If you appreciate fine wine and plan to work in the food and beverage industry, you might want to add “sommelier” to your resume. Wine lovers — and anyone with a growing appreciation for wine—count on sommeliers to escort them through an evening of dining that focuses on perfect wine pairings.
A master sommelier frequently has a deep, abiding love for the art of winemaking and wants to share that enthusiasm with patrons. However, you could also view the profession as a practical set of skills and knowledge to serve your future patrons better, creating an unforgettable experience every time they visit your establishment. They will appreciate your expertise that goes above and beyond bringing their selected bottle to the table, opening, and pouring.
Let’s explore what a sommelier is and whether you want to add this title to your educational credentials and hospitality experience.
WHAT IS A SOMMELIER?
Also known as a wine steward, wine specialist, or wine expert, a sommelier receives special education, training, and certification in everything imaginable regarding wine. You can find sommeliers in restaurants, wineries, and businesses across the hospitality industry. Their primary duty is to know their employer’s wine list and help patrons decide on the right wine for the specific occasion.
Sommeliers might find their way to this profession through university degrees in hospitality, international beverage management, or a special sommelier program at a university.
Other paths to this career include accreditation through professional wine industry organizations, such as the Court of Master Sommeliers or the Wine and Spirit Education Trust.
How to Pronounce Sommelier
You might look at the term “sommelier” and wonder how you’ll ever pronounce it, much less become one. Fortunately, it’s much easier to pronounce than it looks. Julien Miguel, the French Winemaking Guy on YouTube, offers his sommelier pronunciation. Phonetically, it looks like this: suh·muhl·yay. You’ll turn the “mel” portion in the middle into a “mool” sound and place little-to-no emphasis on the r at the end.
Once immersed in your study program at university, you’ll hear it all the time, and it will quickly become second nature to hear and say it.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SOMMELIER
The sommelier has a rich history that you’ll probably enjoy learning if you want to enter this profession steeped in history, culture, and sophistication. My Modern Met shares that the term was first used in 14th century France, referring to a person or servant responsible for carrying his lord’s or master’s baggage, choosing their dinner wine, and testing beverages for poison. Thankfully, your job as a sommelier won’t be nearly as risk-laden.
Around the same time, the Worshipful Company of Vintners was launched in London, serving as a guild of winemakers and wine merchants. The organization offered exclusive membership for primarily male citizens of London. The English sommelier equivalent was charged with duties resembling modern wine stewards, as compared to their French counterparts who tested for poison.
While wine has been around since roughly 6,000 B.C., it came into its own in the 14th century with fervor and abiding respect.
Skip ahead to the 20th century; the Worshipful Company of Vintners partnered with the Wine and Spirits Association in 1953. The two organizations worked together to develop and administer the first exam, which awarded graduates with the “Master of Wine” designation.
Together, the graduates created the Institute Masters of Wine in the UK. Since most professional organizations didn’t acknowledge the title and catered to wine crafters and sellers, it was necessary to develop a program to recognize and certify professional wine stewards and other staff working with customers to cultivate a fine dining experience.
The first Master Sommelier Exam was held in the UK in 1969, establishing the world-recognized Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), wherein graduates must be able to blind taste test, identify varietals and vintages, serving techniques, and more.
THE HOBBYIST SOMMELIER VS. THE PROFESSIONAL SOMMELIER
Not everyone who desires the sommelier distinction and knowledge that comes with it wants to serve in the hospitality industry. Some people do it for fun or cultural edification. Therefore, in a sense, anyone can become a sommelier if they want to pursue certification. For them, it’s another fun life experience.
But there is a significant difference between obtaining a sommelier certification and becoming a CMS via a strong education, specific program, and plenty of discipline, where you’ll study topics including:
- Foundations of Wine
- New World Wines
- Spirits and Mixology Management
- Blind Taste Testing
Further, there are four levels of sommeliers:
- Beginners work in tasting rooms for fun or as an adventure while traveling. It gives you firm knowledge and confidence about wine.
- Certified wine stewards might work in a bar, restaurant, wine store, or winery and can organize wine tastings for friends and colleagues.
- Industry-experienced professionals are more serious about their work and earn a higher salary than certified professionals. At this level, you might run a business’s wine list, open your own restaurant, or serve as an instructor, teaching students about wine.
- Master-level sommeliers commit to up to 10,000 hours of focused practice. You can do it all at this level, including teaching other professionals to reach peak levels and helping determine the industry’s future.
HOW TO BECOME A WINE SOMMELIER
Many wine steward and hospitality students turn to online programs that give them the education and experience to seek a job upon graduation. Many sommelier programs are offered as minor degrees under either hospitality or food and beverage major programs. While you can pair it with any other university program, it makes more sense to focus on hospitality disciplines if you plan to follow this career path.
If you want to become a hobby sommelier, college isn’t necessary. But if you want to become a highly sought-after and respected professional, attending university can make all the difference.
Attend Wine School and Take Wine Courses
Attending wine school and taking courses with an accredited program will ensure you have everything it takes to work as a successful wine expert in modern establishments.
Your college program will teach you how to analyze, serve, recommend, market, sell, and manage wine and other spirits.
Here are some sample course topics you might encounter with your sommelier minor program at your university:
- Server staff training
- Food pairing principles
- Beverage menu development
- Inventory control systems for purchasing
- Costing methodologies
- Beverage sales
- And much more
Court of Master Sommelier Levels of Accreditation
As you’re probably realizing, the CSM level of accreditation is intensive, requiring your commitment and passion for the industry. The program is rigorous but highly gratifying, considering the prestige that accompanies it and the opportunities it can afford you.
Let’s learn how you can master this program and earn your accreditation.
The introductory course and examination are taught by Master Sommeliers and take two full days of study. At this point, you will complete a review of wine and beverage theory, deductive tasting methodology, and wine serving etiquette.
At this level, you will prove your proficiency in the introductory lessons on theory, tasting methodology, and serving etiquette.
To proceed to the advanced level, you must wait one year after you pass the certified level and have a minimum of three years of restaurant experience. You will need that time to prepare for the three-day advanced course, where you will explore CMS standards in beverage service and sales in much greater depth.
Once you have passed the advanced level of certification, you will become a Master Sommelier, the highest level possible.
Work in the Restaurant Industry
Today, restaurateurs and wine sellers seek professionals with hybrid experiences and skills to perform varied responsibilities. Versatile wine attendants and robust wine programs are essential to the modern dining experience for patrons.
AVERAGE EARNINGS OF A WINE SOMMELIER
Depending on the market and level of experience, education, and accreditation, a sommelier can earn anywhere from $19,000-94,000 per year and more. You’ll find the higher end of that salary spectrum in bigger cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.
QUALITIES OF A WINE SOMMELIER
Some qualities are needed for someone to enjoy a successful career as a sommelier, such as having a passion for wine, taste-testing talent, and excellent customer service.
Let’s look at some additional vital considerations for this position.
Strong Work Ethic
Similar to most professional paths, a solid work ethic is essential to your success in this career. You’ll be more than a server or wine expert — you will serve as a guide or liaison to your establishment’s wine cellar, giving patrons a virtual tour and an unparalleled experience. More than that, you’ll need to be present, punctual, and polite to a high degree in this profession.
You will be dealing with chefs, wait and host staff, bartenders, and the public, so being personable is crucial to your success. Your communication and customer service skills will be front and center from when you clock in until you leave.
Working as a sommelier will require intense focus and thoughtfulness as you offer recommendations for expensive wines that can make or break the dining experience for your guests. You’ll also need to remember taste tests, vintages, wine regions, and much more, so you’ll need to focus throughout each shift.
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