Klaas is in Session

South African sommelier wins coveted international scholarship.

The late hotelier and wine professional, Gérard Basset wrote in his memoir, Tasting Victory: “My efforts to improve my wine knowledge and skills in order to serve other people, to choose wines that would take their meal to another level, to make them comfortable and give them a night – or a holiday – that they would remember for the rest of their lives, repaid me many, many times over.”

Gérard Basset (7th March 1957 – 16th January 2019) OBE MS MW MBA OIV MSc ASI World Champion was a French-born wine professional and hotelier, who left an indelible mark through his contributions to the international wine industry. He was the first and only individual to hold the excruciatingly challenging Master of Wine qualification simultaneously with the Master Sommelier, Bordeaux KEDGE Wine MBA and the OIV MSc, as well as the founding partner of the Hotel du Vin Group after moving to the United Kingdom.

In memory of Gérard Basset, the Foundation named in his honour endeavours to fund educational and professional programmes focused upon diversity and inclusivity in wine, spirits and hospitality globally.

In February 2023, Sharrol Mukendi-Klaas was awarded the coveted ASI Gérard Basset Foundation Sommelier Scholarship, delivered by the Sommeliers Academy.

Originally from Klerksdorp, Sharrol was raised in a small town near Mafikeng. She says: “prior to studying wine courses I had not really committed to studying anything.”

Sharrol’s passion for wine and service stems from living in Cape Town where she says: “interacting with the tourists who visit our beautiful city, I wanted them to truly experience what we have to offer.”

“We are really fortunate to be able to taste and drink some of the best wines in the world. I really wanted to have the confidence to talk to and educate those who are visiting us about our wines, terroir, vinification - and the wine that reaches our glasses,” Sharrol says.

Sharrol, an assistant manager and sommelier at Culture Wine Bar worked at various restaurants and wine bars prior to joining the Culture team, helmed by celebrated chef, Matt Manning in November 2022.

“My career as a sommelier is just beginning - as it takes many years and a lot of practice to actually become a sommelier. But, like many in the industry, I started out as a waitress working in restaurants whilst still figuring out what I wanted to do. But then I fell in love with service, specifically in the areas of hospitality and wine,” Sharrol humbly acknowledges.

Sharrol first encountered the Gerard Basset Scholarship through the advice of the South African Sommelier Association (SASA) Chairperson, Spencer Fondaumiere.

“Spencer encouraged me to enter as he knew how passionate I was about learning about wine, so I submitted my CV along with a motivation letter,” Sharrol says.

Beyond wanting to win, her motivation letter explained how winning would benefit her and how the skills she would learn would motivate her to teach her peers, who are also aspiring sommeliers.

On winning, Sharrol says: “I was in total disbelief, the whole process took so long that at one point I had even given up, but I feel really privileged.”

“As an African and a woman in an industry that is generally male and white dominated, I wanted to prove, firstly to myself, that I have what it takes to become the best in my field. Secondly, to prove to those who will come after me that it is achievable. In order to reach that (goal), I need to constantly be studying and entering competitions in order to continuously learn and hone my skills,” Sharrol explains.

In order to become a more proficient international sommelier, Sharrol has prepared for her upcoming tests and exams by attending weekly sessions with Jean-Vincent Ridon, at the Sommeliers Academy in Cape Town.

Sharrol intends to take the ASI Certification Level 2. Her mentorship with Jean-Vincent also includes first-hand winery work experience. In addition, she will be instructed in practical beverage management, which is essential for restaurant service; and immersive travels to some of Europe's most storied winemaking regions.

Sharrol travelled to France with Jean-Vincent in order to expand her international wine and service knowledge.

She says: “my trip to France was one of the best experiences of my life! We visited Sancerre, the home of Sauvignon Blanc, then drove to Chablis, the land of Chardonnay. Then we drove to Jura, where you find unfamiliar grapes like, Savagnin, Poulsard and  Trousseau.”

“From there we drove to Burgundy where you can find some of the most prestigious and expensive wines in the world. We even visited the famous Domaine Romanée Conti! Lastly, we visited Reims and Eppernay in Champagne,” Sharrol says.

“What surprised me most, is how many farmers in France had only three or a few rows of vineyards, compared to South Africa where one farm would comprise many hectares of vineyards,” Sharrol explains.

The value of Sharrol’s expansive experiences as part of her scholarship has deep roots for her fellow South African wine professionals.

“As a new world wine country, it is very important that we strive to keep the same standard of service and knowledge as the other wine regions of the world. And most importantly that the sommelier pushes high revenue and profits in their restaurant,” Sharrol suggests.

Blog by Tšepang Molisana