From the initial shock – from a fully booked schedule to nothing – to adapting and moving forward. Here are reigning sommelier world champion Marc Almerts' thoughts on how to handle the crisis.
”Most people working in gastronomy are flexible and able to adapt to new situations quickly – and that certainly is a feature that we have all needed a lot now. In February I was still travelling, tasting with colleagues and visiting wineries, and then in early March the wind changed fast; the hotel’s bookings receded, events and table reservations were cancelled, and the necessary measures by the state were put in place,” says Marc.
Since 2017, Marc Almert has worked as a sommelier at Pavillon in Zurich, the historic Baur au Lac hotel’s restaurant which received its second Michelin star in 2019. Now, all restaurants and bars in Switzerland are closed since 16 March.
”The hotel itself is still open, however naturally we only have few guests as international travel is at an almost complete stand-still.”
Marc says that he strongly believes that the best way to get through this is to adhere to the measures in place: social distance and stay at home as much as possible. However, at the same time, he thinks it is mandatory to remain positive and to see the opportunities the time in the home office brings.
”After the initial shock and re-adapting to the new situation, it is crucial to create your own agenda and structure your day. There is plenty to do apart from binge-watching Netflix. Be it learning about wine regions, finally reading that book you always wanted to, cleaning out your cellar or perhaps even learning a new skill – the multitude of online courses on offer is already outstanding and will likely grow exponentially during the upcoming weeks.”
”On a personal note, we are trying to make the best we can at the hotel; on the Food & Beverage side that involved setting up a premium catering service “Baur’s @ Home”, that started Monday 30 March that includes a small selection of wines, IPA and a homemade Negroni. Furthermore, we have set up an online video tool for our entire staff, which covers all areas from product knowledge, service skills but also fun items like cooking, sports and decorations for the time at home.”
Right now, Marc Almert is also a part of the Star Wine List of the Year Sweden 2020 jury, where he's evaluating Swedish wine lists together with sommeliers such as Arvid Rosengren, Paz Levinson and Pascaline Lepeltier.
”Some speeches, workshops etcetera have been postponed. Still, nevertheless, I am using the time to prepare them thoroughly, as I am sure we will all travel extensively in late summer and autumn and then time will be limited. And there are many online projects which keep me busy; judging wine lists for competitions and participating in round-tables to name a few. Also, this is the time to show your solidarity locally; if you have elderly neighbours or family members, please think of them next time you go grocery shopping – it is amazing and inspiring to see how despite social distancing our local community is growing together in this way.”
Do you feel that the business, in general, is adapting to the situation and creating new work possibilities?
”Definitely. Earlier this week, I participated in a Sake Zoom Tasting and have already registered for a gin tasting next week. There already were the first requests for guided wine tastings, and I believe we will soon see more and more concepts like this emerging. Wineries and marketing bodies are adapting fast to spread their wines and knowledge to both professionals and customers at home, and this will offer many opportunities to sommeliers around the globe.”
”Another great programme that has been launched both in Austria and in Germany already is sommeliers that help the wineries doing the spring works in the vineyards, seeing as many of their regular workers can not come due to closed borders. This creates a perfect win-win situation; the wineries are helped and forge closer bonds to their customers, and the sommeliers get some fresh air and gain some hands-on learning.”
Contacts on the phone and video chat are essential to face this period of self-isolation.
How do you keep connected with your co-workers in a time like this?
”Apart from the above, we have started making collective ’aperitifs’ with our team via video chat. We all meet every couple of days online, discuss the wine we are each tasting and exchange. This way, we still feel connected. That is why we also still do our daily Food & Beverage Managers Briefing every morning, however this time each from their home. Contacts on the phone and video chat are essential to face this period of self-isolation.”
By the way, you've never been present in social media. Are you changing your mind about that now?
”No, currently I have no personal SoMe accounts, however frequently appear on those of Pavillon, Baur’s, Baur au Lac, Baur au Lac Vins, ASI, Deutsche Sommelier Union and more. This might change in the future, once I have the time to take good care of, for example, an Instagram account. This is currently not in my focus, though. The mode of communication through the current situation has changed to more video calls, however, I do not believe that it is the best time to start an Instagram presence – especially as I am currently not travelling and thus not creating new images ’on the road’.”
What do you think about the future, how do you think this crisis will change the sommelier business?
”Positive effects will be the increasing number and quality of online learning resources, as well as the higher acceptance for the home office, at least for the administrative part of the sommelier job. Also, online tastings and online lectures, as well as round-tables, will probably replace at least some real-life gatherings, which will also help to reduce our collective carbon footprint.”
”Naturally, however, the crisis brings on many economic challenges too; many countries do not have stable social security for restaurant employees and are now facing existential problems, that will leave deep scars on their work models and companies. Even in the calmer countries, it will take months before international travel returns to its former level, and thus, we will need to focus on attractive offers for our local customers and guests. Therefore, let us finish with a thought from Theodore Roosevelt: ’Do what you can, with what you have, where you are’.”