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Story By Ch'ng Poh Tiong

“If you dislike serving people, or regard service as being subservient, then you should seriously consider changing jobs. Otherwise, if you continue doing what you do, you won’t be fair to your employer, nor to your guests and, perhaps most of all, to yourself.”

That is one of the first things I tell people when giving wine training. It has nothing to do with wine but everything to do with service. As I step into the new decade, I will stay the same course as wine trainer for all Sofitel Luxury Hotels in China. (I begin this new role tomorrow, Monday 3 January 2011, for the staff of Sofitel Xi’an in Renmin Square).

The blunt message delivered, I will, however, remind participants that “if you enjoy your work and display dedication, there will be many opportunities to advance your career.”

I will also impress on my charges that, “Providing a good wine service is worthy of respect, and that you should carry out your duties with pride and professionalism”.

Truth be told, teaching people about the different types of wines and their various characteristics is probably the easiest part of the job. After all, even without the trainer, there is floating out there oceans of horizon-less information that a sommelier, wine lover, even wine writer, can trawl from the internet.

I shall tell my trainees that being knowledgeable in wine cannot be more important than providing a good service. This realization on their part will help them recognize that, at the end of the day, a sommelier’s work is to provide service over just displaying wine knowhow.

The latter, while very important, cannot be an end in itself except for wine geeks.

‘Service before and above Sommelerie’ ensures a customer’s needs for wine are always met first, before feeding the ego of a (potential) peacock ‘Song & Dance’ sommelier.

Last November, I was entertained to such a prima donna display at a Michelin starred restaurant in Barcelona from a French sommelier.


I shall tell my Chinese trainees that a good sommelier is part of the teamwork of a restaurant, not a separate entity outside or beyond the identity of the whole. He is married to the restaurant, not divorced from it.

As such, everyone working there, whether waiter, sommelier or restaurant manager, should always regard their workplace as if it were their home. That way, when they see someone walking into their ‘home’ it would be most natural to greet the stranger (or returning customer), “Welcome to Restaurant Service Oriented”.

When this idea of one’s workplace being likened to one’s home becomes embedded in the collective imagination, guests are assured of a warm environment and a memorable dining experience.

It is symptomatic, and tragic, of the lack of common courtesies in most of today’s modern homes, that we have now got to teach good manners in hotel training schools.

In Thailand, that's hardly needed since children and the young are taught to respect their elders from the time they can talk. The remarkable thing about such a pervasive passion is that when the juniors become seniors themselves, the circle continues its inevitable, endless cycle.

Flashback to Catalonia just before the conservatives wrestled back power from the socialist government in the dying days of 2010.

Another kind of politics was taking place in a Barcelona restaurant. After being seated and handed the menu, the service staff asked "Would you like to have an apertif"

"May I see the wine list?" I wondered.

Fifteen minutes passes (I tend to be infuriatingly patient), and as nothing approaching a scrap of paper has materialised, I highlighted to a passing staff "I still have not got the wine list."

The breaking news is given something of a shared pained look. I should inform that there were only five or six tables in the restaurant. And two or four people on each of them.

Patience (unlike Wikileaks with its endless revelations) must have its limits. Another five minutes later, I blurted to the original staff who sat me down, "How long will it take to be shown the wine list?"

"I am sorry but I am not the sommelier. Only he can bring you the wine list."

The mystery is solved.

When I was finally shown the lost text by the sommelier and ordered the delicious Champagne Moncuit Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Vielles Vignes 1998, it was approaching thirty minutes after first arriving at the restaurant. Aperitif? It was closer to digestif.

The result of all that waiting was because of the territorial and monopolistic claims the sommelier exercised over the wine list, wines, and wine service of the restaurant.

To complete the surreal experience, "His Royal Highness in Wine" was volunteering vinous observations and information when no such talkativeness was encouraged by the customer. His skin thick as a Nebbiolo grape, why should he care?

As far as "Baby Bacchus" was concerned, customers who visit the restaurant were there to worship and pay service to his wine ego. Not him providing a service to satisfy our thirst for wine. If that had been more forthcoming, I could have ordered another bubbly.

All Rights Reserved · The Wine Review · 2013