (“incapability to know if the wine is worth the price asked for it”).

I would add to that sommelier risk, the fear of being made to feel like ignorant dirt by someone who charges you for the privilege. Yet unless you take the time to learn about wine — and considering that there are more than 2,000 chateaux in Bordeaux alone, that could take a while — you must to some extent rely on them. So hold your nerve, and hope that it’s someone who wears their knowledge as lightly as Gerard and Laura do.

(The full article - The Sommelier's Apprentice)

It’s hardly surprising that the wine events at Hotel TerraVina are so popular.

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