London is the best city in the world both for tasting wines and for learning about wine in general. Or so thinks Jancis Robinson, who wrote in the Financial Times about how the extensive offer of tastings, wine events and training courses make the British capital a magnet for young Europeans interested in the world of wine.
According to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in 2018 there were 8,695 restaurants and bars with a license to serve alcohol in London, compared to almost 15,000 in Madrid.
On paper, the capital of Spain should be the preferred destination for these young professionals, but quantity doesn’t mean quality. In fact, the Spanish sommeliers interviewed for this article (we failed to find any women) —Diego González Barbolla, Julio Sierra, Agustín Trapero, Eloy Blasco and Roberto Sánchez — agree with Jancis Robinson.
All of them without exception value the dynamism of London as one of the main reasons to move to the city to develop their career. They also point to the fact that the job of a sommelier is exclusively focused on wine, without having to combine it with front of the house, as it happens in most non-Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain.
He is a sommelier at The Vineyard in Stockcross, a town less than 100km from London. González moved there less than a year ago hoping to learn more about his job, improve his English and expand his knowledge of international wine. With ample experience in Burgos, his hometown, he took first place at the 25th Spanish Sommeliers Championship this year.
“The main difference with my position in Spain is that here I work exclusively as a sommelier handling stock control, orders, cellar organisation, updating the wine list both by the glass and bottle, training the team of sommeliers, and finally the service itself ”, explains González, who arrived in England from Cobo Vintage in Burgos (1* Michelin). “It was a small restaurant so I also had duties as front of house which meant that I had to split my time”.
Diego has successfully passed Level 3 of the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and is currently preparing the Certified of the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS). Brexit worries him, but to a certain extent. "Partly because you don’t know what impact it might have on the country’s economy —the pound is getting weaker against the euro. On the other hand, I rather not think too much about it. What must be, must be".
He works as assistant head sommelier in Orrery, a French restaurant located in Marylebone, in central London. “I am in charge of managing and reviewing our wine list every day, the selection by the glass, updating the wine list with vintages, new producers, having the rest of the team of sommeliers informed of the changes in the tasting and pairing menu and helping them to further their training. Stock control and orders are also important in my role”.
Sierra, who worked in Spain as head of wine for Makro and as sommelier at restaurant Akelarre (3 Michelin stars) in San Sebastian, has been in the UK for four years and has no plans to return to Spain. His goal, and the initial reason for his move to London, is to continue learning about wine: in addition to having several certifications including the WSET3, Julio is now preparing the Advanced CMS.
Head sommelier consultant Agustín Trapero arrived in London in 2001 together with several friends to study English. Their plan was to spend a few months in the city and then return home. All his friends sticked to it, except him. Trapero is still in the British capital 18 years later, where he combines his job with the preparation for the Master Sommelier (MS) exam. "It is the most demanding test that I have ever faced. It requires a high level of knowledge, tasting and service, and demands 110% of oneself," says Trapero. "There are 255 MS worldwide. At the moment there aren’t any Spaniards, but surely there will be several soon. Roberto Durán, Guillermo Cruz and myself are committed to that. Spain deserves it."
Trapero explains the important role of sommeliers in the London restaurant scene. “In the UK, a head sommelier is a highly respected member of the industry. Most restaurants have one, be it a brasserie or a Michellin-starred venue", explains the sommelier from Ávila, to the northwest of Madrid. “We are responsible for the second largest source of income of our work places, only after the food; we manage the cellar and a wine list with all that it entails, including the choice of glassware as well as the team of sommeliers. This adds more pressure, because if it is mismanaged it would be catastrophic; on the other hand, if it is well run, it will be a great success”.
According to Trapero, “this responsibility is diluted in most restaurants in Spain. Only some fine dining restaurants such as El Celler de Can Roca, Mugaritz, El Casino de Madrid or Coque have this work philosophy”, he concludes. “Fortunately, this situation is gradually changing. There are many Spanish sommeliers who decide to move abroad and explore other cities such as London, Singapore, Hong Kong... This will undoubtedly help to forge and renew the foundations and build a strong base for a new generation of Spanish sommeliers”.
He is pessimistic with regards to Brexit. “It is affecting everything, not only our sector. It has contaminated relationships, projects, and paralysed investments. The cost of wine has already soared 10% because of the uncertainty”.
He moved to London for love in 2017 and is a senior sommelier at restaurant Frog by Adam Handling, where he is a member of the sommelier team who received the 2019 Wine Confidential Award for the best wine list of the year. “In Spain, we drink a lot of domestic wine and little from the rest of the world, which means that many sommeliers have to leave the country to live off this profession. On the other hand, it is sad that we are missing the opportunity to drink great wines from thousands of different places and that our professionals have to emigrate”.
Like the rest of the interviewees, Blasco is critical of the reality of the hospitality industry in Spain. “Hospitality workers are heavily exploited. In the UK, you have to work hard, but if you are a valid, competent professional, you will get a great deal of help when it comes to certified training programmes and being promoted quickly”.
He completed all the WSET levels in London to master the technicalities and vocabulary of wine and confesses that the first months in the British capital were difficult, especially because of the language barrier. “The problem now is the return home. After working here, there are no places that offer such great variety of wines in my hometown, Tarragona. Maybe I have to think about working in a different role, but all in due course”.
The head sommelier at Sexy Fish restaurant began working in the hospitality business to pay for his film studies in London. The experience got him interested in the world of wine. “I started to wonder why a bottle of Pingus is worth £800 and a bottle of Rioja is worth 40, I wanted to know why such difference. I then started studying and asking people who had more experience than me, I went to tastings ... and I was hooked”.
Sánchez reflects on his career and how advantageous it has been that his start as a wine professional took place in a city like London. “I think if I had begun in Spain, it would have been worse. The good thing about starting here is that you have the privilege of being able to taste wines from all over the world, which are much more within reach than in Spain”, he says. “How many New World wines can you find in Spain? You may find them in specific places, but it's not that easy. In my opinion, the range of possibilities that London offers in terms of wine cannot be found in Spain”.
Valencia-born Sánchez speaks of the skills that a good sommelier must have. To start with, the focus should not exclusively be on selling wine. “An important part of the work of the sommelier is to know the wine, the different regions, styles of wine, and know how to explain it to the client. Sommeliers sell wine, but their role is not to sell the most expensive wine, but to give customers what they are looking for, to help them choose the best wine based on their preferences. The best way to acquire that knowledge is studying, and also with experience”, says Sánchez.
He believes that many customers ask for Spanish wines because they offer good value for money. “It is true that if you look for top quality wines we have a smaller range than in France, Italy, the United States or even Australia, but I believe that Spain and Italy are unrivaled when it comes to value for money. And if we talk about red wine, Spain is the best option”.
He has never worked as a sommelier in Spain, but his lack of experience in his native country does not mean that Roberto is not aware of the differences in the job between both countries. “In Spain I see that the role of the sommelier does not exist except in the top restaurants, like those with Michelin stars. I am from Valencia and I can tell you that only two or three of the top 10 restaurants in the city have a sommelier”.
Brexit has put on hold Roberto's plans to start his own business. “I am planning to become a wine exporter from Spain and Hungary and yes, it affects me a lot. We can’t figure out if we should start the business now or not. Fortunately, in the company where I work as a sommelier, we are confident that they will do their best so that Brexit affects us as little as possible. I'm not worried at work, but I am with the business I have in mind”.