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Victor Okolo believes that being a great sommelier isn’t about how far you’ve come with wine, but rather how well you work with it. This is certainly true in his case. From humble beginnings of being a barback (followed by working at a wine bar and working closely with a sommelier as a waiter) to developing a passion for wine that led to his training and learning from top sommeliers like Eric Botha, he has developed his own signature as a sommelier.
With only eight months under his belt at Salsify, Victor Okolo is already an award-winning sommelier, having just scooped the 2022 Eat Out WCellar Wine Service Award. Salsify was also awarded a three-star restaurant award at the prestigious event, so there’s certainly a synergy of excellence at the restaurant.
“What I have started doing, and what is becoming a trend now, is that I use more niche reps,” says Victor. “I like to use wines that people don’t go to the shops and buy. We grow niche cultivars in the Western Cape, but they taste different because of our climate.”
This approach is in sync with the Salsify philosophy of keeping things interesting, unpredictable and creating a sense of mystique with each course. His process when working with head chef and co-owner Ryan Cole involves tasting everything in the eight-course menu then deciding which dishes to do a matching or a contrasting pairing with.
“You have to look at flavours and textures and weigh them up: how heavy is the dish and how heavy do you want the wine to be? You can give the food a different flavour with the wine or match up the flavour of the food with the wine. What’s going to be more amazing?” he shares.
“People want something special. Our clientele has a discerning taste. That’s the thing for me. Even if I do a matching pairing, I like to put a surprise in there. That’s what makes a good pairing. It needs to either contrast well or match well, in terms of flavours, textures and weight,” notes Victor.
He has had times when guests didn’t like his recommendations, but he believes that the learning curves are a catalyst to being great. “Every day is a risk, and the anxiety is always there. But you keep learning,” Victor says.
“To be a good sommelier, you have to understand people first and foremost. You need to understand that you have the best palate in the room. You have to be confident in yourself. Whatever wine you have chosen, believe in it and sell it. Know enough details about the wine. Chat to the winemaker; the wine reps. You have to have your selling points. You have to know how to read people to know what to recommend.”
The confidence of believing you have the best palate in the room comes from having developed your palate. For Victor, this is where training comes in. “As a sommelier, I know my tongue is better than my nose. You get sommeliers where the other way around is true. Knowing the fundamentals is important. Know what you’re looking for in the wine first. How it should taste originally. You must taste the best wines, average wines and the worst wines. Compare them, know the difference and do it all again,” says Victor.
A day in the life of a sommelier involves looking for new brands, niche and interesting ones to add to the wine list, changing the wine list and managing the stock and price points. It’s about chatting to wine reps and organising tasting meetings. “The idea is to curate the best wines. I do training for the waiters as well. Service is key,” Victor adds.
To be the best at what he does, researching and keeping up with new trends is also key. “You have to have a vast knowledge of what is happening out there. Everyone makes wine: Israel, Japan, China, Chile and Argentina. You must have a clue as to what is happening in those countries as well. This helps make the guests (who may come from those countries) more welcome. You research new wines, new trends and new niche wines that are coming up, plus how you need to taste them. You don’t want to be left out,” he emphasises. “You always have to up your game.”
Read about the other winners at of 2022 Eat Out Woolworths Restaurant Awards