South African and African sommeliers are to be given protection from popping Champagne corks and other flying projectiles when the new Wine Steward Protection Law is passed next month. The passing of this law, making the wearing of helmets mandatory for hotel and restaurant staff handling bottles of wine, is sure to be speeded up after the recent death of Chinese billionaire Dingxiang Loeng who recently lost his life when a flying Champagne cork hit him on the temple, causing massive haemorrhaging, blood clots and seizure.
According to Virgil Contkop, spokesperson for the Organisation of African Sommeliers Unity, the tragic death of Mr Loeng emphasised the need for wine staff to don protective head-gear. “Even if the person concerned was only Chinese, the accident reinforces the perilous nature of the job of serving wine at restaurants and hotels,” he said.
Mr Contkop said flying Champagne corks were lethal objects, with the first person in the firing line usually being the wine steward. “I have had numerous accounts of sommeliers incurring physical injury from a flying Dom Perignon or Moët cork including broken noses, splattered eyeballs and cracked skulls,” he said. “However, until now we have not received any protection from the hospitality industry, despite putting our lives on the line each time we begin a lunch or dinner service.”
The Wine Steward Protection Law compels establishments employing licenced sommeliers to issue protective helmets.
“It has been a long time coming and we rejoice at the African Union’s decision to protect those who open the continent’s wine bottles,” Contkop said. “We can now engage in our gainful employment as sommeliers and wine stewards without the fear of having a popping Mumm cork blasting you on the forehead or removing an eye.”
Sommeliers are to be issued with helmets protecting their forehead, temple and face. A natty visor will, however, be in place allowing the wine steward to smell wines considered to be off by patrons, leaving enough space around the mouth area to emit the necessary admonishing expletives should said patron’s fault-finding be incorrect.
Contkop said that the sight of wine stewards in helmets patrolling the lavish interiors of fine-dining establishments will cause initial stirs among patrons, but this will pass as the dangers of wine serving become evident.
“A dinged skull from a Champagne cork is but one of the dangers of our job,” said Contkop. “We also have to contend with diners flinging copies of the Platter Wine Guide at us when a wine they ordered does not taste like the Guide’s four stars recommendation, not to mention the danger of us being gassed by reductive wines closed under screw-cap.”
Tender for the production of the new sommelier helmets will go out at the end of next week, with the first items expected to be in service by 1 October.
“Until then, it is every sommelier for himself, I am afraid,” said Contkop. “But then again, ours has always been a hit-and-miss job.”
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