What is a Sommelier?

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Wine Education

What is a Sommelier?

By Hana-Lee Sedgwick April 8, 2018

It’s nearly impossible to talk about wine these days without the word ‘sommelier’ being brought up in conversation. As more people become interested in wine, the concept of a sommelier isn’t so foreign anymore, and documentaries like Somm and the TV series Uncorked have really catapulted this profession into the spotlight.

While the role of the ‘somm’ comes with a bit of a celebrity status these days, there are many people out there still confused about what the job actually entails. Yes, a sommelier is the person serving wine at a restaurant, but there’s much more to it, so we’re uncorking the mystique behind this popular job. The more you know about the role of the somm, the better you’ll be able to take full advantage of their knowledge and expertise the next time you’re perusing that wine list.

The Definition

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A sommelier (pronounced suh-mel-yay) is a wine steward, also known as a knowledgeable wine professional who typically works in a fine dining establishment. A sommelier should have formal training to be able to specialize in all aspects of wine service, wine and food pairings, and wine storage.

The Modern Somm

That being said, the modern version of a sommelier may not be limited to the floor of a restaurant interacting with guests and making runs to the cellar. Depending on the restaurant, they’ll likely take on a broader role, which could include developing wine lists for multiple restaurants, managing staff trainings, and working alongside chefs to develop new dishes that complement the wine or vice versa. What’s most vital, first and foremost, is that a sommelier has a deep knowledge of wine – sometimes also beer and spirits – and how each beverage works in harmony with food.

How to Become A Sommelier

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While anyone who works directly with wine in a restaurant setting can label themselves a sommelier, a certified sommelier requires some level of formal education, training, and experience. It may go without saying, but if you want to follow the path to becoming a sommelier, you’ll need to have a deep appreciation and passion for wine… but you’ll also need a lot of drive. There’s really no way to sugar coat it: becoming a certified sommelier takes a lot of work, including rigorous study and lots of practice to develop a palate. Depending on the person’s level of knowledge to start, it can take months of studying to become a certified sommelier and even years to reach a more advanced level.

Education and Certification

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The most talked about certification organization in the United States is definitely the Court of Master Sommeliers, which is heavily focused on the service aspect of wine. There are four levels of the Court, the top being the Master Sommelier level – an esteemed title only earned by the best of the best. In fact, there are only 236 individuals worldwide who hold the title of Master Sommelier, 149 of whom are in the U.S. So it probably comes as no surprise that this is one of the hardest exams to pass… ever.

While the Court of Master Sommeliers is a top choice for those who plan to work in a restaurant, there are other avenues for advancing in wine whether you’re a professional or budding enthusiast. One of the most recognized organizations is the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, or WSET, which is an academic program out of the United Kingdom respected for its comprehensive curriculum. For self-study, books like Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible, Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Wine Course, and The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson are all great options. But don’t discount the internet for educational tools, like the Guild Somm website or Wine Folly, the latter of which takes a more fun, visual approach to learning.

How to Best Utilize Your Sommelier

What is a Sommelier? - Good questions to ask infographic

So maybe you’ve decided that a career as a sommelier isn’t in your future, but you still want to take advantage of the expertise of your sommelier when dining out. Great! The best way to get the most out of the experience with your sommelier is to ask the right questions, so they may direct you to a wine you’ll love. Here are a few questions to consider:

Question: I recently tried a {Chianti from Italy/Cabernet from Howell Mountain/Syrah from Central Washington} and loved it. Can you recommend something similar?

It’s even better if you can recall the name of the producer, but rather than explaining that you “love dry red wine,” the more specific you can get with your somm, the more likely they will be able to point you to something you’ll love. Besides, your idea of a “dry” wine might be something very different than what your sommelier defines as dry.

Question: Can you recommend a wine you’re loving under __ price?

Your sommelier should know the good value wines from the great value wines, so trust that they’re not trying to coerce you into buying the most expensive wine on the list. Bottlings from lesser known grapes or from up-and-coming regions may be of excellent quality, but you’ll pay much less than for something with more name recognition.

Question: We’re having the chicken and we don’t like red wine… what would you suggest in the white or rosé category?

If you can provide some direction on what your meal will be (light fish vs. steak, creamy pasta vs. lasagna), your somm will be able to help guide you toward a wine style that won’t overpower the dish or underwhelm the wine. They should be able to find a wine that balances the flavors in your meal.

Other Helpful Tips

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Be respectful. It may go without saying, but try to avoid bad-mouthing the wine list despite what you may think. It’s likely that someone (or several people) put a lot of time and effort into the list and quite possible that the wines were specifically chosen to go well with the food. If they don’t have your favorite wine, use it as an opportunity to discover something new!

Leave the Critics Out. Many sommeliers don’t pay attention to scores, since ultimately, they need to consider how well the wines will go with the food and whether the general public will enjoy them (versus one critic liking the wine). So do your best to avoid that topic and trust the opinions of the sommelier in charge.

Bottom line, a sommelier is meant to provide a positive experience when dining out, so definitely utilize their expertise! Now go make that reservation, interact with your somm, drink a new bottle, and maybe you’ll discover a new favorite wine along the way.