Time to put the sommeliers in the spotlight: Arūnas Starkus
That the job as sommelier is not valued as it should be in all countries is a known fact, but that some of those countries are that close to Belgium keeps surprising me (ok I know in Belgium we are very spoiled on lots of points). Luckily in all these countries there is always somebody who is willing to fight and do everything he/she can to get the right recognition. Not only for the job as sommelier, but for everything that has to do with wine in general. In Lithuania that person was and still is Arūnas Starkus.
Arūnas Starkus, a former academician - Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), was the founder (2005) of Lithuanian Sommelier Association (LSA) and 1 year later he founded the Lithuanian Sommelier School. This might not seem like a big deal, but it is!! Aranus has created opportunities for many (young) people and I admire that a lot. Now 10 years later the whole wine and sommeliers scène already looks a lot different...
He loves wine, but you for sure cannot take the academician out of him :-) . He was editor of the Lithuanian issue of T.Stevenson The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia and is member of educational committee of ASI (Association de la Sommellerie Internationale), The best of both world I'd call it. I only named 2 things of the many training programmes, competitions, etc... he organizes to put the sommeliers' job from Lithuania in the spotlight both national as International.
Next to his 'educational' jobs he does, he also owns a company called Vyno klubas that imports and distributes many well known wines from all over the world. In the little time he still has he's chief editor a Lithuanian wine magazine. So again a very busy person who I'm very happy about that found some time to answer my 10 questions.
What is your favorite wine region to work with?
Luckily wine’s world is so big that favorites can change every month and it do in my life since my 14 years career in wine. In cold December-January of 2017 I like to sell Sangiovese variations from Tuscany. Wines are very universal with the food and very palatable. Region is strongly charged historically and culturally therefore it’s wine parallel to culinary experience is sending a lot associations and memories.
What does it take to be a good sommelier according to you?
To be a good sommelier first of all is to love people you serve, to be able to listen, to understand them, their preferences and taste and secondly to be passionate about wine. Knowledge, technique is important as it allows you to feel well on service or on the stage, to have right reputation among knowledgeable clients. But first thing is positive emotions, that people expect from sommelier.
Is the job of a sommelier underestimated/valued?
It is difficult to generalize. In Lithuania, customers now makes great pressure for good service, demands good wine by glass. Therefore good sommeliers are on high demand. If salary is not big enough you can earn tips with good performance. Less successful restaurants have to work with les advanced sommeliers. We have very short history of sommellerie in Lithuania (around 10 years), and there are many professionals who are not born to be at this position. Therefore you could meet both under- and overestimated people.
When and how did you get the passion for wine?
I switched from an academic career at University to the wine at age 32 – that's also when I started to drink it. The first serious trip to Bordeaux and classes in Ecole du Vin du Bordeaux opened my eyes. Bouquet of wines we tasted, light in the classroom, the emotions are still with me. Personal passion soon became profession.
Who is your big example in the wine/sommelier world?
My big example in wine world is Jancis Robinson for ability to work so much and so intense, ability to organize others’ work and for passion for so many wines and for new tastes.
But also I would like to say positive words about Soren Polonius – coached of Arvid Rosengren – best sommelier of the world nominated in 2016. His manners, style as sommelier and modesty paired with ability to lead people towards the largest target in career are good example to follow for everybody.
What is your approach for pairing wines(or other beverages) with dishes?
I believe that miracle of wine and food synergy exists and it is a big sin to be lazy to miss this miracle. That means each meal should have own wine, that each lunch or dinner is both culinary and intellectual event.
Which wine region would you recommend everybody to visit and why?
I think that Bordeaux is the place not to miss, as it has all possible aspects of wine region you can imagine: large classical estates, with noble, aristocratic touch, small local producers; very good infrastructure for wine tourism, including accommodation in chateaux, staff who is ready meet everybody. Architecture varies from classical chateaux to postmodern buildings. Wine from sparkling to red and sweet. Atlantic ocean nearby with the tallest sand dune in Europe and oyster farms. This is region were you can spent week and it still there will be much to see. Bordeaux city is beautiful with numerous activities available.
For which wine would you make a big sacrifice to be able to taste?
Each 19th century wine: pre-phylloxera, pre-industrial, speaking history.
What is your most wonderful memory of hotel management school?
I haven’t had formal sommelier education. First educational body for sommelier in Lithuania was my invention. Therefore all my memories are about teaching and about that wonderful feeling that every person you meet in restaurant is your student.
A culinary or wine experience everybody should have had besides have a meal at your restaurant, shop,etc…?
Since 6 years I am working on wine and music pairing projects. Now I know that gastronomic experience of having perfect wine and dish could be further uplifted by listening right music.