It starts with a love of wine, a deep appreciation for the symphony of flavors, rich cultural history and expressions of terroir. And for many, that’s where it ends.
Most people are happy to be passive appreciators of wine, knowing a thing or two about varietals without delving into the labyrinthine complexity of appellations, phenotypes and small-scale producers. But some people need to dig a little deeper. Some people are so passionate about the drink, in fact, that they make a lucrative career of it.
Becoming a Sommelier
Sommeliers – trained, professional wine stewards – continue to be in high demand, employed by fine dining establishments, five-star hotels, world-class resorts, and even upscale recreational clubs. If you count yourself among the passionate few who want to journey from wine enthusiast to paid sommelier, there are a few things to know.
This article offers a guide to getting started on the road to wine mastery. Let’s explore how to gain a basic educational footing, the various certifications and training you’ll need, and a few tips for cultivating a like-minded community with whom you can grow your skills.
Everyone has to start somewhere, and most wine professionals start with a glass of wine and a bit of curiosity. Nearly every master sommelier can recount the first time they tasted a silky pinot or zippy Riesling. They often recount an “aha moment” when the drink in front of them ceased to be just a beverage and became a world of possibility.
Start here. Next time you take a sip of wine, resist the temptation to slug it back. Instead, close your eyes, concentrate, and try to parse what you’re tasting. This takes training (as you’ll see), so don’t get frustrated if you aren’t a master immediately. Concentrate on the broad strokes of the flavour profile: Is it acidic, sweet, tannic (that lip-puckering quality), and does it evoke any non-wine flavors like banana or tobacco?
Read Voraciously about Wine
Next, read up on wine. New York Magazine’s list of somm-recommended books is a fantastic place to start; it includes authoritative works like Jancis Robertson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine, and new classics like Jon Bonné’s The New Wine Rules.
As you read, consider following along at home by trying a few different varietals. Now might also be the appropriate time to invest in a spit bucket; as you taste several wines in a sitting, spitting is a safe and practical way to avoid alcohol overconsumption.
Work Your Way Up the Award/Certification Ladder
Broadly, there are two main governing bodies for sommelier certification: the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and the CMS (Court of Master Sommeliers). The WSET offers “award” levels corresponding to experience and education (Level 1, 2, 3, etc.), whereas the CMS offers certification levels like “Certified,” “Advanced,” and “Master.”
In either case, you will start at the first rung, which generally involves a two-day crash course in wine, culminating in an exam. From there, you can graduate to the next course and subsequent exam, repeating this process until you’ve reached your desired education level.
Obtain Other Necessary Certification
Sommelier certification isn’t the only certification you will need to become a working wine expert; you also need state-required alcohol service certification. As a sommelier, you will likely be pouring wine for guests, owners and staff, so it’s imperative you understand the best practices around responsible service.
If you’re in the country’s wine hub, California, that means obtaining your RBS certification. The process is a lot more straightforward than your sommelier courses, but no less important. To get your certification, start with enrolling in a training program through Userve, where you will learn topics like the social and physical impacts of alcohol, alcohol laws and regulations, and prevention of service to minors and intoxicated guests.
Responsible service is one of the linchpins of being a great sommelier, ensuring that you always look out for your patron’s best interests.
Take a Few Trips Abroad to Famous Regions
There’s only so much you can learn from the comfort of your home. For a hands-on experience in wine-tasting, including vineyard and cellar tours, take your training on the road.
France’s Bordeaux region, Italy’s Barolo region and Spain’s Rioja region are fantastic picks for a tour of the Old World’s important production centers. In the New World, you can tour Argentina’s Mendoza region, New Zealand’s Marlborough region, or – if you don’t want to buy an expensive ticket – California’s Napa Valley.
Yes, becoming a sommelier can be pricey, but the silver lining is that you’ll be tasting superb wine and seeing majestic parts of the world.
Join a Local Club or Community
Most cities have active wine-tasting communities that meet on a regular basis. Here, you’ll find kindred spirits with whom you can trade tasting notes, talk shop and share recommendations.
Social media is your best bet for locating a local wine club or community. Facebook tends to host several public groups, as does Meetup, an event organization site.
Work on Your Communication Skills
The work of a great sommelier isn’t just internal appreciation – though that is an essential component. You also have to communicate products to guests, owners, buyers, managers and serving staff. You have to be able to relay what makes a wine special, and what tasting notes sippers should keep their palates open to. Above all, you need to do so in a way that neither talks down to people, nor inundates them with wine-specific jargon. It’s a fluency that takes some sommeliers years to master, so best to get started now!
Take a Job in the Restaurant Industry
There’s a practical aspect to being a sommelier, which requires you to understand inventory and customer service – things that few sommelier courses can teach you. As you make your way through courses and international tours (and to fund said tours and courses), pick up a job in the restaurant industry. Serving and bartending jobs can teach you a lot about inventory, product communication and even pairing techniques.
Few jobs can claim to be as exciting, luxurious or delicious as a sommelier. If you’re interested in translating your passion into a full-time career, follow the simple tips above.