Sommelier? Unfortunately, when you think of wine, you still too often think of intimidating know-it-alls with the aura of Severus Snape, whom you don’t want to contradict or even dare to talk to, while you, as a Harry Potter apprentice, are just beginning to be enchanted by the adventure of wine. Good thing times have changed.
After all, Mr. Snape would probably have nodded approvingly at the choice of color for Marc Almert’s outfit for the interview – a dark ensemble of elegant dress shoes, jeans, turtleneck, and jacket. But Marc relies on a much more charming form of magic: He wants to convey the topic of wine in a comprehensible and approachable way. He wants to make the magic happen by giving you a feeling for the people you’re advising and by getting to know the stories behind the final product in the bottle, which by no means have to come across as overpriced. And Marc Almert is excellent at this. The German wine whisperer was named the best sommelier in the world at the 2019 ASI Best Sommelier of the World Championship at the age of just 27.
Sommelier Marc Almert: Between wine enchantment and magic recommendations
Marc’s career started in 2008 at the Excelsior Hotel Ernst in Cologne. His real dream: to become hotel manager. Thanks to a far-sighted supervisor, Marc came into contact with exceptional wines at his very first job, shelved his original career plans and embarked on his path as a sommelier. Stints at the Ente restaurant in Nassauer Hof and the Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten in Hamburg followed, before Marc Almert took up the position as sommelier at the renowned Baur au Lac in Zürich . Briefly by way of explanation: an absolute Champions League hotel, category semi-final.
This makes spontaneous school lessons fun: Sommelier Marc Almert imparts wine knowledge as logically as serious performances.
That’s why I accepted the spontaneous opportunity to meet Marc for an interview in Munich. I’m still in the middle of my wine journey, love it when there is new to learn, and you can ask the one or other stupid question. Whereby: We clarify right away – there are no stupid questions with wine. Only those who dare to ask questions learn something new, and we should stop giving in to this elitist cliché that you have to have studied wine to be able to join in the conversation.
I have an appointment with Marc Almert at the Hotel Excelsior by Geisel in Munich. Obviously, they have an excellent wine bar. The wine connoisseur refutes any comparisons to Severus Snape’s sommelier colleagues right at the start. The monochrome outfit directly reflects the way he interprets his profession as a host: classy, elegant, but without seeming forced, no big logos, but rather a focus on the material – i.e. wines. But there’s a catch: Because the wine bar apparently has its day off on Mondays, I’m stranded at the meeting with the experienced sommelier. Super. Then you have to feed your thirst for knowledge in the hotel lounge.
Sommelier Marc Almert in the Interview
Sommelier Marc Almert in front of his home wine stadium: The Baur au Lac in Zurich is one of the best hotels in the world.
Marc – Keyword wine school lesson: Do you – also or especially as a sommelier world champion – finish learning at some point?
Never. And that’s what makes wine fascinating to me, but also the profession of sommelier. Just before this meeting, I taught a course to aspiring sommeliers, and I always like to say: It’s like a driver’s license. You may be able to operate a car, but that doesn’t automatically make you a good driver. Every sommelier has a basic knowledge, knows the classics. But then it’s up to you to keep going. To learn. To break new ground. Talent is helpful, of course. But your curiosity is crucial.
So to speak: your own thirst for knowledge.
Exactly. You can say that about this subject. I have to be curious about which areas are just coming to the fore, which new ones are emerging, I have to visit winemakers, look at the wineries in person. Which grape varieties are new in the game, how does a winery change when the next generation takes over?
As a sommelier, you feel like a walking library. Are you ever afraid of forgetting something?
No. I like to quote the classic law saying: You don’t have to know everything, you just have to know what’s where. Honestly, you can’t know everything. For example, I don’t know every single appellation in Italy, and I certainly haven’t had every Italian wine in my glass. That’s also a question of time. you develop a little further every day – with every new sample sip. Of course, there are wine topics that are particularly close to my heart, in which I have already delved deeper and become more knowledgeable, and the rest is solid basic knowledge. Which is constantly being expanded.
There is always a story behind every glass for the young, award-winning sommelier.
Has the license to try, even without double-zero status: Marc Almert.
In the end, you as a sommelier are one thing above all: people. Who then try everything humanly possible at the guest – no matter what the circumstances – to make a perfect wine choice.
Absolutely. At Baur au Lac, we have around 600 wines on the menu, most of which we draw from our own wine trade. We have around 3,000 items on the rail. And yet it will never be possible to have every wine in the cellar that a guest might want because he has drunk it somewhere else.
Moreover, wine cards should always be an individual expression of the sommelier’s playing philosophy, right?
Exactly. Guests who have a region in mind are already further along on their journey, so it’s a little easier to go directly to concrete suggestions. If guests are still at the beginning of their experience with wine, it’s up to us to suggest alternatives or to find the right wine for the occasion. Then we first ask: rather light, rather heavy? But guests also often find it difficult to formulate what they like. Then I try to get a better understanding. In Munich, for example, I would ask what kind of beer the person likes to drink – and from that I can deduce the wine preferences. Someone who likes to drink wheat will prefer different wines than someone who likes to order craft beer or a Guiness, for example.
This often reminds me of a visit to the hairdresser. People often don’t say much there either, briefly point back and forth, and then expect the hairstyle imagined in their minds to be matched 1:1.
Basically, for me it’s like this: If I recommend something and it doesn’t arrive, I see the fault with me. Then I haven’t asked my questions correctly. After all, that’s the main part of the job as a sommelier: to advise the guest and understand him or her. to ask the right questions to help the guest have a perfect evening. You really shouldn’t be afraid to just express your thoughts when ordering wine. If guests don’t know some terms, as a sommelier I can also approach it through a different approach. People use words differently. Some people use the term “fruity” to describe wines with a fruity character, such as Sauvignon Blanc. Others understand “fruity” in the sense of residual sweetness. Then you have to ask exactly, and also ask follow-up questions accordingly. For example, does the person have a grape variety in mind, or perhaps a type of fruit juice? That’s how I can try to get closer.
After all, the time at the table is limited.
Of course, I always try to take as much time as possible. With experience, you have a feel for that and can interpret the answers accordingly. I like to start with grape varieties or regions that the guests are in the mood for, for example Riesling from slate soils – and then narrow it down more and more. And if I notice someone is really struggling to formulate their preferences, I’ll put down two or three wines on a trial basis, and then move on from there.
Lesson learned: Uncorking can also be done with grace.
Sommelier Marc Almert: quiet more courage to speak wine – and buy flowers!
With every word and sentence, you can experience the joy and deep understanding Marc has for wine. For about five years – and now as head sommelier – Marc has been part of the team at Zurich’s Grand Hotel Baur au Lac and the wine retailer Baur au Lac Vins. “I know that I know nothing” Almert likes to quote Socrates. It’s not quite like that, of course, because it’s not for nothing that Marc Almert is the reigning ASI Best Sommelier of the World. But it shows that modesty is still a cool virtue these days, and one that Marc has internalized. Even on the day off, the profession can’t be completely switched off – he pours the water we get from the reception in style, of course, before I could react. Professional honor: priceless. And that brings us to the next keyword.
Does the price matter?
I have the impression that many people are reluctant to suggest prices. Especially when it’s in company and they don’t want to get into a status predicament. With Bordeaux wines, it starts relatively inexpensively, but it also quickly goes up to the top floor. If you don’t get a rough direction there, you have to dance around for a long time until you know where it should go. Let’s have a look: Bordeaux, lots of Cabernet, around 200 euros – I know immediately where I’m going. A tip: When opening the card, just point your finger at a price and say “this is where it should be”, then only I, not the whole table, notice the price, and can discreetly arrange and select.
Of course, the one or other challenge is not left out.
Absolutely. For me, the biggest challenge is getting into situations that I haven’t experienced or mastered before. When a great wine goes bad, it’s nobody’s fault. I simply have to react quickly and precisely and then create a new, a different wow moment for the guest. That’s our goal: the guest should be thrilled. We as hosts want to make this evening special.
So you also build up a lot of people skills.
Very much. There are also guests who know exactly what they want, for example, who have only been drinking Bordeaux for years or decades. They’re delighted when their choice is confirmed. Then my job is to listen and agree. The conversation simply goes the other way around. I then ask, for example, “Oh, you’ve already been to this chateau, what particularly impressed you?” That’s another way I learn. And there’s always something to learn as a sommelier.
Are you also given the recommender role in your free time?
Yes, I do get called into account a lot, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. On the contrary, I like to introduce new glass fun to people I care about. It also happens more often that my family is worried about what they should cook for my visit. I then have to reassure them first with a smile. I may work at Baur au Lac, but I love to eat simple, down-to-earth food.
Is your family wine-savvy, too?
I have to smile a bit there, because actually my parents were at the finish line before me. My mother and father liked to taste wine and had the corresponding affinity. Just before starting the hotel apprenticeship, my father and I were on vacation, which he saw as an opportunity for me to get out of the way of a tasting. “You’re going to have to sell this stuff soon, so at least give it a try.” I had always tended to drink Coke up to that point, and had a hard time with the taste of spirits for a very long time. It wasn’t until my apprenticeship and visits to winemakers there that I realized how diverse this taste can be. That was the starting signal for the fascination as it is today. When, three years after this scene, I explained to my father on vacation that I would now specialize in wine, he logically looked at me very skeptically. But it was the best decision I could have made.
And the beginning of a journey with many experiences. What was the coolest place for you to taste wine?
There is a great exam question. What are the first vines to see sunlight? That’s the east coast of New Zealand. On a trip there, we visited the easternmost point of the wine world. In the morning with a winemaker who had a beach house there, and went swimming. Then had a Sparkling Muscat sparkling wine – and wow, yes, the moment will last for eternity. Yes, exceptionally wine at the time, but that was just timeless.
Let’s move from priceless to affordable wine enjoyment. When can I start with good wines?
I’m actually asked this very often. So it’s difficult for less than five euros. On wineries can be found in the direct purchase already for six to eight euros handwerklich top made, whimsical wines. If a wine from New Zealand is offered here in the supermarket for six to eight euros, one can calculate with the transport costs etc. yes, how much budget was left there for quality in the bottle. A tip: cooperatives. We often still have disturbed perceptions there, because it is often perceived as cheap. But a lot has changed. For the better. For example, the cantinas in South Tyrol, such as the Cantina Terlan, or the Domäne Wachau in Austria – you just have to dare to try and you will really be rewarded.
Depending on the laws in the respective country, it is also difficult for newcomers to recognize directly from the label which grape variety or type is hidden in the bottle. I really recommend: Find people from the wine cosmos whom you trust. Sommeliers, winemakers, bloggers. Follow them on social media, pick up tips, and taste, taste, taste. That’s also a good bridge. If you like a Pinot Noir from Germany, try one from Burgundy. If you like it, try one from the U.S., and so on. Traveling also helps, of course. Visit wineries, go to fairs, taste. Exchange ideas with each other.
The Baur au Lac has its own wine shop. From this bottle pharmacy I would like to be doctored.
Wine unfortunately still often has a noble cliché. One of your concerns is to take away people’s fear and encourage them to discover wine.
Exactly. The fact that you’ve already mentioned being closed in, especially as a beginner and newcomer, when it comes to exchanging information about wine, only shows that something has gone wrong in the industry for a very long time. Wine is for everyone, and everyone learns. Even I. One should also not let a bad wine experience, which one has once made, spoil the mood. Maybe another winemaker grows the same grape variety differently, and exactly the way you like it.
I start quite pragmatically with only two options: tastes or doesn’t taste.
Exactly. That’s what counts. First of all, it’s important whether I like the wine or not. Funnily enough, we don’t have any inhibitions about eating, as I mentioned at the beginning. Everyone dares to say when the edge of the pizza is burnt or the meat is cooked through. Because we eat every day. Everyone knows that cola is sweet and freshly squeezed apple juice is sour. Actually, everyday life gives us a lot of vocabulary to describe culinary and wine well.
Describing aromas is, of course, the difficult discipline. You have to perceive them consciously in order to be able to recognize and formulate them. At the beginning of my training, I was also inhibited at a tasting. Then the sommelier whispered to me briefly: “This, Mr. Almert, is spring, this is summer, and this is grandma’s potato cellar. That’s when I realized: yes, that’s a language I understand. Smell and taste are formed primarily in childhood. How you were shaped there, what you smelled and tasted there, decides a lot. I also find English descriptions very amusing. They often say that the wine smells like withered rose petals.
Who comes up with something like that? Do I just have to give more roses or flowers to the partner-in-crime?
That would definitely be an option. There are also white wines with very floral notes. You can definitely build up a good base there. In addition, simply go through the world more consciously. When cooking, sniff all the ingredients, or when shopping, when eating out, in the garden, when walking. The main thing is to do it with curiosity and have fun.
Sounds like a flavor-filled future to me. Let’s move on to yours: What else would you definitely like to experience?
I’m always curious, but I’m particularly interested in South America right now. What’s happening in viticulture in Chile and Argentina? That’s exciting for all of us. The wine world is shifting due to climate change. Grape varieties and growing areas are migrating, and a lot is going north. Excellent sparkling wine is being produced in England, there is viticulture on the island of Sylt, and vines are being planted in Brandenburg. There are many new future wine adventures ahead.
Everything in view, everything under control: Nevertheless, Marc Almert sees every situation as an opportunity for him to learn more. And I’m a bit smarter now, too.
Sommelier Marc Almert: Infos
If you want to learn more about Marc Almert, you can find on his website marcalmert.com all info and contacts on social media.