Name: Zoltan Szabo –
Nationality: Romania –
At the moment: Canada –
Link: click –
Please, tell us a little bit about your first encounter with wine & the wine industry? Any particular mentors at that time?
Well, that was long ago, after military service, friends and I going to the local disco (of my hometown in Szeklerland, Transylvania) and gobbling up copious amounts of semi-sweet Dealu Mare cab sauv, mixed with Coca Cola and icecubes, of course… also, my parents used to make wine, homemade stuff, like everyone, from hybrid grapes growing around the house, so I remember that as a child…And then, before immigrating to Canada, I had a boutique, where I commercialized cheap booze and plonk wines…I am talking early ’90s here…Admittedly, I had a taste for it, a wine that is, and gastronomy in general, and from then on things have grown and evolved…
What specific traits or skills should a Sommelier(e) possess for professional performance and is there any person with those qualities you especially admire within the wine industry?
Must be passionate, first and foremost, and knowledgeable, of course, with a down – to – earth / laidback attitude, and, to possess superior listening skills…and please, no tastevin around the neck on a chain…it’s passe and it would just be in the way of moving comfortably around of table service…
What would be your advice to a young Sommelier(e) i.e. Commis Sommelier(e) where to look at finding an adequate position at home or abroad? Any further tips?
Anywhere…although I am realizing myself that and if anyone wants to make a career, and not just quick cash, international experience is crucial…aside from that it takes years and years of hard work, hands-on work on the floor of a restaurant, to become a true Sommelier…education and a certificate/diploma are important, but without working on the floor and gaining confidence and routine, building a CV, well, the certificate or diploma will just be a decoration fixture hanging on the wall, remember that…
When a customer asks for advice on selecting wine what’s in your opinion would be the best approach?
I usually ask “what do you usually drink?” just as a starting point / icebreaker…but then, you can find out what the food will be…also, and very discreetly, what the guest would like to spend…in any case, never ever recommend the most expensive wine on the list !!
And then, remember, season – reason – occasion – companion…time and space are important when comes to a proper wine recommendation, so put things into perspective, use your imagination… i.e. your guests are dining on the hotel’s terrace on a sunny summer afternoon…and ordering a light and fresh fare…well, you are certainly not going to suggest a heavy and tannic red wine, but light and crisp, refreshing white, or rose…and so on…although if the client wants a heavy red, and insists in spite of your recommendations, well, that’s what you serve without any questions asked…the client is always right, after all…
What’s your philosophy about glasses? Are you working with well-known brands or are you considering new brands as well and how do you determine?
Again, time and space…season – reason – occasion – companion…I drink my grower’s Champagne in a water goblet and trust me, that’s the way, and I’d never ever use a flute for a good quality bubbly…never ever…flutes are also passe and they just don’t do justice to the aromas, flavours, mousse, complexity and multi – layereness of good sparkling wine…and that’s that !!
And, let’s dont forget, quality stems cost, and not a little either…however, in a nice environment, in a fine(r) style establishments I prefer good glasses, and I don’t mean 20 different shapes, but a very few, so to have the wines show their best…I’ve been working with Riedel for the last 20+ years and planning to do so in the future as well, most probably.
What advice would you give people on pairing wine with food?
To take my advice, yes, my, yours or other real/true Sommeliers’…and you know why? Well, because and as much as these pairings and the appreciation of ’em are somewhat if not totally personal, not all personal tastes are good or great…I mean that professional Sommelier studies these taste and texture, aroma and flavour, structure, weight, depth and breadth associations between food and wine, a Sommelier trains her or his palate for these olfactive aspects and would certainly suggest an appropriate pairing, even if it might not be to the personal liking of everyone…and that’s okay, because food and wine and dining supposed to be an experience, so even if someone would disagree over a particular pairing coming from a highly trained professional, well, it won’t be that “bad” anyway and the experience what matters most, or am I was mistaken?! Also, we need to remember the reason for a pairing, we pair food and wine, so the two will taste much better together than each of ’em individually…period.
Should a Sommelier(e) taste the guest’s wine?
No. As just to avoid any complications…please see my “Ten Commandments of Wine Service” (below)…and please include those ten commandments somewhere in this interview, at the end of it perhaps, cool?
Where would you suggest a young Sommelier start searching for Sommelier positions on the internet in your country?
I am living and working in Romania right now, and as there’s a lack of real Sommeliers and Sommelier culture altogether in this country, I sincerely don’t know the answer, however, anyone can contact me and I’d do my best to assist with whatever I can, or, simply direct ’em to you and your website, which I enjoy reading and am a fan of.
What are the key ingredients for creating a wine list for a restaurant and what is your opinion on some ridiculous pricing on wine in restaurants, do you have tips on how to determine markups?
It all depends: demographics/location / the clientele, the menu and the chef, the staff and their knowledge level, the ideology and approach of the owners as to how much they want to invest in the wine program, education, cellar, decanters, stems and so on, as it’s all costing we are talking about, and profits, and, unless the wine program is profitable, well, we did nothing, not much anyway…in any case, all costs enter in markups, let’s don’t forget that, but a good Sommelier to maneuver, twist and turn, think and be creative, so markups aren’t exaggerated and sometimes offensive even…I personally believe in lower markups and more inventory turnovers, higher sales and rotating products, and in an ever-changing list, with new wines always available…in other words, inventory controls/software, etc. to be in check and the program tightly monitored from A to Z…period.
(Additionally, here’s something I’ve written re. same topic some time ago: You can’t pile up a bunch of just any wines on a piece of paper and call it “wine list”, or “wine program”…that would be pretty lame, to say the list. Yes, you’d still make a list, but one without soul and passion, without thought and expertise involved.
A proper wine list isn’t accomplished by “shopping” around for favours and freebies from larger wineries and suppliers, but rather by tasting and selecting the most suitable wines for your guests, based upon price, availability and your own ideals/desire to bringing the best quality products to the table.
Before you even begin with the selection process, you should think of proper and sufficient storage, stemware, and, very importantly hiring of trained staff, a training strategy, and such. Also, have a close and realistic look at your budget, think of your potential target market aka clientele, menu/food compatibility and overall mandate, or vision, as a whole, for the entire restaurant. Oh yeah, and don’t forget about good inventory systems/software and the cost/profitability angle, therefore a well thought out markup strategy…
And, get to know the people you going to work with, winery and agency owners, sales representatives, and even the delivery guy, reliability and integrity are crucial, as well as a mutually healthy and reliable collaboration.
And then, the person responsible for acquiring the wines should have a clear stand, and not make selections based upon “kickbacks” from wineries/agencies, atop of her / his fair wages, or profit (if the person is the owner), because there’s no honour in “double-dipping”, nor in forgetting/ignoring honesty and professional responsibilities.
(If you are an expert / Sommelier, but also represent a winery, an importing agency or distributor and sell your wines to a restaurant, well, you should not be charging any additional “consulting” fees…that’d be also “double-dipping”).
A few other important and ideal aspects to be considered when coming to your restaurant’s wine program, including the actual/physical list, blackboards, walls, the cellar, shelves, and so on:
Design and layout, listing each and every one of the wines appropriately, i.e. vintage dates, producer, region/sub-region, single vineyard’s name (if it’s the case), and country of origin.
Visible by – the – glass positions. Make as many wines available by – the – glass as you possibly can, but don’t go overboard…look at the logistics of what it takes to keep wines sound and fresh.
Sommelier’s notes, something personal, instead of senseless Parker scores.
“Special” wines, “reserves”, “last bottles” section.
Promotions, weekly / monthly, by seasons, or whatever the time frame might be.
Price tags on bottles (for taking – away).
Blackboard in front of the restaurant with wine picks and short tasting descriptors.
Winemakers’ event notices on small cards, posters, or handouts.
Display of awards and media accomplishments on the wall, in the cellar…not as a “show off” gesture, but rather that of professional pride.).
How do you manage to stay on top of the changes in the wine industry?
Training training training…and more training…tasting tasting tasting and more tasting…learning always or always learning something new, reading, attending / part – taking in the right kind of tastings, seminars and education forums… traveling… networking with, again, the right kind of people, colleagues, and forums the world over. That’s pretty much it.
How would a new vineyard get the attention of someone like you to notice their wine and what’s the best way for producers to improve their chances of being listed?
Simple: quality. Also, the story behind the label, the people, the makers…and that’s it.
If you were a wine, which variety would you be, and why?
Pinot Noir…and allow me to answer this question by asking you one? Have you had a really good Pinot, say Burgundy, from Oregon, or Prince Edward County? Because if so, you, and everyone, will know the “why” to my answer…Pinot Noir when is good is great, its cherry-berry – floral – spicy – exotic bouquet and silky texture, juicy acidity, dancing – over – the – palate ability and long-lasting finish puts it to the top of the charts for me…
What are the top 3 types of wine (your faves) would we find in your home wine collection and what’s your desert island wine?
Right now they’d be Riesling, Furmint, and Feteasca Neagra.
As for desert island wine…given it’d be somewhere in the tropics… Meursault !!
Any interesting suggestions about magazines or online platform?
I read Jancis Robinson, I follow my friends Elizabeth Gabay, MW and Caroline Gilby, MW…read their work, articles, social media remarks…and, of course, John Szabo, MS and WineAlign…the Wine Spectator for the restaurant awards section, and esp. when one of my lists is listed…as well as sommelier-jobs.com
Ten Commandments of Wine Service
The 21st-century image of the wine steward/sommelier is no longer one of a stiff, tastevin-toating, hocus-pocus-packed, intimidating authority. Instead, today’s sommelier should strive to bring a fresh, appealing, wholly inclusive approach to sharing her / his love and enthusiasm for wine. The modern sommelier shall be fun, confident, highly knowledgeable, and down to earth.
- 1. Thou shalt not be or speak like a snob
Let us remember that wine is a fact of life. It should be available and easily accessible to everyone. Its presence and consumption in moderation can help the mind, body, and soul.
- 2. Thou shalt be passionate
Being a Sommelier is a glamorous job. It’s a profession, as the French say “un métier”. It’s more than just knowing about wine (and always wanting to learn more), it’s about respecting yourself and your patrons.
- 3. Thou shalt have an appropriate attitude
Leave your problems at home. Smile, make eye contact and maintain confidence and composure at all times. Attitude is key.
- 4. Thou shalt be possessing superior listening skills
Listening carefully to your patrons’ needs almost always guarantees success. If you take the time to listen, the sale of a bottle of wine comes faster and easier. Do not follow your own agenda, but listen to the story the patron tells you or the information the patron wants to share. “Hey, I sold one of my companies for $3 billion today!”…Well, bring out your best vintage Champagne and blockbuster wines! “My husband and I just want to share an appetizer tonight”…For sure they won’t be ordering several bottles of wines, so just offer a glass or not even…let them ask for it first! ..” My favorite dog just died”…Have your purest Vodka handy…Sympathize and empathize with the patron, be there for them, be happy or melancholic along with them, create some sort of relationship, and be their ally and friend.
- 5. Thou shalt not argue
Period. Never, under any circumstance. Even when the patron is dead wrong. Nothing will alienate a patron and ruin the experience of the entire party more than a sommelier who aggressively questions them. And you don’t know necessarily who the patron is and how many friends they have and how big their mouth is. This applies to corked or otherwise defective bottles or perfectly good bottles. Most patrons won’t return a wine because they simply don’t like it, although they secretly would like to. They are more likely to say that it is corky or defective to get themselves out of a jam. Don’t argue. Take it back, try it discreetly, out of sight of all customers. If it is correct, then return to the table and suggest an alternative wine. You can always sell the opened wine by the glass.
- 6. Thou shalt not be biased
The best wine is what the patron likes, not what the sommelier. The choice belongs to the patron, it’s only what she/he likes is important. The Sommelier should be able to gently direct the patron towards finding the right wine, but always in a manner that the patron understands and feels that she/he is in charge. You have done a good job if they can brag in front of their friends: “I chose that wine, isn’t it awesome?” Never, ever show disdain for a wine choice. If that’s what the patron wants give it to them and smile.
- 7. Thou shalt not speak ill of any wine
No one is immune to personal preference. We all have ours. But it never reflects well on the wine program, nor on the restaurant as a whole, if you start criticizing any of the wine selections. I have actually heard, “this wine is not very good.” You don’t need to lie if you truly dislike a wine. Choose your language and try something like, “all our wines are carefully handpicked for certain qualities and different clientele, but if you want my opinion I prefer…” But only if asked.
- 8. Thou shalt maintain patience
The restaurant business is tough. As much as there are many rewards, sooner or later there will be trouble. If and when the patron is pissed, frustrated, and angry, adopting a very cautious, polite, understanding, and patient attitude will help the wine steward maneuver away from disaster. After all, the patron is always right. If the wine steward does not get this fundamental rule, she or he is in the wrong business.
- 9. Thou shalt be proud of the home soil
Local food goes very well with local wine and vice versa. Logical. And highly economically feasible. Supporting local producers and such will bring you business, I promise. Of all the culinary principles, going back hundreds of years, the pairing of local food and dishes to a region’s wine is perhaps the most normal. Plus, it just feels good to drink the efforts of your neighbors.
- 10. Thou shalt not taste the patron’s wine.
Though it may be traditional in the Old World for the sommelier to taste a wine before serving it, that’s not how it works in North America (and now increasingly in Europe). Imagine you, the expert sommelier, taste wine and declare it to be in perfect condition. Then you give a taste to the patron with a glowing smile. The patron tastes the wine and doesn’t like it. Now, how are they to extricate themselves from this problem? They can’t really tell the sommelier that the wine is bad and all but the most confident will be reluctant to send the bottle back. The better solution is to empower the patrons to make their own decision. Once they have declared that the wine is fine, they will enjoy it. They have to, after all, they just finished saying it was good. Everybody wins. Of course, if a patron asks you to taste for your opinion, you oblige. Also, do not assume that the man will be ordering the wine. Politely ask who would like to see the wine list or simply place the list in a neutral place on the table and let the patrons decide who will do the ordering. Remember, women actually buy more wine than men. In the UK, where wine is available in supermarkets, the percentage is up around 75%. Don’t assume therefore that the man in the couple/group will do the ordering, or knows more than his female companion. Those days are finished. Another elegant idea is to offer to bring wine lists to everyone at the table if they appear to be particularly interested in wine. (Just don’t get involved in any arguments). Do not recommend the most expensive wine on the list. Come on…be sensitive and have some common sense. It’s a cheap, tacky, and cowardly approach and patrons will see through right away. For the shallower pocket patron, the wine steward should be able to recommend a lower cost wine that is as good as a lot pricier one or at least makes the patron feel that way. And, treat everyone equally and work hard to provide a great wine experience no matter who you serve or how much they know about wine.
@ by Dominik Kozlik – Zeitgeist Sommeliers – www.sommelier-jobs.com