Following our previous article on the role of sommeliers, today, we dive in the career path for becoming a wine expert: whether on the floor of a restaurant, as a consultant, a distributor, a wine shop manager, a producer, a marketer, etc.
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.
While being involved in our EHL Wine Committee (participating in international blind tasting, organizing debates about new technology and wine or planning visits to the local winemakers), I discovered a real passion for the wine world. My internship in Sales and Marketing in South Africa convinced me to dedicate my life after EHL to this industry. But I also have to admit that my parents are winemakers… Obviously we sometimes need time to see a treasure under our nose. I am happy today to study the winemaking process, which starts in the vineyards. It also means hands full of grape juice and sometimes feet in the mud. However, I see now that going deep in the profession enables me to understand the complexity and reality of wine. Laura Paccot, EHL Alumna 2014 now working for the Domaine la Colombe.
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. As Paolo Basso, best Sommelier of the World 2013, ;explained to EHL students during his last conference:
Human beings are no longer used to taste! We do not use our nose or palate anymore and therefore our brain does not perform sensory analysis but relies mainly on preconceptions. It is an exercise that requires discipline but allows one to efficiently develop its sensitivity and unbiased assessment skills.
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.