How to Become a Sommelier


A sommelier pours a bottle of wine during the World Summit of Gastronomy. See more wine pictures.
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­Don't think of a sommelier as simply the waiter who serves wine. The best sommeliers use the skills of counselors as they inquire about their customers' needs and desires, teachers as they explain the merits of different types of wine, business executives as they cope with the high costs of some vintages, adventurers as they travel the world and bring home products. Successful sommeliers must be passionate about two things: wine and people. In a sense, a sommelier is a matchmaker, seeking to delight customers with perfect pairings of food and wine.

At the most basic level, a sommelier is a wine steward -- someone who oversees a wine cellar. The word comes from the Middle French soumelier, an official in charge of supplies [source: Merriam-Webster]. That word comes from an even older word for pack animal. While the connection from pack animal to our modern sommelier may seem tenuous, remember that wine was a necessary provision hundreds of years ago (and still is for many people today). Instead of procuring wines for a nobleman's banquet hall, though, most of today's sommeliers work to stock the cellars of fine dining establishments, consulting with the chefs to determine what wines will best complement the food. The sommelier must know how to serve wine, such as what glasses are correct and what temperature is ideal. Most of all, the sommelier must treat guests with respect and hospitality, giving them the feeling that they are on a shared gustatory adventure.

­Choosing the correct wines for a meal is just a portion of the modern-day sommelier's duties. He -- for most of the time it is a he, 95 percent of sommeliers are men -- works to create a wine list for the restaurant, deals with suppliers and maintains the restaurant's wine cellar [source: Princeton]. Outstanding sommeliers may become celebrities in the foodie universe -- writing articles on wine, h­osting wine tastings, conducting tours of vineyards and wineries, perhaps even earning enough money to stock their own private wine cellars.

In this article, we'll look at how a sommelier gets to be so knowledgeable and how he is able to share his passion with his clients. We'll explore the sommelier's expanding role in a world where a single bottle of wine can cost thousands of dollars. So whether you're a sophisticated oenophile (wine lover) or someone who can't tell a Shiraz from a Chardonnay, read on to discover more about the makings of a sommelier.

What Does a Sommelier Do?

Ordering wine in a fine dining establishment can be an intimidating experience, but it doesn't have to be. A good sommelier enjoys working with diners as they choose the correct wine for the food they'll be eating. Sommeliers must also be knowledgeable about beers, ales, ciders and even after-dinner cigars. The sommelier must be familiar with both the restaurant's menu and the selection of wines he has available in the wine cellar. He has a hand in compiling the wine list or perhaps puts it together alone. The sommelier must maintain the list's integrity while providing variety between good, lower-cost varieties and higher-priced vintages. Choosing a house wine is one of the most crucial duties of a sommelier. The house wine must complement the cooking style of the restaurant and is the wine most commonly ordered by customers.

A good sommelier can take the customer far beyond the basic rules of red wine with red meat, white wine with fish and into another realm of dining nirvana. He knows about every wine in the cellar and every dish on the menu and understands when to choose a wine that complements the food and when to select one that will provide a contrast. Even diners who are familiar with wines can benefit from the expertise of the sommelier. Sommeliers enjoy talking about wine and like to hear about wines their customers have tried.

After the sommelier and the diners have selected the wine pairings for each course, the sommelier orders the bottles from the cellar. If necessary, he decants the wine. Decanting means pouring the wine from the bottle into another container for serving. It is usually required for red wines that have been aged more than 10 years. Decanting oxygenates the wine, a process that's necessary to bring the wine to its full robust flavor. The sommelier brings the wine with its appropriate glass to the table. He pours a small amount for the host to sniff, sip and approve, telling her what she should be looking for as she samples the wine. This is when the sommelier gets to use those descriptive phrases such as "fresh and crispy notes" and "the combined aromas of blueberries, oak and the spice box." Sometimes the guest will invite the sommelier to have a taste. The sommelier will repeat the process of pouring and describing for each course.

Sommelier Training and Certification

Unlike becoming a doctor, lawyer or driver of an 18-wheel truck, the path to becoming a sommelier isn't clearly marked. There are no set standards for using the title. Anyone who pours wine can call himself a sommelier. That doesn't mean that any wine lover can just order a white jacket and a tastevin off the Internet and get a job in a fancy restaurant. Most employers will want you to show that you have passed competency examinations administered by one of the many organizations for professional sommeliers. To get to the point of taking the competency exam, a prospective sommelier will need lots of experience with wine or preparation through self-education or through courses in wine.

Several institutions and organizations offer courses for sommeliers. Some can be completed in a few days, while others require months. The Culinary Institute of America offers certification programs for wine professionals -- a foundation level certification and an advanced level -- at its wine center in California's Napa Valley. After passing these exams, a graduate can add the initials C.W.P. for Certified Wine Professional to his or her name. Colorado-based International Wine Guild offers several levels of study and certification for wine professionals. The International Sommelier Guild is one of the few institutions with a diploma program specific to sommeliers. The guild also offers a master's degree program leading to the title of Grand Sommelier.

Certification by the Court of Master Sommeliers, an international body with branches in the United States and Great Britain, is highly regarded. Wine professionals must complete the introductory sommelier course and exam before moving on to the certified sommelier exam that consists of a written exam of 25 questions, a blind tasting of two wines and a service exam. After passing this exam, the sommelier can take the advanced sommelier course and exam, then attempt to procure the master sommelier diploma. Only outstanding graduates who have obtained the master sommelier designation may be invited to full membership in the Court and given license to wear the Court badge. Currently, fewer than 200 people have earned the title Master Sommelier [source: CofM].

Each course and test carries a fee, ranging from about $150 for a beginer course to $800 for the master sommelier exam. Many employers will pay the fees for their sommeliers. While a college degree isn't required before starting training as a sommelier, it is recommended. Studies in business courses and a foreign language or two would certainly be helpful and give the sommelier a leg up on the competition.

Sommelier Careers and Beyond

The typical sommelier begins his career as an assistant in the hospitality industry, working under and learning from more experienced sommeliers. After a few years, most are working independently, choosing wines for the restaurant and developing and maintaining relationships with suppliers. With much experience in the business, a sommelier often becomes a freelance wine expert and may serve as a wine consultant for several restaurants or for a restaurant group.

Sommeliers have the opportunity to engage in a number of competitions held throughout the world. Requirements may vary as to who can enter -- young sommeliers, sommeliers who work in Texas and so on -- but most are judged on the same factors. Competitors take a written exam, compete in practical exercises in which their service skills are showcased and display their fine senses in blind tastings.

Salaries for sommeliers vary greatly depending on where they work and their level of experience. Beginning salaries are around $28,000, while experienced sommeliers can command $160,000 or more [source: U.S. Department of Labor]. The job is more physically demanding than you might imagine. A sommelier is busy throughout service each night, either on the floor or in the wine cellar. Also, it's a job for a night person, since most fine dining takes place in the evening. Sommeliers should also be free and eager to travel. As they advance in their careers, they will need to visit vineyards and wineries around the world, seeing in person what they already are acquainted with in the bottle. Despite some of the hardships, dedicated sommeliers express great job satisfaction. To them there is no greater reward than working with wine and introducing it to others.

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Sources

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