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2020 pushed global sommellerie to justify and re-evaluate its existence like few years ever before. While the rest of the world seemed to retreat to the home office, it raised a difficult question: What is a sommelier without a table full of guests?
For some intrepid minds, the answer is the “Next Generation Sommelier.” This movement within ASI and elsewhere embraces the business side of being a sommelier by extending the focus of sommellerie beyond the doors of the restaurant.
To take the pulse of this high-energy movement, ASI newsletter editors interviewed four sommeliers who used the forced down-time of 2020 as a springboard to move their Next Gen Somm projects forward: Julie Dupouy-Young (SommNinja), Raimonds Tomsons (Wine Teach), Pascaline Lepeltier (chëpìka winery) and Marie von Ahm (WineAlly*).
Each is involved with a project that seeks to broaden the reach and profile of sommeliers and sommellerie. For some, this comes in the form of start-ups offering digital tools to improve our work (WineAlly), while others are using modern technology to educate consumers (Wine Teach) and other sommeliers (SommNinja) about the intricacies and wonders of the wine world. Others still are using a classic bricks-and-mortar approach, in the form of a winery located in the Finger Lakes region of the U.S.A., to challenge the truths we have held as self-evident and open up an entire new range of the possible.
As varied as their projects are, each of the four interviewees were in harmony on one point: none of their projects seeks to replace the classic floor work of the sommelier. They are instead looking to expand or add an extra dimension to it.
A year ago, it would have been impossible to really imagine just how welcome that would be.
* For purposes of disclosure, it should be mentioned that although WineAlly is an official ASI partner, the selection of topics and nature of coverage is entirely left to the discretion of ASI.
ASI: There’s quite a distance from service to start up. Was it purely business that inspired you to take part in this project, or something in yourself that you needed to explore?
JD: Having retired from competition in 2019, I felt really strongly about passing on my passion and my work to others. SommNinja is a simple mobile phone application which includes all of the work I covered during my 6 years of dedicated competition preparation all brought up to date and with a whole lot more added.
PL: The entrepreneurial spirit grew on me over time. chëpìka came to me when I was looking for an organically certified wine with no additives from NY for my restaurant and could not find it. I had met Nathan Kendall a couple of months, in 2015, and we shared the same philosophy, and went to make a wine unseen for more than a century in the region, with the most integrity and sincerity possible. This is a passion and eco-political project more than a cash machine.
RT: 2 years ago, a friend of mine asked if I would like to take part in creating an online project she was planning. I was super busy at that moment, but I’ve always liked challenges and new goals. I told her that as long as I could be responsible for creating content, I was in!
MvA: I’ve always seen my “métier” in life to bridge the “old” wine world with a new innovative future. When Ole, the founder of Fine Wine Club International, the product owner of Wineally, contacted me and presented his new idea, I saw the perfect way to do just this. In most restaurants there had not been a true countable value on the work of a great sommelier. But a sommelier actually generates a measurable turnover. The question has always been how to get the knowledge of an experienced sommelier spread out to waiters in the restaurant and even further, to all restaurants without a sommelier… and so the project began…
ASI: Many of these projects were launched in 2020, a tumultuous year at best. How did the project change over the course of the year to reflect the changing landscape of service, and your own efforts?
JD: Being out of work since last March gave me plenty of free time to type the almost 10,000 questions and answers contained within the app. There are planned elements that we decided to hold back for future versions and this decision was made understanding that SommNinja is an app that depends on the disposable income of an industry that was largely out of work in 2020.
PL: We used way more social media. Luckily for us, chëpìka was already familiar to a number of buyers and wine lovers, so the reception was good despite the fact many restaurants in NYC were closed.
ASI: What has been your biggest challenge? This can be a technical aspect of the project or a personal challenge.
JD: Certainly, the biggest challenge was the development phase of the app itself. We had absolutely no experience in the world of software development and interviewing for this and managing a project really felt like trying to make our way in the dark – bumping into a few walls along the way.
PL: This year exposed deep racial and social systemic issues in the U.S.A. All these put a new perspective on all the projects, and the restaurant – how can the projects and business I am part of be the part of the needed, crucial changes?
RT: The technical challenges – creating and maintaining our platform, uploading videos, adding subtitles to mention just a few. For someone with a glass in your hands it’s a nightmare.
ASI: What has been your biggest success? Again, this could be either a success in the framework of the business itself, or something you discovered in yourself from this.
JD: It is a wonderful feeling to take a passion, express it creatively and achieve the established goal. Yes, we want to grow this as a business, but our primary focus is to support and inspire sommeliers to achieve their potential.
PL: I think the biggest satisfaction and relief right now this year is to know that thanks to my great team, my GM, my Chef, my partner, we managed to save the restaurant, that we should be able to reopen our doors to our staff and our guests when it will be safe.
MvA: I feel that we actually have created something of real value here. To help take all the great values of our industry into a brighter future in a way that is an absolute win-win for all parties involved.
ASI: Many of these projects have placed their creators on the opposite side of the table: student becomes teacher, somm becomes winemaker. What important lessons have you learned from your experiences on the “other side”?
RT: Definitely communication! Because creating video content for a wine lover (our main audience) is like working on the floor and recommending and explaining wines, speaking about their terroir, the hard work of a winemaker and explaining why these wines taste like that and why you recommend a certain wine with a certain dish – just instead of a guest in a restaurant you need to do that in front of a cameraman!
MvA: That we as an industry need to work together, in all aspects. That we should cross these borders and work together for a common goal. A better brighter and more profitable future for us all.
ASI: What do you see as the future for sommeliers?
RT: One of the main characteristics for next gen somm should be creativity and adaptation!
JD: The role of a sommelier has stepped out of the classical dining room and into small quirky bars, private dining at home or consultation, online advisers and of course interesting retail outlets and websites.
MvA: The next gen somm is a multi-talented person that doesn’t just serve wine in the restaurant or compete in tournaments but rather has a whole portfolio of other services to offer. It’s expected that physical travels will remain somewhat complicated, and this could generate an increase in local knowledge of food and wine, and lead to more specialization on what you actually have closest to home. Are the days of the flying winemakers over, has the time for the digital sommelier begun?
ASI: What advice would you give to someone considering going out on their own?
PL: If something does not exist, do it! But you need to have a good lawyer and a good accountant and get all the basic legal and financial framework clear before starting.
MvA: Søren Kierkegaard one said:” To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose one’s life.” My advice would always be to first run your idea and plans by friends and contacts. You will need a strong support system and someone to keep motivating you when the going gets tough and you’re about to give up.
RT: Make sure you gather a group of people who are on the same page, with you and the project, and are ready to work hard.
ASI: What’s the first place you will visit once borders reopen?
JD: I can’t wait to get home to see my family. Travel is one of the great pleasures of this profession and I dearly missed it in 2020.
PL: I was lucky to be able to travel to the Loire….
RT: Any place outside Latvia😊 where vines are grown, hopefully!
MvA: Argentina might very well be the first place I would go back to. Or Hong Kong…..one of my favorite cities in the world!
What is SommNinja
SommNinja is an educational mobile application available on Android and IOS for Sommeliers and Wine Lovers studying for formal qualifications and/or national and international competitions. SommNinja is the only application of its kind created by sommeliers for sommeliers. SommNinja offers the opportunity to study 15 different topics, all related to sommellerie. It covers wine, sparkling wine, fortified wine, water, coffee, tea, sake, spirits, general knowledge, wine producers, grape varieties, beer & cider, gastronomy, cocktails and viticulture & vinification. SommNinja contains approximately 10,000 questions/answers. Users can choose a level that suits their personal goals, select a specific topic or study randomly and even save unknown questions for review later. Each question offers a query button for users to query anything that they think is not up to date, has a type, etc.
What is chëpìka?
chëpìka is a project between Finger Lakes native winemaker Nathan Kendall and Pascaline Lepeltier. The name, coming from the Lenape language spoken by the Native American tribe of the Delaware, means “root”. It was chosen as a tribute to the history of northeastern America, of the Native Americans and of the wild American grapes growing in this region, heritage that is unfortunately often overlooked. chëpìka aims to pay tribute to the history of the Finger Lakes, by working respectfully with the land and the inner qualities of the original hybrids growing around the lakes since the early 18th century. The first vintage was released in 2016 after Nathan found a vineyard on Keuka Lake growing organically Delaware and Catawba since 1971. The method ancestral to fit the history and the profile of these grapes (bright flavors and high acid when picked early), allowing the winemakers to rely only on natural ferment without any additives. Everything is done by hand, from picking to sorting to riddling to disgorging to labelling. Three cuvées are produced : a Catawba pet’ nat’ rosé, a Delaware pet’ nat’ with one year on tirage, and a Catawba still rosé since 2018. 2021 will see a new 4th cuvée, produced in the same spirit. website : https://www.chepikawine.com/
What is Wine Teach?
Wine – teach is a subscription based online education platform that enables anyone in the world to learn about wine from the very best and leading sommeliers and wine specialists of the World. Our online video content is filmed in an easy-to-understand way, with an entertaining twist and is available to wine lovers anywhere and anytime, striving for better knowledge while inspiring a love of wine. There is a broad diversity of content available, starting with practical videos on how to store, serve and taste wine and more complicated topics on viticulture, winemaking and different wine regions and grape varieties. The content is updated every 2nd week with new videos from our global content creator team.
What is Wineally?
It all started with a vision combining great food with the perfect wine and make people feel secure in their choices. Not only when in a top-class restaurant with an experienced sommelier at your table but in all restaurants, wine shops and supermarkets in the Wineally ecosystem.
We knew we needed to create cheap, easy-to-use digital tools, where wine producers, distributors, restaurants, and sommeliers could help themselves by helping others so all become winners. Best of all? A sustainable solution where end consumers will get perfect wine & dine experiences. And so we ended up with a project that seeks to change the world of wine.