A sommelier, or in its English translation ‘wine steward’, is likely one of those career paths that most pay little attention to. Unbeknownst to many, a sommelier is one of the highest paying jobs you can find in the hospitality industry. A wine steward gets an annual salary of 55,000 USD for a level 1 sommelier which is the career’s lowest certification. At its highest and most lucrative, master sommeliers can earn more than 150,000 USD per year!
But make no mistake, earning the master sommelier’s title is no walk in the park and the skills expected of a master are no small talk either. So what is a sommelier and what do they do? In this article, you will find out all you need to know about sommelier and what it takes to become one!
What does a sommelier do?
Historically speaking, a sommelier is a wine expert whose service is reserved only for royalty, notably in France. Though the service of a sommelier is no longer limited to only royalty and the wealthy, the expertise of a sommelier remains unchanged. To put it simply, a sommelier is a professional wine taster.
As a specialist wine expert, a sommelier has both vast and depths of knowledge when it comes to wine. In terms of information alone, a sommelier is able to elaborate on the many facets of wine-tasting and wine-making.
The types of grapes used, the region of origin of said grapes, the specific vineyard they were grown, its rating and even the year of production. A sommelier will need to know all the types of champagne and jargon used in the industry.
Outside of the theory section of knowledge required of a sommelier, he or she must be able to transfer that knowledge to practical use. This means that a sommelier must be able to draw upon their vast understanding of wine and use it to identify and classify wine.
They do it through sight, smell and taste.
Having trained and developed an extremely refined palate for wine-tasting, sommeliers are then able to provide services that will enhance a restaurant’s service. Working sommeliers are usually required to develop wine lists for the restaurant that they work for or with.
Wine professionals will work closely with the chefs and the owner to create and curate a selection of wine that matches the menu and style of the restaurant.
This brings us to a sommelier’s second most commonly known skill, matching food and wine. Oftentimes it is only at fine-dining restaurants that the value of a sommelier really shines.
A sommelier’s knowledge on wine and food enables him or her to best recommend wine that will match the food ordered by customers. Depending on the type of vegetables, meat or even cheese that the customer has ordered, a sommelier is able to best enhance the customer’s experience by recommending the most suitable wine.
It is for these very reasons that fine dining restaurants spend hundreds of thousands a year to add a new layer of luxury to the customer’s experience with a sommelier’s service. Of course, the job of a sommelier does not end there.
From listing, ordering, serving and maintaining, it is a sommelier’s duty to ensure that the wine is always good and always available.
How to become a sommelier?
A sommelier seems like a really fun job to have! How do I sign up to be one?
Well, this is easier said than done. Wine stewards are considered one of the top-ranking positions in the world of hospitality, which means training to be one is not a simple task.
There are typically two pathways when it comes to becoming a sommelier and both require a high degree of self-motivated learning of the industry.
Likely the best and easiest way to start is to find work on the service team of a fine dining restaurant. As sommeliers are required to have in-depth knowledge on how restaurants function, working at the front-of-house is the easiest way to gain this knowledge.
Additionally, working in a restaurant will enable you to better learn the ropes of serving customers, another crucial part of being a sommelier. From here, it is very much possible for you to climb your way to becoming a sommelier.
What education is needed to become a sommelier?
The second way to achieve a sommelier title, and this is the more lucrative method, is to get yourself certified. Certification requires you to go through theoretical and academic training, followed by rigorous training and testing. The study of wine history, manufacturing process, profiling and of course, a lot of tasting.
Currently, in the industry, there are two organizations that provide recognized sommelier training and certification.
Wine and Spirit Education Trust
The first is the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET), which is a course that heavily focuses on the sciences behind winemaking.
Court of Master Sommeliers
The second is the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) which is more commonly known as they include training on service as a sommelier as well.
The CMS training is also the one that leads to the Master Sommelier training. It is one of the toughest tests in the world. The passing rate every year is below 10%!
Although certification is not a necessity in becoming a sommelier, the recognition of these institutes greatly increases your competitive value in the market. This of course will in turn increase the return value of your employment as well.
How many sommeliers are there in the world?
Once again, sommeliers are highly sought after in the fine-dining, travel, hospitality and wine-making industry. This makes the job title one of the hardest to attain in the world due to the difficulty in training.
Though we do not know for sure how many professional wine tasters are there in the world, we do know they are rare and few.
Imagine this: for each fine-dining restaurant that employs between ten to twenty chefs and up to thirty service staff, there is only one sommelier position. That is the demand and rarity that this position is notorious for.
We do know however, how many Master Sommeliers are there in the world. Master sommeliers are considered the pinnacle of wine experts and to date there are less than 300 masters.
This goes to show how difficult it is to gain the title and recognition as a sommelier, let alone a master.
Where do sommeliers work?
As a sommelier’s work revolves around wine, any environment that involves the beverage will likely be suitable to a sommelier. We would add that a sommelier’s employment is mostly limited to luxury markets.
The most common places you will find a wine professional would be in restaurants or bars, recommending wines, creating cocktails or tending to the wine cellar. Hotels, cruise ships and casino’s are also common places of employment for sommeliers where their skills will be called on to serve VIPs or to manage the purchasing and sales of wine.
There are also professional sommeliers who teach the craft professionally as a teacher. Some sommeliers also work as expert tasters where they assist vineyards and wine makers in quality control and profiling.
How to become a master sommelier?
As mentioned before, a master sommelier is one of the toughest qualifications to achieve in the world. The Master title is awarded by the Court of Master Sommeliers through a 4-level program that ends with the Master Sommelier Diploma.
To qualify for the examination and diploma, candidates will have to cover all 4 levels of training. Additional and prior work experience in the industry is highly valued as well and will give you an edge when taking the exam.
At all four levels leading up to the master sommelier diploma, candidates are trained theoretically on wine knowledge from source to table. Candidates are also required to learn how to rope in serving customers.
One key skill that is required of masters, for example, is to perfectly pour a 5 ounce glass of wine without any tools.
In the attempt to get a masters sommelier’s diploma, candidates are tested on knowledge, service abilities and also on tasting ability.
This portion of the examination is the toughest of them all. Candidates go through a blind test where they must identify wine down to source and age just by color, scent and taste. This is the one portion of the diploma that makes it the toughest in the world.
A master sommelier is not the same as a wine master. Read ‘Master of Wine – Is it the same as a master sommelier?’ to learn more about the difference between the two.
Being a sommelier is an exciting experience, one where you get to learn new things and meet new people every single day. It is also a career that is extremely lucrative when pursued with mastery in mind, with top performing masters earning up to a quarter of a million per year. Much like any high-return career, it is also one that is extremely challenging. The work demands a high degree of dedication to both the craft and also to the service of the customer. As such, the career path of a sommelier might not be one for most to take one. This is why the Fizz Champagne & Bubbles Club is so exclusive – a personal sommelier will hand pick champagnes for members of the club! For those who choose to take on being a sommelier as a career, there is surely great fulfillment that comes with the challenges.