Manfred Wagner
Written by
Culinary Arts
5 min read

Q : What is a Sommelier?

The world of wine no longer only exists for those wealthy enough to house a cellar full of priceless bottles of one of nature's most treasured elixirs. Popular movies such as Sideways, Bottle Shock and the Somm series managed to catapult society into both loving to drink wine and the desire to learn more about it.

Exciting careers in the world of wine 

Wine itself represents life in a glass. We associate wine with friendship, romance and celebrations. For many of us, the more we know about wine, the more we appreciate it. For some, acquiring knowledge about the wine world translates into a passionate hobby, for others it becomes their life's work.

Learning about wine entails much more than the process of growing grapes and making and drinking wine. When you delve into viticulture, you automatically receive an education about history, culture, culinary science, geography, art and creativity, science and health. 

People who work in the wine industry may find themselves in one of several vocations:

  • Working in retail for a wine shop or boutique
  • Freelancing as a wine writer for publications or writing books
  • Owning or working at a winery in the vineyards or as a winemaker
  • Working as an expert or Sommelier at a restaurant
  • Teaching others about wine through classes or film

The world of wine is just part of the Culinary Arts, learn all about this multi-faceted vocation and possible careers here.

What is a Sommelier?

As the number of people interested in drinking wine continues to grow, so does the number of people wanting to learn about wine. Wishing to become an expert could lead to a career as a Sommelier, or for a few, the prestigious role of Master Sommelier.

Traditionally, the word Sommelier means 'wine steward.' The term, however, continues to gain prestige. Today, when we hear someone referred to as a Sommelier, we expect a certain level of expertise far beyond just being a wine waiter. Becoming a Sommelier takes years of education and experience; it represents knowing about all aspects of wine, how to serve it, its production and history, as well as the art of wine and food pairing. In brief, a Sommelier is a highly knowledgeable and qualified wine professional who typically works in a fine dining establishment.

Typical responsibilities of a Sommelier

Becoming a Sommelier opens up all kinds of vocational opportunities, from working at your neighborhood wine shop to owning and managing a winery. Sommelier responsibilities include:

  • Sampling and assessing wines from all over the globe
  • Selecting wines to fit a customer's tastes and budget
  • Managing inventory and storage
  • Coordinating with the Head Chef on recommended food pairings
  • Training the restaurant staff on wine basics

Misconceptions about the role of the Sommelier

Many of us marvel at the remarkable blind tasting abilities seen in wine documentary films. When a person spends five minutes with a glass of wine and rattles off the notes, the alcohol content, the grape(s), the region, and ultimately the wine producer and vintage year, it seems nothing short of magic.

Blind tasting represents one of the skills required to pass the Master Sommelier exam.  However, most Sommeliers do not hold the Master Sommelier title, and they will tell you that neither their employers nor customers require them to perform this amazing feat on a regular basis.

Another misconception is that being a Sommeliers means being a wine snob. Though it takes years of education and experience to become one, the goal of the wine expert doesn't involve bravado or intimidation, instead it's more about getting inside the customer's head to make sure they experience the best wine possible to suit the moment. If a diner insists they don't like red wine, a Sommelier will suggest the best white wine or rosé to go with their steak. Ultimately, the role of the Sommelier comes down to helping the customer enjoy and understand wine.

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How to become a Sommelier

We've all heard the stories of actors, professional athletes and other celebrities fulfilling a latent life dream and putting their name on a wine bottle or otherwise associating themselves with the world of wine. Those who spent years in other lucrative professions may also take down their attorney or CPA shingle and exchange it for some vines in Napa Valley.

But those of us with more meager means may find ourselves immersed in the wine culture as a hobby, a part-time retail job, or as a freelance writer covering events or submitting newsworthy articles to food and wine publications. Whether you're preparing for your first career or want to direct your energy and passion to a second career in becoming a Sommelier, these are the steps to consider:

  • The sooner one starts preparing for a career in wine, especially intending to become a Sommelier, the better. Even before one may legally drink wine, it makes sense to pursue a job in a wine shop or in a restaurant that serves fine wine. Letting management or the resident Sommelier know of your interest may represent one of the best learning opportunities available. 
  • Stay informed by getting your hands on books and publications about wine. Make it a point to keep up on the latest trends and discoveries.
  • Attend wine tastings and pay attention to what the presenter and the other participants say about the wine. 
  • When you travel, do so with wine in mind. Visit wineries and vineyards. Experience the culture and wine first hand. 
  • Take classes that earn you a certification in the world of wine and hospitality. Understand that these preparations, while somewhat costly and time-consuming, will help lead you to a future as a Sommelier. 
  • Knowing what it takes to become a Sommelier or to make a lucrative living in the wine industry, ask yourself if you possess the desire and drive to do so. Though a career in wine comes with an intriguing and romantic backdrop, it also requires hard work and dedication, and it definitely calls for passion. 

What it takes to become a Master Sommelier

If you told someone not familiar with the wine industry that passing the exam to become a Master Sommelier represents much more of a challenge than the Bar or CPA exam, they might not believe you. But, becoming a Master Sommelier requires thousands of hours of study and experience even to take the exam. To pass the exam, you have to pass all three parts: tasting, practical service and theory. 

The Master Sommelier exam takes place only once a year, and the location can be just about anywhere on the globe and change from year to year. If you pass part of the exam and fail another, you don't need to retake the part you passed, but you need to wait an entire year before retaking the other portion.

The history of the Master Sommelier exam

The exam as we know it today started in 1977 with the Court of Master Sommeliers. The organization presently has close to 240 members of Master Sommeliers and typically adds only a few members every year. Roughly eight percent or seven out of 60 Master Sommelier candidates pass this rigorous exam. 

The Master Sommelier exam's roots go back to 1363 when one of the top 12 prestigious London companies, The Worshipful Company of Vintners, organized a system to regulate and normalize the sale and importation of wine. Flash forward to 1953, and this same company created an exam for 21 people to make sure of their knowledge in the wine and spirits industry. This exam progressed to an official test for professionals in 1969 and eventually evolved into the Master of Sommelier Exam.

If you're considering a career in wine and want to know how to become a Sommelier or want to pursue the level of  Master Sommelier, the steps below may serve as a guideline toward your success:

    • Beginner level - You will work in a tasting room or wine shop. Travels will include visiting domestic wineries and vineyards in other countries. You begin to feel and demonstrate confidence in your knowledge of wine.
    • Certified level - You will find yourself with more responsibility at work in the wine industry. You'll teach your colleagues and friends about wine and confidently organize and oversee tastings.
    • Industry experienced professional - You most likely have worked in the industry for a while and understand the big picture. You also continue to work on your wine education, both formalized and self-taught. You may qualify for a job as a Sommelier in a restaurant and expect a higher salary.
    • Mastery - You've spent thousands of hours studying wine and furthering your career. You are considered a leader and teacher in the industry.