Safari Sommelier - A Time to Learn and Adapt - Amidst a Pandemic.
It might look stormy right now, but it cannot rain forever. So, start each day with a grateful heart...
Dickson, tell us a bit more about yourself and how your love for wine came about?
My name is Dickson Matola, a certified sommelier, and a current board member of South African Sommeliers Association (SASA). I am currently working on my Court of master’s certification (CMS). I came from Zimbabwe in search of refuge and greener pastures to support my family back home. My love for wine started when for the first time in my life, visited Sir Robert Stanford Winery and tasted their Chenin Blanc. Fascinated by the stories during the vineyard tour, this became a focal point of my wine recommendations while l was working as a waiter at Evergreen Restaurant. With no background of wine, l had to work hard and learn about cultures, terroir, a new lifestyle and mostly, storytelling. Today, l can always appreciate and humble myself to all great people who showed me that it is possible.
You are currently working as sommelier at Singita Kruger National Park. The tourism industry has come to a halt, South African borders are still closed for international visitors and locally leisure travel is not permitted. How has this affected you?
It is not a secret that this pandemic has affected tourism, hospitality and the wine industry (among others). Although many sommeliers have lost their jobs, I am humbled by the commitment my employers have made to ensure that the "family" at large does not suffer job losses. A big thank you to Singita for remaining supportive during these tough times. On a positive note, it has been an opportunity to learn, while working in different departments and I have invested most of my time studying and bonding with the family.
How do you think your duties as sommelier will change as a result of Covid-19?
Sommeliers are trained and knowledgeable wine professionals, usually working in fine restaurants, specializing in all aspects of wine service to deliver amazing guests experiences.
Yes, duties will be changing - but the focus should be on delivering amazing guests/customer experiences (while being conscious of Covid-19 regulations). Sommeliers will need to continue with staff training and development as well. Wine recommendations is still something guests will appreciate.
Locally, the sale of alcohol was prohibited for 2 months, the ban was lifted for a short period of time and reimposed again. How severely do you think this will affect South Africa’s wine industry? Will we recover?
I really appeal to the authorities to reopen alcohol sales - but limited to home consumption for the time being. We need to work together to ensure we save our economy, as well as lives. Marketing strategies to drive sales will have to be adapted to consumer needs, as well as complying to regulations. I am also appealing to the general consumer to continue protecting one another as we adhere to the strict protocols. Yes, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, we will bounce back.
Restaurants are now open for sit-down meals, but no on-site consumption of alcohol is allowed. Is there another role a restaurant sommelier can take on during this time?
Professionally, trained sommeliers have acquired techniques in multi-tasking. A sommelier can focus on staff training and development, check wine stocks, wine list development and improving wine service - while following all Covid-19 protocols. A sommelier can prepare hot and cold beverages and is able to fill managerial duties. One can offer virtual tastings - presenting a platform to showcase food and wine experiences.
There has been a massive boom in online sales. Buying wine online allows the consumer to read up about the wine. Do you think this will affect the wine consumer trends?
Absolutely, it will affect consumer trends as online buying is a more convenient option. However, l think it is only for those who have access to such online platforms. Businesses need to adjust to consumer needs and use this time to effectively engage with possible consumers.
Do you think webinars and virtual tastings will help to sell wine?
I believe having an active online presence is the best way to build brand awareness. This allows wineries to stay connected with their consumers and drive sales. This platform is great for consumers to interact with the wine maker and learn more about the wines offered.
Any other innovative marketing strategies you have noticed during this time?
A few wineries have been marketing their wine through their staff to encourage income on commission. More mailers are being sent to loyal brand consumers, with special offers and discounts. Many wineries are running specials with free delivery. Implementing SEO and pay per click advertising . Some wineries are even involved in promoting good deeds by providing food banks to local communities and thus helping people in crisis.
Throughout lockdown (before restaurants/take-away opened up) many of us have been preparing all of our meals at home. Some people are really embracing this, trying out new recipes and getting creative. Do you think this will perhaps push people to experiment more with food and wine pairing, or/and step out of their comfort zones and try different wines and varietals?
Definitely, this experience has taught us to be more creative, intuitive and in a sense to be more conscious of our environment. A great opportunity to make use of what is available locally and of course our South African wines are so versatile to experiment with in this regard.
Any words of encouragement or advice for fellow sommeliers?
Study more - if an opportunity arises and be business minded. It might look stormy right now, but it cannot rain forever. So, start each day with a grateful heart. Sometimes a change of perspective is all it takes to see the light.