March 20 & 21
Knowledge is Key, Says Lucas Merta, Assistant Head Sommelier at The Connaught
Lucas Merta, Assistant Head Sommelier at The Connaught, talks about his role as a Sommelier and shares some methods to grow wine sales.
Lukas started his journey in the hotel school in the InterContinental hotel in Prague. His first Head sommelier position for a high-end restaurant in Prague called La Finestra in Cucina, where he spent 4 fruitful years. With more than 20 years in the hospitality industry, Lukas currently works as the Head Sommelier at the Grill in Connaught hotel. He runs the whole department beverage-wise and with daily operations.
Your current place of work
I currently work at the Grill in Connaught hotel and have opened this place for the second time. The first time we were stopped after 3 months from officially opening by covid, we needed to wait until there is the right condition to open again. My official role is Assistant Head sommelier, but basically, I work as Head sommelier. I run the whole department beverage-wise and with daily operations. I am blessed to work with many talents (that helped us with signature cocktails, for instance) from the hotel, and I am very proud of the team within the department we currently have. There are many young people full of potential and great attitudes. I can easily say that - We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.
Tell us about yourself
I have started my journey in the hotel school (with regular and extra shifts in the InterContinental hotel in Prague), so being in hospitality for over 20 years (every time I say it - I feel so old). The hotel was everything to me. I come from below average family and have been neglected in many ways, so the hotel was not only a place for me to learn the craft of hospitality itself but really a way of learning and discovering a lot of things important for my personal life and development. It was a chef that helped me to learn how to cook and appreciate food. It was bartenders, baristas, and sommeliers to show me the richness and beauty of our industry and showed me in which ways I can specialise myself in the future with a basic understanding of other crafts too. And it was the industry that showed me through my work a systematic and organised approach to things, taking care of myself better, and valuing myself better. It was the hotel that gave me home, and the people within that became my teachers and family. In many ways, they showed me how to do things and how not to do them.
Meeting so many people from many countries in the hotel (InterContinental hotel in Prague) showed me the vast space of our world. I was never afraid to speak in English (A very broken one in my eyes, even though many guests were impressed by my level). I had very patient guests that helped me to improve my English even more and shared with me stories of their lives and places that they visited. I was never so keen to watch the news; it always seemed to me a bit artificial view, but always excited to hear the perspective of people from other countries, know their culture better, and understand the ways other countries choose to apply a daily based life and picked the one come beneficial in my life and rely upon my personality and character. We can learn so much just by talking with strangers and listening. (And I still do. Many evenings I got stuck for an hour in the taxi in front of my house as I was talking with the driver about life. Not the fastest way to bed for me.) I slowly realised that Prague would become a very small place for me one day. I went through many 5* hotels in Prague (Hilton, Mandarin Oriental, etc.). I, later on, took on my first Head sommelier position for a high-end restaurant in Prague called La Finestra in Cucina (I was about 24 years old), where I spent four fruitful years. I was definitely not ready at that time, but I did everything to make myself ready. No one ever is ready for a new position or role. The difference is, what are they gonna do to make themselves ready? And most importantly, don't lose yourself in the process. I have been blessed to serve so many beautiful customers and celebrities (we were working very closely with Four Season hotel in Prague); many of those become our regular customers, and some of them close friends.
I have decided to move on and take one last experience in the bar. If I ever become an F&B manager, I need to have insight and understanding of the inner mechanism of the bar and people working in this environment." I was very lucky to work with the people that ended up in the Diago world competition in the final six, but all team was amazing and taught me a lot about the bar industry. I was part of opening that bar, and it was definitely one of the most intense working hours I had, but it created among the most amazing life memories during my time working there. I have met a great Czech community of bartenders, incredibly skilled and creative people, yet humble, fun, and, of course, a bit cheeky.
Image: Lukas Merta
I am very different from most of the sommeliers, very often dubbed "good crazy". I am open and like to make many jokes, can be loud sometimes (never on service), and sometimes slip some swearing words when I am super excited and tasting something really unique (I am not even realising it). On the service, I have been dubbed as elegant, efficient, smooth, and knowledgable with an almost calming effect at the table. I think because I am who I am, my customers trust me a lot, and I have many repeat guests that are looking for great wines to taste with a pinch of education and random chats.
I like to talk a lot about our ability to smell from an evolutionary point of view and like to highlight how amazing we are, explaining the body processes of tasting. Customers are getting very knowledgable these days, and, amazingly, I can often go to very deep subjects of conversation.
Last time I tested my skill with ten years old kid to explain what tannin is and why the colour of the white wine that his dad was having was almost orange. Parents were very impressed, but more than that, I was actually quite impressed by myself that I had explained it in the way the young gentleman understood. Well, I believe it was Albert Einstein who said: "If you can't explain it to 6 years old kid, you don't understand it yourself." That was probably the biggest challenge lately:)
Why did you want to become a sommelier?
I was not drinking alcohol until 21. Sparkling raspberry lemonade was my drink to go for. Beer was too bitter, and my wallet was too empty for the spirits I wanted to taste. Later on, I met the first real sommelier of my life. At first, I haven't enjoyed the wine at all, and it was so sour! I couldn't understand why would ever people drink this, but it was also the very first time for me to realise, that I have the ability to perceive a lot of aromas and flavours from the wine and can identify them. I was so fascinated. My brain couldn't take it. I felt things, that weren't there physically. I wanted and needed to know more. I picked up every book I could, and I started. Authentic wine by Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop MW was definitely THE influential book that changed me completely. The way how approachable the book was, it was incredibly rich in information, backed up with a lot of science, but also accepted its limitation in current times and filled with a creative look at the wine world. At that stage - there was no way back for me, and as time passed, I fell in love with wine and all its aspects. I fell in love with the aroma and flavour of wine, nature, and gardening, got fascinated by technology and its possibilities, and, of course, by geography and history. It is such a rich job indeed. And give you infinite possibilities for what to learn.
The ability to smell and what are you able to perceive is probably the one I value the most. It is not strictly why I need this ability for my job, but mainly because aroma can bring memories that you think you never had or forgot. I have blocked many memories from my early childhood and had many beautiful memories recalled through aromas I caught randomly. What about the aroma of the cookies, that gets you back to your grandma's house? Through that you will probably recall the house space and furniture, you might even feel the cover she used to offer you to comfort you on colder or sad days. Or what about the smell of the sunscreen that will teleport you to that first amazing holiday close to the sea you had? Aroma is amazing and what it can do with us is truly fascinating. Well, look how much we are able to spend on perfumes or aromatised candles, yet we undermine this ability way too much in my eyes.
What do you look for in a new brand before taking in your restaurant?
I look at all aspects. But mainly, how does it fit to already established selection of the wine? I want to make sure that price points will be gradual and no big gaps - without sacrificing the quality of the product. It is extremely important to me that if I sell a bottle of wine (let's say) for 50 pounds - I would enjoy it too. So eventually created a wine list, where the richest man and couple that saved the money all over the year to come to the restaurant will enjoy the wine fully.
I look at the styles of wine - bringing different styles, vintages, less known/very well-known wines/producers. That gives me an opportunity to use these wines for comparison, blind tasting, discovery, and all the beautiful things, that my customer enjoys. In a certain way, the wine list is the canvas, that I can paint on to bring experience to the guest, the opportunity to learn something new or understand aspects of the wine that they cannot grasp. Very often my customers are sending me emails and messages and want to discover the wine list in a very playful way. Recently I was contacted by our regular customer, and he wanted me to do a comparison of the wines as they really enjoy the experience last visit. Lady at the table mentioned that Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo have some things in common and I agreed. So we compared high-end Burgundy next to high-end Barolo. First I gave them the wine blind (let them be guided by senses only). Later on, we uncovered wines and start to talk about them. Wines were very famous and expensive, and I don't want to mention them, but let me tell, you that in both of the cases it was an excellent vintage, location, and producer (so it is true, ultimate comparison).
Nevertheless, this is a vast subject, and various things will influence it, such as the concept and/or philosophy of the place, the targeted market within the area, etc. There are so many aspects to look at. I will give you an example:
As for the current place (The Connaught Grill) I have suggested looking at how British people influenced the wine market in the past and style the wine list towards it. I found a very old wine list in the main cellar ( late 19th century/beginning of 20th century) and wanted to use it as a reference. I wanted to focus on champagne (it was British people that required taste for the wine with CO2 and helped with coal-fired glass to produce bottles that were able to withstand the pressure), Riesling (dubbed as Hock in the 19th century, that was coming from the areas mainly around Rhine river, requesting high prices and very valued in the past; instead of location we would do a category of Hock) - traditional wineries and labels and wines in various styles of production. Port wine with pralines styled towards to their style (each praline would highlight the character of port), Burgundy wines (nothing to say really), and Bordeaux (also pick the ones blended with Syrah and declassified, a reflection of dodgy past - these wines were apparently really great; wines from Bordeaux would be under Claret).
In this case, the philosophy already suggests certain brands to apply, such as Riesling with traditional labels from historically important wineries. That would be a "Heritage" part. The "Contemporary" part would be focusing on wines shaping the market now, small hidden gems all around, and supporting styles, that might shape the future. Styling the wine list like this would give us a lot of opportunities to work within (such as Semillon from Hunter valley in the contemporary part) and sell the concept as a whole. Unfortunately, it never went through. Well, if you reading this article, feel free to use it. I would love to see the final concept of this somewhere. Fatty and rich British food works so well with these wines.
What sources do you follow to stay on top of industry trends and new launches worldwide?
I am part of the Court of Master Sommelier program and recently passed Advanced, so naturally would come to official websites to check the latest news on a regular basis. Facebook and having so many sommelier friends really helps, so usually will see something on the feet, and there is also one webpage that lists updates on a regular basis from all around the world. Funnily enough, meeting sommeliers (randomly or intentionally) helps a lot as we often share news from the wine world. Reading the latest books and articles is the way to go.
Questions you would ask a customer who doesn't know anything about wine?
My favourite is to ask my clients to imagine two baskets, one with red berries and one with blackberries. That gives me a certain indication, such as the heaviness of the fruit and other aspects that would be long to explain as there is some science involved. I like to talk about their diets, what they generally enjoy drinks-wise and food-wise, and some examples from the past. That gives me an indication of their palette. I look at the cultural aspect as well. When I see they become frozen in a certain way, I always give them the wine to taste (by the glass and diverse style) and ask them just to say what they like about it and what they don't. Aspects like weather and environment should play a role too in my opinion. Usually, it works very well for me, and customers are happy to go through this journey (mainly, I think that I showed them that sommeliers could be very approachable). Sometimes if they enjoy the wine, I would tell them what to say to the sommelier next time in order to get the best experience in other places too.
What are some of the most important skills for a sommelier?
"How you do anything is how you do everything."
We reflect our views, personality, and approach to things through various activities. Thus, I think more than sommeliers, we are human beings, and thus, to be good sommeliers, we need to be mainly good people. I very well know, from my experience, that accepting truth can be more painful than seeing the reality, but accepting us with all the beautiful things we can do and also all the things we feel shame for makes us better people (good and bad need to co-exist, those are the laws of the nature). By accepting ourselves, it is easier for us to accept others and reflect on the service through empathy, kindness, and understanding. We have tendencies to talk to ourselves in a bad manner, which is a shame because when there is no one in your world for you, you are your last pillar. I often think that if anything happened to me, how would I want to be known? And a good, kind, funny person would be very satisfying to me.
"We are what we repeatedly do; thus, excellence is the habit, not an act."
A systematic and organised approach to things is definitely a massive key, but that is also related to who we are on a regular basis as human beings. Running a department and hotel is a massive task, and not having the ability such as this will strain and put too much pressure on the others. That will cause a lot of friction in many segments. I have seen many examples of this during my hospitality career. Unsettled minds create an unsettled working environment. Unfinished tasks or sloppily done are the worst to fix.
"Make sure your servant town is bigger than your ego. Ego is the anaesthesia that deadens the pain of stupidity, and pride is the birth of a foolish person."
Knowledge is key. But also how to present it in a simple, understandable, and kind way. At the beginning of gaining knowledge, we start to feel empowered by it and feeling to be righteous to patronise in a certain way customer. I think it is quite natural to become slightly arrogant (at least I was in the beginning. I have read a couple of articles and books and felt like the king of the jungle). It takes time to understand that knowledge shouldn't ever serve us, but we should serve the knowledge, and that knowledge cannot be owned. And it is also related to the level of knowledge. The less you know, the more it will be substituted by ego.
As knowledge progressed on my side, I became very humbled and amazed and it gave me a direction on which way to give it to customers if interested. If not - it is all good. The way how the customer wants to enjoy their wine is their choice. We are here to guide them if they want it and/or need it.
(Above quotes have been borrowed from various sources and are not mine.)
How I would train my new staff member in their first seven days of joining.
In the first days, I will most likely try to understand their personalities and level of knowledge. Personality is key cause it will help me find the best way to communicate with that person. I would go easy at the start and use the person for assistance and small tasks. This will allow me to see the way a person chooses to do things, as well as his involvement and ability to do things.
Wines by the glass are definitely something I focus on the restaurant quite a lot, and with certain people, I go deeper, only from the reasons of hunger for the knowledge from their side. Signature cocktails and spirits would follow after. Knowledge of the food is important, but I feel that for full understanding, you need more time in the restaurant. Especially if the food is complex and has a lot of ingredients in it.
As training for the wine, I tend to sit down with them and give them wine to taste. I look at how they look at wine, and I might guide them in how to speak about it and sell it. But that space for them is very important, I think, and sitting down and separating proper time for it allows them to take as much as they can from it, even though it can be very challenging at these times, but that's what I believe.
Then it depends on the environment itself. If it's in the hotel, the introduction of departments is important as well as how to move in the hotel and where the things are. The restaurant, from my experience, is a bit less complicated, and usually, there is fast recognition of the environment. Still, it will all depend on the experience of that particular person and everything around him. We are sometimes getting very inexperienced people these days, and the approach would be very different for somebody who already has experience.
What methods do you use to grow wine sales? Please explain with examples.
I think these questions are touching many things mentioned in the article. I like to use the form of play and discovery for the customer. Suggested wine pairings with the dishes work very well. The strongest part (and what I am trying to achieve regularly) is to make the customer regular in your restaurant. In this case, you are looking at long-term potential, and if you can make guests come back (happy and excited) each visit, we can elevate the price of the wine and tailor their experience to specific needs or preferences. Trust is definitely a key ingredient here, and that's usually my target. Definitely, having a wine list with nicely structured gaps in between help, too, as we can always push it a bit higher.
What methods do you use to grow profits?
Psychologically targeted questions - works very well on the aperitif. Attention to small things that make a profit, such as - tea, coffee, and water!!! I think that most places would make more profit just with lots of attention on the table, such as topping up, offering beverages, small snacks, etc. Offering dessert wine while taking dessert orders works well, too (timing is important) - most likely, people will go for it. So many small things that make a difference. But understandably, I am not gonna give away all my tricks.
How do you self-learn and improve your skills?
I have never been supported in a study in the early days, but I would always naturally lean toward reading books and using various resources. These days, whatever you want to learn, you have the opportunity to go on the internet and to find so much material - from podcasts to articles and videos. It is amazing how much information's available these days. No longer need to spend hours in the library and try to find one particular piece of information. On that note, it is always important to check a couple of resources to make sure that the information is valid.
What's the best part of your job?
Definitely meet new people and talk with them. Knowing them better. I am always open to talking about it with exceptional wine or just decent wine for dinner. If I have customers very interested in wine, that's probably the pinnacle of my job, as I can use and share my knowledge. The reaction and appreciation from customers sometimes go beyond my wildest dreams, to be honest.
Recently I had customers - father, daughter and her friend. They were fairly young and just about to get into it. I started to speak about wine, followed by so many questions that I was truly amazed. This customer (gentleman) stopped by in the restaurant again (with his mother, who is 91 and still travels all around the world on her own - epic!) and told me that they are still speaking about that evening and how much they enjoyed it. I am not gonna lie, and these moments touch my heart. I was so happy about it.
How do you elevate the guest experience? Please give 4-5 examples and insights here.
- Organising side-by-side comparisons of wines during dinner.
- Blind tasting organised for guests that is part of the program or is interested in going through this experience. (lots of people are)
- Sommelier is a great person to find out about important occasions/celebrations (if not mentioned on reservation sheets) and react to in the way of organising little surprises as we usually talk to the guest quite a lot.
- Giving recommendations to places that our guests are about to visit.
- Noticing little preferences or habits from the side of the guest (left-handed) and sharing information with the team.
From the recognition of the guest (hostess), through recommendations (and adjusting to preferences), followed by a sommelier (recommendation and nice chat with customers) and can easily finish with a prepared taxi for the guest (organised by a manager), or simply umbrella that is being given to guest when raining and needed. This is the work of the team, and I believe that to create an elevated guest experience, all the team members must work as one. I often see people leaving the restaurant happy, and I know that the whole team benefited from it.
Besides that, people seem to enjoy my warm service, and I have often said that I have made the evening very special, but honestly, I don't know how.
Your favourite TV show right now?
I don't have one at this moment, to be honest. But Misfits and Boys are definitely one of my favourites of mine.
An unforgettable wine experience for you - tell us the whole story!
At the beginning of my sommelier career (22/23 years old), I was taken on a trip by Ad Vivum (a supplier situated in the Czech Republic). I visited Domaine Didier Dagueneau, Domaine Leroy, Billecart - Salmon, Pascal Jolivet and many more great producers. It was an amazing trip, and I was very blessed to visit Leroy and Dagueneau.
At that time, I didn't fully realise where I was and how blessed I was, and it came years later, to be honest. Until now, I remember that trip as iconic and shaping me for the future, looking at myself in the past as an inexperienced and complete novice. Every time I think about it, I must laugh! Since then, I have visited many wineries and created many great memories.
What is the biggest faux pas that customers tend to make when ordering and drinking wine?
I don't think there is a faux pas. Faux pas indicates acts in social situations that should cause a feeling of shame. I don't see it like this anymore. I believe that what we need to focus on, is comforting customers, giving them a feeling of a safe zone, and managing their expectations. A place where they can be themselves. Give them space to enjoy that occasion, be it special or not. There is, usually (some surprises), a situation that either happens to me personally, or I have encountered before in the working environment with my history. By studying the brain and science I am interested in now, I have realised how imperfect animals we are (as well as how amazing we are). And funny needless to say.
Our brain has its own errors and twitches. Sometimes it is like a great computer that gets frozen out of nothing. We all sometimes do something stupid or weird, say something inappropriate, and cannot understand why we said it or did it. Those moments when the brain loses connection. From a man's perception giving an example - I can be as cheeky and charismatic as I can be, but once I find the right woman, I am unable to speak.
But let me explain the situation that happened recently in the restaurant to explain it well.
Recently I have served regular customers, a family of 6, on the special occasion of the son's birthday. Lady was swirling the wine in a glass during the quality check and accidentally put too much pressure and spilled some wine on her white top. Salt was on the table, so I brought sparkling water and fresh (acidic) wine.
During giving her instruction, I told her stories when it happened to me, too with some juicy ones, and I informed her that this is quite common amongst the sommelier, especially when we get very excited. I finished the conversation with my story about how I was 17 (just finishing 16 hours shift) and decided to rewrite all the laws of our physical world and believed that I could push a square-wheeled trolley with five racks full of glasses only by two wheels at the front on 40% steep ramp.
In my head, it made all sense. I just needed to generate the right speed and angle, and it's gonna work out. Well, guess what??? It didn't. I smashed around 120 glasses on the spot. That was my glitch in the system. I am good at what I am doing, but all things come from experience, and I had to make many mistakes to get where I am. After the story, Lady was fully relaxed, the whole company was laughing, and I managed to reset the mood and uplift it. Mission accomplished.
Your favourite restaurant in London right now?
Very shameful, but I don't have one now. I have focused on studying for many months and have become somewhat separated from social life.
Any favourite food and wine pairing suggestions for London drinks enthusiasts?
A simplistic combination works for me the best. Besides that, to be honest, I would very often choose wine for me that doesn't ally with the food, but in the end, if you enjoy both things, your brain will be able to connect them.
In current restaurant settings, our guests enjoy these combinations:
Spit Roasted Organic Racan Chicken with Condrieu, La Petite Cote, from Domaine Yves Cuilleron in 2019
Home made Scotch Egg with Riesling Kabinett, Scharzhofberger from Egon Muller in 2018.
Smoked grilled artichoke hearts with Gruner Veltliner, Ried Lamm, from Schloss Gobelsburg in 2019.
Balik smoked salmon with Semillon, Vat 1, Tyrell's wines in 2008.
Your favourite book?
Every book has the potential to give you new knowledge and a unique view. Thus it would be impossible to highlight one book. Wine books by Jamie Goode are by far the most favourite of mine, mainly cause of the information and the way how it is "served". But there are so many writers, more or less famous, that gave me amazing informations and ways to look at wine.
The one I am excited to read when on holiday is Perfect Meal: Multisensory science of food and dining by Charles Spence & Betina Piqueras-Fiszman. Charles Spence (MA, Ph.D.) is an amazing and well-respected personality of food and drink science. He also replied to my email when I was asking him to clear up some confusion from my side. It was a bold move to write to him (I realised after I wrote those simplistic questions - I picked the most respected person in this segment).
To my biggest surprise, I received my answer the very next day, with many research materials on various subjects. I am not gonna lie, it was a quite epic moment in my life. So kind to find the time to write back an email to a stranger. Now I am waiting for him to go to London, so I can take him for drinks and food and source some knowledge from him.
Name three sommeliers in the UK you like
Julio D Tauste Sierra, Svetoslav Manolev MS, Shane McHugh
What's your personal career goal? And how are you investing or planning to get there?
I would like to use all my knowledge from hospitality and create a training program for people. No one is interested in hotel school these days unless it is for manager positions. The old days are gone, and now we need to focus on restructuring hospitality and ensure we attract young people and educate them well. For that, we need to be able to teach them in a proper manner and show them the magic of hospitality. That would include body training programs, upselling techniques, etc. If we rely on one skilled person and drain them to their own limits - it's very shortsighted and a way to badly influence the whole environment. At one stage, we need to let go of young talented people to take over.
Mistakes are an important part of the process, but the learning process can be speeded up when with the right guidance. WSET and CMS programs are amazing, but once in the setting of the restaurant and diversity of people, you cannot use technical speech unless they are familiar with it. That's where experience comes in handy. Speaking about the wine in a human and approachable way is a skill that takes time to build but, again can be speeded up with the right guidance. That is one part. The rest I don't want to open about quite yet.
Give us one good story that you remember of a customer and you.
Plenty of stories to say, but this one happened very recently. I have mentioned the customer with her daughter and her friend earlier in this article and mentioned how amazing it was, that he stopped by again and mentioned how much they enjoyed the wine and education at the table. That young ladies are still talking about it. Well, there is a second part of the story.
Right next to this table (T1) was a couple that celebrated gold marriage (T2). I haven't spent much time with them as they were not drinking wine. As I was leaving table 1, the gentleman stopped me out of nothing while passing around his table. He looked at me in the way that no one had yet looked at me and started speaking to me in a very surprised and admirable voice. He told me: "The way how you educated those people in a natural, understanding, and creative way - I have never seen this in my life; it was amazing."
I stayed at the table, and the gentleman started to tell me that he had been a huge wine drinker for the last 20 years (loves Peter Michael, Eisele vineyards, Taittinger - Comtes de Champagne, and other jewels), and as he is situated in California, he knows a lot of producers and community there.
He started to tell me about his favourite wines and that he doesn't want to drink here because the ones he would choose are too expensive on our wine list. He loves Eisele vineyards Sauvignon (I have a very sweet spot for this wine and expression of the grape variety in that location), and we started to talk about that, wine, life, and other things. In the end, he requested contact with me and told me he wanted to follow me everywhere I went. They travel to London once a year and want to stay in contact.
The next day, he sent me a message that he had left the bottle of Eisele vineyard Sauvignon for me in the hotel and to tell him how did I enjoy that.
Header Image: Lukas Merta