A sommelier’s life in lockdown

With little in the way of work, and Milan shut down, Andrea Loi, head sommelier at Seta in the city’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, turned to other pursuits to stay sane…

Words by Andrea Loi

For three months during lockdown, I was confined to my small studio apartment in Milan with my girlfriend. No offence to Sophie, but it was like being in prison. Northern Italy was badly hit by the pandemic, and the rules here were very strict. We were respectful of that. The grocery store, 300m away, which we visited once a week, was as far as we went for three months.

I’m not ashamed to say that it was a real challenge. Like me, Sophie also works at the Mandarin Oriental and we’re not used to being at home for such long periods: we almost never usually cook at home; to be honest, we don’t even have all the necessary furniture for a cosy night in, let alone an extended confinement.

Traditionally it’s the guy who takes care of the woman, but in our case, even though Sophie is 10 years younger, she was taking care of me. To be honest, I would have been lost without her. I had one other thing to help get me through though. No, not wine. Chess. In lockdown, I played a lot of chess.

Beyond wine (and Sophie, of course), chess is the other passion in my life. I’ve been playing since I was three-years-old; I’m 34 now. I used to play in the ‘Serie A’, in tournaments around the world – so we’re not talking an amateur level. Thank goodness you can play online these days. In lockdown, it was a godsend. (I tried to convince Sophie to play too, but for some reason she doesn’t feel the same love of the game as I do.)

Chess is about more than just relaxation for me, though – and certainly when you lose 10 games in a row, it’s not relaxing. It can be very frustrating, in fact. When you play the game, even a quick game, you have strong competitive, emotional feelings. Like wine, chess is a huge part of my life. When you commit to chess, the sacrifice you make to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge is huge. It’s the same as being a sommelier – you need dedication, concentration, focus. The passion and obsession I feel for both disciplines are identical – I’m addicted to the drive for improvement. And the frustrations I feel when I mistake an appellation or forget the specifics of a blend are the same as when I make a mistake and misread a situation on the chess board.

Lockdown didn’t change my approach to wine; I continued to drink every day – just a couple of glasses, but consistently. My last purchase was a couple of cases of Domaine Gauby. It’s an estate that gives me so much energy, I think because of its commitment to biodynamic wine. Two friends of mine, one of them a professional footballer, also sent me two bottles that I couldn’t otherwise afford to drink. The first was a Niepoort Colheita 1934: every morning I wake up with a small glass of it, a routine I will continue until the bottle is finished. It’s a great way to start the day, believe me. The other was a wonderful Burgundy from Meo-Camuzet – Vosne-Romanée “Les Chaumes” 2014, which made for a fantastic dinner one night when we needed a diversion. Then there were the various wine webinars that were hosted, which were a fantastic way to stay connected. Olivier Krug’s presentation of its new Grande Cuvée, accompanied by a sample, was a particular highlight.

The sommelier industry is a close one, and we all have our friends across the business. I was constantly in contact with several of them. Xavier Momein, for example, head somm at Sketch in London, is a very good friend, and really helped me through. And my colleagues at the Mandarin Oriental have been as important as the air that I breathe – lockdown life without Manuel, Mauro, Federico and Luis wouldn’t have been the same.

The one positive of lockdown has been the rest, which I really needed. I finally found time to sleep – properly, like I haven’t done in years. I’d forgotten how pleasurable sleep can be. I feel totally regenerated. So much of life is about rushing around; lockdown made me appreciate the simple things.

It also gave me lots of time to reflect. Everybody around the world has been hit by this problem, and all our priorities have changed. As we slowly return to life as we knew it, I can’t help but feel that we should try to look to nature for guidance. When the vineyard is under attack and its survival is threatened, the vine protects itself by sacrificing production to guarantee its existence the following year. I sincerely hope that we can all make similar sacrifices over the coming months, to safeguard our own future.