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What does it really mean to be a sommelier?

Sommeliers have achieved almost rock star-like status in the hospitality world, but what does the title really mean?

If you are a wine enthusiast, you have probably heard or even seen the movie “Somm” launched in 2013 which follows four sommeliers in their attempt to pass the prestigious Master Sommelier exam, a test with one of the lowest pass rates in the world.

As the worldwide wine consumption continues to rise annually, so does the number of people attempting the various Sommeliers’ certification (According to the Court of Master Sommeliers, the candidates to their introductory exam have almost doubled over the past five years).

There is therefore no question that in the recent years, this traditional craft has been the center of attention of the F&B Industry.

What does it really mean to be a sommelier?

A sommelier is a job title rather than a legal designation. In fact, the exact job description depends on the employer and the business for which a sommelier is working; this trained and knowledgeable wine expert may be employed by a restaurant, a retail establishment, a beverage or catering company, or as a freelance consultant or writer.

If we most commonly see them on the floor of a restaurant interacting with guests and helping make their dining experience memorable by suggesting wines that will enhance the flavor of their chosen meal, they have several other responsibilities.

These responsibilities include:

  • Sampling wines from different producers worldwide,
  • Selecting bottles that reflect the price level and quality in line with its budget and objectives,
  • Developing and curating the wine lists, including pricing, purchasing and sales monitoring,
  • Managing the wine inventory, including the meticulous storage and care of wines,
  • Working closely with the chefs to create a cohesive food and beverage program,
  • Training the service staff for proper wine knowledge.

Finally, a sommelier should know detailed information about the wines it manages and should be up to date with the current trends in the food and wine industry.

What are the requirements to become a sommelier?

While legal age is certainly a factor for the sommelier role since wine tasting is involved, there are no formal requirements to dictate who can and cannot be employed as a sommelier. However, with its increased popularity, proper training, test-taking, and title acquisition have become an important step to climb the ladder.

As matter of fact, sommelier certification is a project that takes years to achieve. So where should one start?

1. Join the wine industry early

Gaining general knowledge and experience with wine can start with entry level jobs like wait staff in a restaurant, wine retailer, winery tasting room employee, wine import clerk and simply talking to wine experts. These experiences will help you develop your understanding of customer’s tastes, leading wine producers and the practical aspects of the wine trade.

In fact, many argue that a good sommelier needs to have real-world awareness - internalize the realities of winemaking - to the extent of participating at least once in a harvest to understand the steps involved in the production side of the business.

2. Kick start your wine education

While working your way up, there are many ways to enhance your sommelier skills. Staying informed on the industry trends by reading publications, annual wine guides, blogs and connoisseur magazines, is an imperative as this industry sees globalization shift the way it operates.Attending wine tastings and even blind tastings should be an important commitment as well.

You may also want to attend one of the many oenology courses offered to wine enthusiasts. These require less time and money investment than the more advanced wine education programs and certifications.

3. Work towards your certification

As previously mentioned, there is no certification legally required for sommeliers. Experience, self-teaching and a good palate alone could very well get you started and land you a position in a mid-range restaurant or private club. However, to be able to incorporate a more prestigious restaurant, gain recognition thus increasing also your salary, a certification can be of great help.

Sommelier certification programs are available in many locations and take a variety of forms. Most are lengthy, costly and combine study, written and oral exams that become more rigorous at higher degrees of certification. It is essential to take them step by step for a better chance of success.

4. Be passionate

Finally, one has to enjoy sampling various combinations of wines and foods. That is an exercise that helps improve your palate but also offers lots of pleasure.