What is a Sommelier and How to Become One?

Imagine dining at a fine restaurant. The white linen tablecloths are perfectly pressed. The silverware is so polished it reflects the light of the candle in the center of the table. As you flip through the leatherbound wine list, a comforting voice asks, “may I assist you with the wine list?” You look up and see the sommelier. A sigh of relief washes over. You are in trusted hands. The sommelier will guide you to find the best selection for your meal this evening. But what is a sommelier? Sommeliers are an integral part of the restaurant, hospitality, and wine industry. They’re tasked with harboring vast amounts of knowledge on grape varietals, growing regions, climates, and vintages. Perhaps the most challenging part is also being able to communicate that knowledge to the average guest. These talented people have trained their palettes over years to get to their level. They can detect nuances in wine, pinpointing the region and varietal based upon taste alone. There are thousands of sommeliers in the world. However, only 296 have earned the title of master sommelier. Dining out is a main form of entertainment. It’s estimated 64% of Americans dine out at least once a week. Many of these people will enjoy going out to an upscale restaurant. It could be for a celebration, a holiday, or just an average Wednesday. Regardless of the occasion, the sommelier will have curated an extensive wine list to help them enjoy their experience. With about 13,500 new restaurants opening each year, the demand for sommeliers is growing. But before we discuss how to become a sommelier, let’s drill down into the everyday responsibilities of this position.

What Does a Sommelier Do?

When a guest dines out they are looking for an experience. This is facilitated through food and beverage, in a uniquely comfortable setting, with expert service. Sommeliers are a key to facilitating a guest experience, but they have many other responsibilities beyond running a successful service.

1.    Curate Wine Lists

There is an art to creating a wine list. They can be broken up into by-the-glass listings and reserve listings. By-the-glass listings need to cover a range of flavor profiles. These wines can come from a variety of countries and growing regions or one country or specific growing region. However, the task remains the same. Generally, a restaurant will need to have a light, medium, and full-body option for red. It also needs a dry, off-dry, and rich option for white. This will cover the basics of what different guests will enjoy. The sommelier needs to look at previous by-the-glass sales to choose a wine that will continue to sell. They also need to know their supplier will have the stock necessary to keep up with these high-volume wines. Reserve lists can be short or extensive depending on the restaurant. This is where the sommelier gets to showcase their creativity and knowledge. Adding by-the-bottle wines from well-known regions ensures they will sell. But adding lesser-known or more interesting wines allows the guest to try something new and for the sommelier to showcase their skills.

2.    Inventory Management

The most expensive part of running a business is having inventory. Inventory costs money and if the product is not moving, you are losing money. When sommeliers purchase wine they always need to think about how well it will sell. This is how they will determine which wines to bring in and at what quantity. It’s a complex balance to having enough offerings and inventory to appeal to a variety of guests. While also making sure they are moving through their inventory.

3.    Overseeing Wine Service

No one can be in two places at once. The same goes for a sommelier. They can’t open every bottle of wine in a restaurant. Therefore they need to make sure the servers know how to perform proper wine service. Marc Glassberg, Sommelier at Cellar Master Consulting said "My philosophy is that a sommelier is to be of service to the guest. I feel it is important that they use their experience with food/wine/travel/education, etc. to provide the best possible experience for the guest, without bias. Being able to read and truly understand what a guest wants is an important skill set."

4.    Staff Training

Training is a big part of executing proper wine service. Sommeliers have reached this level in their careers because of training. They are responsible for training the staff on new wines and discussing food pairings. They also need to make sure the servers have a general knowledge base to answer guest questions.

5.    Performing Wine Service

The sommelier is also part of the service team. They work on the floor interacting with guests, answering their questions, and helping guide their wine experience. They have a tremendous amount of knowledge when it comes to food and wine pairings. Therefore they can help guests choose the right wine for their meal within their preferred price range.

Christian O'kuinghttons, a Sommelier at Atlantis Casino Resort and Spa said "As a Sommelier, and during the past 25 years working for Atlantis, I’ve come to the realization that I have become an integral piece on the ever moving parts of my restaurants approach to great, memorable and refined service. I can guide guests through the always growing wine list options, from vintage, appellations and new labels to well recognize names in the industry. I can create, by ways of contrast or compliment, a moment of pause and palate appreciation, between food and wine. I take pride on this. It is what keeps me coming back to the floor. The interaction with our guests, the help that I can provide towards discovery and satisfaction. The ultimate reward to the greatest food companion, wine, is to hear that the wine made the food taste even better."

There can sometimes be a misconception that sommeliers are always trying to sell the most expensive bottle of wine. However, they are there to make sure you have the best experience possible. They may use techniques to sell specific bottles they need to move to keep their inventory flowing, but not to gauge the guest. On selling wine to customer, Marc Glassberg of Cellar Master Consulting said "I love being able to introduce someone to a new wine, but only if they are up for it, it's all about making sure the guest experience is the best you can make it, without trying to push your agenda on them...Not all sommeliers are out to suggest the most expensive wine on the wine list."

How do You Become a Sommelier?

Wine glass swirling As with other professions, there are two avenues to becoming a sommelier.

1.    Experience

It can take years to gain enough experience to become qualified for a sommelier position. It can also be difficult to figure out just when you have gained enough experience. There are some basic rules of thumb to get you to this level.

  • Get a job in the restaurant industry - This will expose you to the steps of service and build your food and beverage knowledge.
  • Taste 10 different wines each week - The only way to learn about wine is to taste it. A wine journal will help you keep track of the wine you’ve tasted. As you get better at picking out flavors, going back to these wines will continue to build and reinforce your knowledge.
  • Take courses or study on your own - There is a lot of information on wine. Taking the time to study and learn will help you achieve your sommelier goal even faster.
  • Travel to wine regions - Tying wine to experiences can help you remember information about different grape varietals, winemaking styles, and types of wine.
  • Find a mentor - Find someone who can guide you in the right direction. They can expose you to wines you may not have been able to try and give you tips on how to differentiate between wines.

2.    Education

There are three internationally recognized wine programs.

  • Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) - Has 4 levels and focuses on wine knowledge but does not include a service component.
  • National Wine School (NWS) - Has 5 levels and focuses on wine theory, wine knowledge, and wine service, however through a more academic lens.
  • Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) - Has 4 levels and focuses on wine knowledge, history, theory, and service in terms of practical application.

To become a certified sommelier a student needs to pass level 2–for CMS and NWS– or level 3–for WSET. These an intensive programs that require hard work and dedication. To reach this level takes on average 5 years to complete. This is because practical experience is necessary to meet the requirements. The levels beyond sommelier certification will further hone your skills and open up more career opportunities.

What is a Master Sommelier?

A master sommelier is a prestigious title. It’s an award by the Court of Master Sommeliers. Most master sommeliers have been working towards this certification for 10 years. Sommeliers must pass the master sommelier exam to carry this title. Currently, there are only 296 master sommeliers in the world. These individuals know how to blind taste wine with the ability to determine the exact region, grape, and vintage. They have a comprehensive understanding of terrior, the history of winemaking, and laws governing winemaking regions. The CMS awards this title not only for wine knowledge but also for wine service. They set the standards for how appropriate wine service should be executed. But their hard work pays off. Those who earn this award have an average salary of $164,000.

Becoming A Wine Sommelier

There is more to being a sommelier than just wine knowledge. These talented people need to translate this knowledge into digestible information for guests. They need to manage inventory and use sales techniques to ensure their stock is always rotating. They are people that restaurant staff look up to for advice and direction. They also need to make sure every staff member has the tools and information necessary to execute wine service. Sommeliers have trained for years to get to their level, but their training never ends. Every wine vintage will be unique and therefore every sommelier will continue to learn throughout their career. With demand for sommeliers growing the possibilities are limitless. This rewarding profession allows you to directly impact the lives of guests, while also challenging yourself in the process. Thinking of taking you career to the wine industry? Check out the jobs available today.

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