Beyond an outstanding knowledge of wine, an ability to curate show-stopping wine lists and an instinct for delectable pairings, the role of the sommelier is to inspire. It takes grit and dedication to gain the qualifications needed to be a professional sommelier, as well as a sharp nose and an extraordinarily keen palate. The Red Carnation Hotel Collection is lucky enough to have a team of award-winning, highly personable sommeliers working front of house and behind the scenes at our spectacular fine dining restaurants around the world. Here, we introduce some of our exceptionally talented connoisseurs and ask them what it takes to succeed as a sommelier in today’s luxury travel sphere. We also journey to South Africa’s celebrated Hemel-en-Aarde Valley wine ward in the Walker Bay wine region, home to our very own Bouchard Finlayson winery, to learn about the excellent vintages served at Red Carnation Hotels. Discover how an accomplished sommelier improves the culinary experience and why interest in wine is currently at an all-time high.

More than ordering the right bottle

Savouring beautiful wine is a holiday highlight for many. Kick back with a lazy al fresco lunch on the beach accompanied by a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, or cap a busy day of sightseeing with a sumptuous meal and a rich bottle of Shiraz. Wine, and, more specifically, carefully chosen wine, is not merely a superfluous afterthought. It commands centre stage at the table and greatly enhances the overall dining experience. Increasingly, luxury travellers are favouring individual experiences over generic ones, where the individual boutique is preferred to the big brand, the bespoke tour to the one-size-fits-all package, the Michelin-starred tasting menu to the à la carte. Contemporary hospitality providers are challenged to meet this demand with impeccable service, and this is where the knowledgeable sommelier steps in.

'Most luxury travellers really relish a memorable wine experience. When informing guests about wine, there is always so much to discuss. Every wine has a story and sharing that with travellers is an honour. Apt recommendations about food and wine pairings are often the highlight of guests’ stays,' states Gregory Mutambe, Sommelier at The Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa. 'I am responsible for creating an exquisite wine list, as well as overseeing inventory, stock control, and maturation. I focus on everything wine and beverage-related at the hotel. Training other members of staff is very much a part of this. I was also recently appointed Brand Ambassador for the Bouchard Finlayson winery. This involves communicating with fellow sommeliers around the world and helping the vineyard to achieve visibility in the wine trade,' Mutambe continues.

'A sommelier is not essential to the running of a restaurant, unlike waiters. Many restaurants function perfectly well without a sommelier. However, having a knowledgeable wine expert on the floor brings prestige to the establishment and reassures the customer who is spending more on a specific vintage,' says Vincent Bouin, Head Sommelier at The Rubens at the Palace. 'Being a sommelier is, by essence, a multitasking job. On one hand, it means organising cellars, carrying cases, controlling stock levels, and supplying all-round expertise on wine. But it requires confidence and personality, too. Wine is about feelings and is very emotive. You need a good understanding of human nature and to be able to read micro-expressions. Customers might say that they like wine, so as not to disagree with you—but facial micro-expressions and body language don’t lie. If you notice that people don’t feel completely comfortable with the wine, as a sommelier, you can be proactive and find the perfect wine for the guest to really create an experience for them. Then there is the process of training staff. Waiters are sometimes intimidated by wine. It is not about turning them into sommeliers. It is about helping them to understand that there is nothing to fear: wine is about sensation; there is no right and wrong. Personally, I learn a lot by training staff,' Boiun goes on to explain.

Topping up the glass: building experience and getting certified

Hand in hand with the heightened trend for luxury dining experiences in the burgeoning desire to learn more about wine. A new-wave of aspiring oenophiles have risen to the fore in recent years, fuelled by advances in technology and easily accessible information on wine. Consequently, the tastings and wine pairing experiences offered at several Red Carnation Hotels are growing in popularity. Ashford Castle, our sumptuous country pile in Ireland, hosts private wine tasting experiences and special wine dinners in the exclusive Castle Wine Cellars, which were recently discovered beneath the property and renovated to immaculate specifications. Elsewhere, one of Guernsey’s most elegant venues, The Crown Club at The Old Government House Hotel & Spa offers a refined spectrum of wine tastings and drinks experiences. The best way to hone an interest in wine is to be adventurous and try as many varieties as possible. Sample different vintages and grapes that might surprise and delight you in the company of an expert guide.

For those looking to become a certified sommelier, mastering the profession requires extensive study and commitment. There are four tests which need to be undertaken to earn the full qualification, with the final—and most challenging—examination lending those who pass it the coveted title of Master Sommelier. The tests are available through the Court of Master Sommeliers in America and with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in the UK. But, as Red Carnation Hotels’ seasoned sommeliers note, it takes many years of dedicated work in hospitality to build intuitive customer service skills, as well as a true passion for wine, to really flourish.

We asked Eric Zweiebel, Summer Lodge Country House Hotel and Restaurant's prize-winning sommelier, about his journey. 'I was inspired by my father. My parents used to own a restaurant and I wanted to be a maître d'. My father, who was the chef, told me to be a good one you need to really know the wines. Then, after meeting the award-winning sommelier Serge Dubs, I knew I wanted to make it my profession. Upon finishing restaurant school, I worked at a number of prestigious French establishments for six years, including three-times Michelin-starred Auberge de l’Ill and Pavillon Élysée Lenôtre. I’ve been Summer Lodge’s cellar master since 2004, having practised for seven years with other luxury English hotels.' Zweiebel won UK Sommelier of the Year in 2004 and has placed second in the contest on four occasions. Perhaps his most accomplished achievement, he scored second in the Best Sommelier of the World competition in 2007.

Vincent Bouin also cut his teeth in the restaurant trade early-on and enthusiastically pursued his dream career to be a sommelier for several years. 'I started off working as a waiter, doing seasonal jobs between mountain and beach resorts, and developed a strong interest in wine. When an opportunity arose to work as a sommelier 22 years ago, I jumped at it and never look back.'

Born in Zimbabwe, Gregory Mutambe believes it was pure serendipity that led him to be a sommelier. 'Wine, wine lifestyle and a career in wine found me. I worked as a cellar hand at a winery in Zimbabwe—little did I know that this would turn into an infinite study path. Now, among my many qualifications to date, I have completed a Wine Judging Course at University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business and Stellenbosch University’s Garagiste Winemaking Course.'

Sampling South Africa’s finest with Bouchard Finlayson

Sheltered by the scenic heights of the Galpin Peak and Tower of Babel, the Hemel-en-Aarde valley in which the Bouchard Finlayson winery sprawls is one of South Africa’s finest grape-growing areas. The vineyard’s spokesperson explains why the Walker Bay wine region is so well-suited to wine production: 'Summer climes are warm rather than hot, while winters are mild and frost-free. The sea breeze from the Atlantic Ocean keeps the vines here cool, thereby encouraging slow ripening and flavour-rich grapes.'

The vineyard has reinvented its production during recent years, in a bid to be more sustainable and make vegan-friendly wine. 'Our talented winemaker Chris Albrecht is at the heart of these changes. The challenge was to find a balance between doing the right thing and keeping our defining organoleptic characters intact.'

Bouchard Finlayson was awarded World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Conservation Champion status in 2011, and the winery has earnt a reputation as an environmental leader in the South African wine industry owing to its commitment to conservation and responsible production. To qualify for the prestigious accolade of Conservation Champion, producers must commit to biodiversity-friendly farming practices, conservation of natural habitat and a consistent re-evaluation of water and energy efficiencies. The vineyard calculates its carbon footprint annually, aiming to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels. Some 335 plant species have been identified on the estate so far, and approximately 94 hectares—75 per cent of the Bouchard Finlayson property—is set aside for conserving indigenous fauna and flora.

The winery is aware of the trends impacting the luxury travel market at the moment, understanding the importance of the sommelier and a carefully balanced wine list. 'Today’s chefs are concentrating on the finest ingredients and locally sourced produce. Restauranteurs select suppliers that share the same values they want to translate when preparing and presenting the final plate to their customers. It’s exactly the same with generating a wine list. Red Carnation Hotels selects wines that best showcase its beliefs. The onus is on slow eating, slow cooking and slow travelling right now, and this is applicable in choosing a bottle of wine. Winemaking takes time and relies heavily on Mother Nature, with some products needing longer than others to be ready for the world’s most coveted tables. In our view, wine is the epitome of luxury and luxurious experiences: it’s a glorious amalgamation of time, patience, know-how, and humble beginnings, all orchestrated by a talented chain of committed producers.'

Meet our expert sommeliers and sample Bouchard Finlayson’s exquisite wines when staying at Red Carnation Hotels’ sumptuous hotels around the world.