Leading sommelier Vincenzo Arnese tells us about his career path, how WSET qualifications have helped him pursue his goals and what it takes to be a great sommelier. He also shares some advice for aspiring sommeliers.
What inspired you to enter the world of wine?
Wine has always been a big part of my life and I have very fond memories of wine during my childhood. I remember very clearly when my grandfather gave me the first taste of his homemade wine at the age of five. I started to become actively interested in wine when I worked as a commis sommelier at the Waterside Inn in Bray. The General Manager, Diego Masciaga, decided to assign me to the sommelier team - which sparked my curiosity for the world of wine. The Head Sommelier there always challenged me with different questions, so researching and study became a pleasant routine. After sixteen years in hospitality, I'm still learning every day.
What were the main challenges you had to overcome in starting out as a sommelier?
It’s very hard to become a good sommelier. As soon as you start, you realise the world is vast. To learn on a daily basis, you have to compromise on other areas. To find the right balance between your personal life and your wine knowledge development requires a lot of organisation. But at the beginning, studying is not the only challenge. I remember spending a lot of time on understanding guest needs. The sommelier must be sensitive when he/she provides a recommendation. The guest’s budget and personal taste are important factors which need to be taken into consideration. Another challenge is learning how to talk positively about any wine. It's easy to be critical when we are not in front of a premium wine, but I think we should always be respectful of the hard work behind every wine - irrespective of its price.
How have WSET qualifications helped you with your career progression?
I took my first WSET course (Level 2 Award in Wines and Spirits) in 2013 when I was in Australia working for the restaurant Vue de Monde. I was advised by the Wine Director to take the course and, in all honesty, I was a little bit sceptical because I was already an accredited sommelier with Associazione Italiana Sommelier. However, I was most definitely wrong! WSET qualifications changed the way I thought about wine and made me understand how to connect what I smell in a wine with winemaking techniques and a grape’s primary aromas. It was also important in developing my English wine vocabulary. The WSET Diploma was a real game changer. You have to invest a lot of effort and time to achieve a good result and working full time in a restaurant does not make that easy! I started tasting daily and I had a study group that met every week. All this was necessary for my growth as a sommelier, so that I could understand and clearly explain all aspects of the wine world.
We plan to run WSET Levels 2 and 3 in Wines courses every year. We really believe that these courses benefit our colleagues by giving them more confidence in helping guests to make the most appropriate choices when selecting wines.
Can you tell us about your role as a WSET Certified Educator for Mandarin Oriental?
Last year we decided to send some of our colleagues for wine training. We contacted WSET and discovered we could run a course in-house. Since then I have become a WSET Certified Educator and have developed our wine education programme at the Mandarin Oriental. We plan to run WSET Levels 2 and 3 in Wines courses every year. We really believe that these courses benefit our colleagues by giving them more confidence in helping guests to make the most appropriate choices when selecting wines. Investing in our staff is one of the company’s priorities. We believe that hospitality is made by people and that they are the core part of any restaurant/hotel business. Behind the scenes of a WSET course there is a lot of work, but I have to admit that it’s a really great feeling when a group of people that you teach are succeeding in their goals.
You won Bellavita Best UK Sommelier in 2015 and have just been runner up in the 2019 UK Ruinart Sommelier Challenge. Do you enjoy these competitions and how do they benefit your career?
I began to compete in different sommelier competitions to challenge myself and to apply what I'm studying every day under pressure. I like meeting other professionals and learning something new and I enjoy the sense of competition and the opportunity to push your own boundaries to improve. I have met some amazing people during these events and developed some great friendships.
What are the key trends you are currently noticing in diners’ wine preferences?
Hospitality can be very sensitive to different trends, but I have noticed that preferences tend to vary by specific groups of guests. There are still many who prefer the classic regions but today there are more people open to trying wines from less well-known countries and grapes varieties with unpronounceable names! Wines from Greece and Portugal and even Georgia and Turkey are being requested more frequently! Lately I have also received a lot of requests for UK wines (not only sparkling) and for pink gin - the infused spirit, not the cocktail. I have noticed that generally guests have become more knowledgeable and willing to try something new.
Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for anyone who is considering a career as a sommelier?
The best advice that I can give to someone who wishes to start a career as a sommelier is that knowledge is important but not the priority. That will come with time and preparation. What is an absolute necessity is a positive attitude and the capacity to stay humble at all times. You need to be able to handle difficult situations sensitively, understanding that everyone has different opinions and tastes. Our primary job is to understand these tastes and to come up with the perfect solution for the guest. I always advise new starters to learn by watching others - listen and observe guests and your manager.