I’ve never been clear about exactly what a sommelier does. It seems a rather mixed job – front-of-house glad-handing mixed with lots of behind-the-scenes work. So I naturally jumped at the chance to have lunch with Lia Poveda, Head Sommelier at the 5 star Milestone Hotel in Kensington.
The most visible part of her job to the hotel guest is her front-of-house work; helping customers with their wine choice. “My job is a psychology job in a way,” she says; “you have to understand what your customer wants without forcing them. You have to talk to people and enjoy the contact that you have; and be able to talk about anything, not just wine.”
She points out that while the restaurant manager is running around making things work, the sommelier has time to talk to people. So if someone wants a recipe, or to ask where they should go for dinner tomorrow or how they can avoid the tourist traps, they tend to ask the sommelier.
But behind the scenes, the sommelier’s job is more intricate; building up the wine list, dealing with suppliers, keeping up with changes in the wine trade and making sure the restaurant turns a profit on wine. It’s without a doubt one of the most varied hotel jobs and offers an exciting career path.
When Lia first came to the Milestone, she initially had to trim the wine list. “There were 600 references on the wine list,” she says, “and I was asked to reduce that to 400 or 450.” Only once that had been done could she start thinking about adding her own preferences.
“Then finally when you have the numbers right, you can put your own signature on the list; so now, when people are opening the wine list they see more of me.” She says it’s vital to get the list right or the front-of-house job will be impossible – “It’s hard to sell something you don’t like.”
Check rates at the Milestone HotelLia likes to feature some exciting wines from less well-known regions
The Milestone being a boutique London hotel, they naturally feature wines from boutique wineries like Bouchard Finlayson in South Africa – a specialist in top-notch Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
As one of just a few female sommeliers, she also likes to feature the work of women winemakers. She likes her Alsace too (“If you had to lose every region in France but one, I would keep Alsace”), and has sought out some interesting wines from less usual winemaking countries.
But she can’t be self-indulgent; the wine has to sell. “I’ve got a 95 vintage, in two years’ time it’s going to be undrinkable, so I need to sell it in the next six months.” That might mean marking it down if necessary.
She also needs to plan the list to give every drinker something they would like and that’s particularly important for wines available by the glass.
“It’s mathematics,” Lia says: “when you do your wine by the glass, you need to avoid two of the same country, two of the same grape, two at the same price or alcohol by volume, and also make sure that everything you’ve selected will balance the food.”
Dealing with suppliers is a big part of the job – and it is a bit different on this side of the Channel. “In France, you buy almost all your wine direct,” Lia says, “but in the UK most purchases are made through wine suppliers.”
She has built relationships with key suppliers over the years – she knows which ones specialise in which areas, how flexible they can be on minimum order sizes (the Milestone’s Cheneston’s Restaurant only has 30 covers), how quickly they can deliver special orders for functions.
Check rates at the Milestone HotelCheneston’s at the Milestone is run by Executive Chef Ryan O’Flynn who has a passion for modern British cuisine using the finest locally-sourced (and often organic) ingredients
In many hotels the sommelier is also in charge of the bar; at the Milestone, the head barman is in charge, but Lia works to bring new products into the mix – her suppliers keep her abreast of what is happening in the trade.
She’s also responsible for training other staff – for instance when they are providing wine as part of room service – and she works with the kitchen on creating tasting menus which combine good food and fine wine (it does help too that her fiancé is head chef!). As if that’s not enough, when the restaurant manager is on holiday, she takes that job over too!
Lia’s career is grounded in her family; her uncle was a prize-winning sommelier, and her parents ran restaurants – family holidays were given up to vineyard visits. But, she says, “my brother and I said we would never do what our parents do,” and she started out on a different career path.
It was only when she found that she missed working in her parents’ restaurant that she started training in the hospitality trade – even though that meant being the only adult in a class full of 15 year olds, starting right from scratch. That kind of commitment takes real dedication.
I unwisely admitted to rather envying Lia’s career choice. Many people do, she says – but it can be hard. “For instance at sommelier school, we had a tasting from eight in the morning to twelve. That’s tough. Then you have to work in the afternoon. And you have to keep going – if I don’t taste for a week, I feel like an athlete who didn’t run for a week.”
Check rates at the Milestone HotelWho’d have thought that tasting and recommending wine professionally could be like athletics?
So while she would never put anyone off becoming a sommelier if that’s their passion, she warns there’s no place in the trade for dilettantes. “It’s a long road. If you are not passionate, there is no need to hurt yourself – do something else and be happy!” Sommelier jobs are clearly not for the faint-hearted.
In fact Lia’s passion and dedication are typical qualities sought-after at Red Carnation Hotel Collection – a family-run group of boutique luxury hotels which dominates the top spots on TripAdvisor. We’ve previously featured the head barman at the same company’s Egerton House Hotel, Antonio – who delivers some extremely punchy martinis with considerable flair.
If you feel you have the personal qualities and commitment to work for the company then do check out their careers page for current opportunities.
Check rates at the Milestone Hotel
Photo credits: Milestone Hotel.