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Wine education in the wine country

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par Gildas L'HOSTIS
Ecole Supérieure de commerce de Dijon - Mastere spécialisé Commerce Internationale vins et spiritueux 2011

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3. Wine in France : a quick history of sommellerie and wine education

3.1. A quick sommelier history

The word «sommelier» is a French word which in the beginning described a professional who was in charge of the transportation of supplies. In the fourteen century king Philippe V recognized the job as a profession. The sommelier was responsible for the entire wine service already highlighting a job that would become later tightly linked to French wine culture (UDSF website)

The job really became significant when the first restaurants appeared in France after the Revolution, increasing constantly during the XIX century whilst at the same time gastronomy was booming. The Maître D played a strong role and was sometimes seen as an artist.

The sommelier association was born in 1907 and the Paris sommelier association in 1959. Numerous competitions were created and allowed the profession to be emphasized. In 1961, Jean Chauchee was the first to win the Best French sommelier competition (Brunet 2001).

The 1970's saw a limit in the development of the job, younger people giving up this profession perceived as a job for old people.

The job revived thanks to a few people who were convinced that the profession needed to be highlighted again. All these people helped to create specific levels of wine education programmes for young people, making the job more attractive. Wine training syllabuses were created by the Minister of Education, giving the opportunity for everyone to access this profession.

1996 was an important date. A close collaboration between the French National Education and the UDSF (Union de la Sommellerie Française) allowed the renewal of the two sommelier courses: Mention complémentaire (sommelier certificate) and the Brevet professionnel sommelier (sommelier diploma). Professionals took an important role in the development of the training scheme.

At the same time connections between students and restaurant owners were enhanced and helped to increase the employment of sommeliers. (Brunet 1996)

The seventies and eighties saw an increasing numbers of hospitality schools in France whilst tourism at the same time developed.

Regarding restaurant service it is important to underline that France has always had a waiting culture as opposed to English speaking countries, it was therefore important to train students to serve customers using appropriates techniques.

According to the FAFIH (Fond assurance Formation de l'Industrie hôtelière), a French professional fund in charge of continuing education, there are nowadays about 1500 sommeliers in France. Most of the time in restaurants, the Maître d'hôtel is in charge of the wine selling. The average wage per month for a sommelier in France is about 1980 € (while a waiter is paid about 1570 €)

3.2. Wine education and consumers

For many years wine education focused more on product knowledge than on staff training, selling techniques or wine service (Jones and Dewald 2006). People sometimes see the sommelier or the waiter as someone who is somehow unapproachable, daunting, only giving the impression that «he knows the truth and you don't». According to Ferran Centelles (Head sommelier at El Bulli restaurant in Spain) sommeliers need to work on communication and make things easier for consumers.

Paradoxically and if wine consumption is decreasing people are aware about the taste of wine and want to know more about it. Wine is now becoming more accessible and people going to restaurants no longer want to be overwhelmed with information but want understandable words to explain the wine characteristics, and wine and food pairing suggestions. As a result, it is crucial to emphasise the teaching methods on communication, making wine and the job more democratic.

The French vineyard is difficult to understand even for French people as it offers a huge variety of different wines, appellations, coming from a wide range of vineyards. Consequently consumers are often lost when they face this vast amount of information, which increases the perceive risk when they purchase wine (Amine, Lacoeuilhe 2007). In order to reduce this perceive risk, consumers rely on mediators (sommeliers, wine merchants...) whose duty is to explain the product and make it more understandable. As a result the main task for educators is to focus on consumers' needs and therefore train mediators who will be able to turn a sometimes unreadable beverage into a more understandable one.

The sommelier has a big influence as a marketer and he is at the same time a wine ambassador who possesses the knowledge.

The buying process for the customer in restaurants is still difficult. If a low overall level of perceived risk is noted in the wine purchase decision-making process in high quality restaurants (Lacey 2009), ordering wine is always socially risky and is considered as a high involvement process for the customer. Because the environment of consumption is most frequently a social gathering (Judica and Perkins 1992), wine becomes a means to social recognition. Therefore it is important for the guest to be helped in order to avoid the guess work when ordering wine (Wansink, Glenn, Payne, Geiger, 2006) and consequently prevents an awkward situation for the guest who decides which wine will be drunk during the meal. The waiter or the sommeliers have an important role to play, through understandable recommendations, to make the order become the good one for the guests. The real art of selling is finding out what people want and then helping them get it (Dewal, Jones 2006)). The role of the sommelier is to meet the customers' expectations.

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