German-born Marc Almert was named the Best Sommelier in the World at the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) championships in 2019. Originally from Cologne, the 28-year-old is currently the Head Sommelier at luxury hotel Baur au Lac in Zurich, Switzerland.
He spoke to ARENI Global about being a sommelier in lockdown and about the distinction between service and hospitality.
This is a lightly edited, condensed and re-ordered version of his conversation that took place in July 2020.
What is the difference between service and hospitality?
For me, hospitality can never happen without service, but service can happen without hospitality. Service is usually a paid transaction. You book a flight and you sit in the plane and you’re going somewhere, but it does not include hospitality, which is the ‘hello, how are you?’. Service only delivers a predictable action or product, whereas hospitality is creating a whole effect around it and gives the sense of being welcomed from the heart.
How does the luxury fine wine experience differ from the mass market experience?
The most crucial difference is the place where the bottle is drunk. In the mass market, it’s a bottle you buy from the supermarket. You take it home and you pop it open, maybe on your own, maybe with your spouse and you enjoy it with the food you enjoy at home.
With fine wine, it’s always part of a special occasion. I imagine most people won’t be opening a Haut Brion on their own, and it’s the same when they come to a great restaurant with a great chef and enjoy the dining experience.
That’s the difference with fine wine – it’s always linked to a community experience and a sensory experience on several levels and it can only happen where someone has thought about the experience, whether it’s at home or at a great establishment.Marc Almert, ASI 2019 Best Sommelier of the World
Can hospitality, versus service skills, be learned?
It can be learned. The first thing I learned when I started working in hotels is that it’s important to think about who your guest is and who he is in that moment. He may be someone who comes four times a week with his colleagues, who wants a discreet service. But he might come back for his wedding anniversary and want a more attentive service. It’s the same customer, from two completely different angles. I always think through what my is customer experiencing.
What are some failures of hospitality?
There are two examples where hospitality often doesn’t work. You go to a winery and taste a fine wine, and then you wash your hands and the soap is really strong in scent. It prevents you tasting anything for the next fifteen minutes. That shows that no one has gone through the process of being a guest in their own winery. It’s the same when distributors call sommeliers at 1pm during lunch service or pop in during the dinner service. They have not thought about the needs of the sommelier.
You can’t be everywhere at once. How do you ensure that your staff maintain standards at all times?
The most important thing is sharing knowledge, especially in Europe, where you only have one to three sommeliers in big hotels and restaurants you, unlike in America where restaurants are blessed with a whole team of sommeliers. It’s very important to share the knowledge you have. If you visit a wine region, do a recap to your staff. Very often our customers are generous and leave us some amazing wines, and that’s something that the team really enjoys. If you explain a little bit about the appellation, the grape, you get them excited and emotionally involved.
Lead by example, share the knowledge and highlight when a member of staff did a great job on a tricky table. At the same time, be critical in a positive way: “why didn’t this work out?” and “what would have been other possible responses we can try in future?”.
Be realistic that not everybody will remember everything. I make small colourful notes that will fit into a jacket pocket, so somebody who has come back from holidays and has maybe forgotten things can quickly look up what are the grapes, what glass do I need.
Are you always aware of the person who comes in with a fancy watch who might spend more?
It’s completely outdated to go by the fancy watch or fancy suit. Of course, it’s natural to scan the person, but it should never be your focus and it’s important to treat every guest with the same awareness and attention. More often than not, those that have those fancy watches stay in this kind of hotel every day and are used to that kind of service. They get it 200 days a year, and might even be annoyed about it. The couple who has spent the year saving up for their first wedding anniversary will be super happy if you give them a great experience and recommend a very affordable bottle of wine. They will spread the word and maybe come for their wedding anniversaries for the next 40 years. It’s very important not to be prejudiced, especially with international hospitality. You never really know who the guests are in front of you and what their needs are. The best way to find out is by listening and asking open questions and that way you get a better idea of the customer than what kind of watch he’s wearing.
Do you think there’s a difference between the sommelier culture of the USA and Europe?
Fundamentally there is a very big difference, starting with sheer numbers. Let’s first look at this from the employer perspective. If you have hotels and restaurants, why hire a sommelier? A good sommelier will pay for himself by decreasing buying costs and so on, and luckily in America that’s understood. Here in Europe we still have a lot of ‘slash’ positions. What I mean by that is, “oh yes, that’s our restaurant manager/sommelier”. I think that’s not the way to do it because to be a great restaurant manager or sommelier is a full time job.
Thanks to movies like Somm and Uncorked and the many articles that came in their wake, there is a clearer understanding of what a sommelier is. It’s great that there is that esteem, because it means more people will be interested in the job. But it comes with a downside.
“When a service profession, which is about putting your guest first, is put in the spotlight, it can lead some people to misunderstand their position and say, “OK, it’s all about me now”.Marc Almert
It’s even more dangerous if the sommelier only buys wines that he and his peers like. It’s something we’re seeing in many capitals around the world, this shift to the sommelier-centric wine list rather than a customer focused wine list. We’ve gone from when sommeliers used to be condescending to an immersive culture where the guests trust the sommelier and now we’re moving slightly back.
What is your philosophy on building a wine list?
This wine list has been built in 176 years so it’s nothing you change in four years. Zurich is a very interesting fine wine market. Here, Bordeaux is still the big thing. Once you understand your customers’ palate then you can say, if they like this Bordeaux, maybe they will like this Bordeaux blend from Romania which you can put in a wine pairing flight.
Describe the current situation at Baur au Lac and the role of the sommelier there.
Baur au Lac is one of the few hotels that has stayed open the entire year and we are slowly coming back to business on the restaurant front. We are trying new things; for the past four weeks, we have had an open air cinema in our park, where we usually hold weddings. During lockdown I was holding virtual wine tastings. Yesterday I did a wine training for an on trade customer of our wine shops. We’re trying to do the best we can in any position that is possible.
I think there’s a misconception of a sommelier being just a wine guy, but it’s important to understand that sommeliers work with all beverages – juices, teas, coffees, cigars and cheese trolleys. It’s also important to speak about management part. We’re also there to make sure the beverage program is working in a profitable way, that we’re maintaining good connections with our suppliers and wineries, and that everybody is trained well.
How has sommelier culture maintained its human connection during the pandemic?
On the last day [before lockdown in Zurich], we got together with the food and beverage staff and said what can we do for the poor fellows who will be locked up in their rooms for the next one, two, three months. We set up a Zoom training program of two to three sessions a day for just over nine weeks. The staff stayed connected. What was fascinating was to see how the sommelier culture joined together across borders and set up seminars, tastings. We saw a lot of great initiatives and it proved we’re a very connected world.
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