Interview

A Glass of Wine with Thomas Sommer

A glass of wine with Thomas Sommer: The wine expert and sommelier of the Gourmetrestaurant Lerbach speaks about his profession and his passion for the best job in the world . . .

You’ve already won many important wine competitions. Soon you’ll be competing in the European Sommelier Championship. What does this mean for you and how do you hope to benefit from the competition?

It’s a true honor to represent my country in this world-class competition. The participants will be of the highest caliber. I narrowly missed qualifying for the world championship, but now I have the chance to take part in the European contest. Naturally, no one can win every competition—these contests are tense, and it’s nerve-wracking to be compared to some of the best sommeliers in the world. That’s why good preparation is critical. When the event is over, you know exactly where you stand in terms of the community of international wine experts. Additionally, these competitions provide excellent opportunities for advanced training and networking. For me, it’s a lot of fun.

You hold the acclaimed “Diploma in Wines and Spirits” from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust in London (WSET). Which allows you to run the Master of Wine program. You accomplished this while simultaneously completing your studies in Hotel Business Administration in Heidelberg. That seems like a pretty busy schedule.

Ah, it wasn’t so bad! I’m convinced that everyone needs a little pressure to discover their strengths and to keep growing. Business administration alone would have been too limiting for me. The two courses of study had nothing to do with each other—so switching back and forth became an amazing opportunity to broaden my horizons. I traveled back and forth between London and Heidelberg. This way I was able to keep the connection to wine. I was worried about this—and the fear drove me to keep moving toward those two diplomas.

Why the diploma? Wasn’t the sommelier training in the German system (DWS) enough?

It’s impossible to compare the two systems. Each of the trainings goes in different directions. My studies in London and the WSET covered a broad spectrum of topics—from the production of wine to analyzing taste to the marketing of wine to, most importantly, the future development of the wine industry. For a career as a sommelier in a restaurant, these things have little importance, but I wanted to be a player on the international wine stage. An IHK-certified sommelier graduates with a strong general knowledge, which can be expanded with time and experience.

Does this means there is no one perfect training system for a sommelier or wine advisor

Yes and no. In Germany there’s no specific training program for a profession as a sommelier like in France. A typical training program, like the what’s available for kitchen or restaurant professionals, doesn’t exist—the youth protection agencies prohibit students—some of whom are as young as sixteen—to choose a career that involves the consumption of wine. So it is often the case that restaurant professionals, sometimes even the cooks, begin their sommelier training later in their careers. But in recent times, the sommelier profession has become quite trendy. Good thing! Now the profession will be taken more seriously. In the past our profession has had a slightly “dusty” image. Now that will change.

You’re “onstage” in the restaurant five days a week. How do you spend your free time? Without wine?

No way! To be a good sommelier, you have to be ready for everything new. I invest a lot of time in wine trips and often spend my two free days attending tastings—often in local winegrowing regions, sometimes outside of Germany where I love visiting vineyards and trading stories and ideas with others who are crazy about wine. Every sommelier wants the very best wine for his or her restaurant. That’s why we’re always on the search for the next great wine. And we gladly sacrifice our free time to the search. Or maybe it’s better to say: A passionate sommelier can’t stay away from wine—his profession and hobby are the same, and work time and free time often include the same activities. It’s important to have a family who understands and supports this.

How do you relax? With wine or sports?

When I’ve got no wine related activities, I love to ride my mountain bike. It’s so relaxing. I’m also a huge soccer fan and you can often find me at the stadium. Of course I love to go out with my wife and friends. Sometimes we even drink beer—a Pilsner. Right after a Riesling tasting this provides the perfect balance.

You’ve implied that you enjoy visiting the vineyards and getting to know the wine-growers personally. Isn’t it enough just to telephone?

Like most serious wine buyers, I really don’t want to be dependent on distributors. It’s not good enough for me to simply buy wine from a “stranger” - I need to get out there and visit the vineyards. My goal is to visit each listed German producer at least once in two years. The focus of our wine list is European, with a strong accent on German wines. This makes it both practical and possible for me to show up in person on the wine-grower’s doorstep. By the way, half of our 900 listed wines come from German vineyards.

Aren’t the wine conventions and public events enough

They help, but there’s always too much commotion and not enough quiet time. I use the public events as opportunities for networking. But to learn about a new wine there are simply too many distractions. When I visit the wine-grower personally the experience is more intense. I can busy myself with the wine and engage the wine-grower in constructive conversation. This has enormous importance to me.

Do you have a little black book with you for notes? What happens at these personal wine tastings

Notes are unbelievably important. I try between 2000 and 3000 wines per year, so it’s essential for me to have a good notation system. Earlier in my career I made all of my notes by hand in a little notebook. Now I do everything digitally, which makes it much easier to use search words and categories.

Do you usually give the wine-grower your feedback in person?

I’m always honest when I’m asked for my opinion. Some growers want to hear my opinion; others do not. So when a wine-grower asks me what I think, he gets an unfiltered answer. You need some expertise to do this diplomatically, and I will only offer a critique if it’s just the two of us, face to face. I never want a third party to get the wrong idea. A sommelier should only tell the wine-grower his opinion of the wine’s taste, not how to produce his wine. The wine-grower doesn’t come to the restaurant to tell me how to set the table or how the food should taste. He does his job; I do mine.

Your own vineyard—dream or nightmare?

Some sommeliers do this, and some of them do it really well. But this isn’t my dream, at least not now. I’m not a wine-grower—I don’t have enough experience in the techniques involved to produce excellent wine. But I find the profession very exciting and I have both awe and respect for those who choose to produce high quality wines. I would never assume that I could run a vineyard—just because I can analyze wines and select the appropriate wine for specific foods. Five days in the restaurant and then two days in the vineyard as a wine-grower? That wouldn’t work. Everyone should do what they’re good at doing.

What motivates you to work every day in the renowned Michelin three-star Gourmetrestaurant Lerbach?

Actually that’s an easy answer: I am inspired by the idea of finding the perfect glass of wine to enhance each guest’s dining experience. All of strive for perfection, and I love holding up my end of the bargain. I know that I must always give 100 percent of my efforts to reach this goal. This means I have to be a little bit of a detective in order to discover the wishes and specific taste requirements of our clients. It’s not always easy, but I have a few key phrases that help me begin my investigation. My goal is to select the perfect wine for the guest, the occasion, and the menu. And to offer a wine that is not a typical wine, but something really special.

The role of the host is one part of your job. Is it also a way to put guests in touch with the best wines in the world?

I am fascinated by everything to do with wine, but also by the relationship between wine and food. It’s such fun to work with star chef Nils Henkel and our tremendously talented team. In our restaurant we don’t look at our jobs as work. Rather, we view what we do as an all-encompassing duty and challenge with huge rewards. We all learn from each other.

Are their things about your job that are difficult to deal with

At Gourmetrestaurant Lerbach—where we work on such a high level— a “normal” day is full of challenges. Each of our guests expects the highest standard of service as well as that extra special “something.” We are the largest three-star restaurant in Germany. Often we have between fifty and seventy guests in our dining room. You can imagine the physical exertion necessary to give each guest our maximum attention. This requires a high level of concentration from everyone on the team.

Are there difficult guests?

No! I want the best for every guest. Sometimes the wishes are more challenging, sometimes less. But we do not “rate” the guests. Just because someone orders the most expensive wine doesn’t mean that he or she is an expert. Often a guest asks for wine advice and I’m able to surprise him with an unusual choice—that’s wonderful! No one needs to be a wine expert to enter our restaurant. Actually, you can’t make a mistake, if you ask questions or state your preferences. That’s my favorite kind of guest—it makes it very easy for me to offer the perfect glass.

People speak of the demands on those who work in Michelin three-star restaurants. And yet you seem very relaxed.

Hello! Being a sommelier doesn’t mean you have to be a stiff and uptight boor! There are cooler types on the sommelier scene than you might think. You have to know the wine business—sure—but you don’t need to be tedious and dull to put across the information. In spite of contrary claims, many of us in the wine business do not take ourselves too seriously. This helps the business and bonds us with each other.

A sign of your relaxed style is your design for the wine shirts. In the conservative wine world these designs come across as fresh and sassy. How did you come up with this idea?

I was in the mood to try something fun. I now have two designs. We’re producing the black short-sleeved shirts with the “:vino? Logisch:” design. There’s also the Riesling design. Hopefully we’ll soon be offering the third edition. You’ll be able to see them at wine tastings and parties.

While we’re on the subject of Riesling—it has been the trend wine of the last few years. Recently your wine list was selected by the Metternich Guide as having the “Best Riesling Wine List in Germany.” Is Riesling a fad or a wine with a solid future that should be taken seriously?

Riesling is hardly a new trend. Over a hundred years ago Riesling was a popular wine worldwide. It lost its reputation during the war and during the seventies and eighties, and—due to mass production— its outlook was not so promising. But the middle of the nineties marked a return to high quality production. The idea that Riesling is a fad stems from this last phase, but in fact the new excitement constitutes much more than a trend. For this we can thank the confidence of the wine-growers and the cooperation of sommeliers. Personally, I especially like the versatility of this wine. It’s a wonderful addition to the culinary world and can be enjoyed with a variety of foods. It has an appealing spectrum of aromas and nuances, and it’s more versatile than any other wine. The current culinary trends are a good match for Riesling. The classic and delicate grape was not called “The King of the Grapes” for nothing! In general the grapes grow well in the cooler climate of Germany—which gives the German wine-growers a super calling card. As a German sommelier, I can also be a little proud to hold the Riesling in high esteem. Riesling fans from Canada, Scandinavia, the USA, and, even France have joined the Riesling conversation. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that high quality Riesling has been produced for many years in Australia, New Zealand, and the USA. It’s a delicious and stimulating discussion. Some experts argue that the Riesling Renaissance began in Australia.

Which wine producing country impresses you the most?

Exotic places like Chile, South Africa and California come immediately to mind. The unbelievable dimensions and the pragmatic approach to wine growing in the American Napa Valley region astounds German visitors. We’re talking about 100,000 cases —not bottles!—and that’s without loss of quality. On the other hand, I have visited wine-growers with less than six hectares of vines, who have managed to create tremendous reputations for themselves. Naturally I am more likely to visit European countries: Greece, Spain, Italy, France, and most often Portugal. Portugal was long forgotten as a producer of quality wine, but in the last ten years they have made fantastic progress. I’ve been a moderator at many conferences and events and I’m fascinated by the contrast: Across from the little known Portuguese wine-growers stand the big shots from France. I tend to favor Austrian wine, but Portuguese wine packs a powerful emotional wallop—maybe because Portugal is my wife’s homeland.

Do you still have time for your moderating duties?

Yeah, it’s not always easy to coordinate my schedule, but moderating an event is a great addition to my work in the restaurant. In the last three years I’ve accepted moderating jobs from the agency Sommelier-Consult, mainly for wine conventions like ProWein, the international professional wine conference in Düsseldorf, or for various business events. I learn a lot at these events, too. I recently did a wine moderation on a yacht. I wore a suit and flip-flops, since street shoes were not allowed on deck. In my wonderful profession, I never have a boring day . . .