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How to Become a Sommelier

How to Become a Sommelier

Last updated on 2/12/2024

Sommeliers play a crucial role in the foodservice industry, specializing in the art of wine and beverage service. They are highly knowledgeable professionals who assist customers in selecting the perfect wine to complement their meals, enhancing the overall dining experience. For those passionate about wine and hospitality, becoming a sommelier offers a rewarding career that combines knowledge, service, and a love for all things vinous. We’ll go over what being a sommelier entails to help you decide if turning your passion for wine into a career is the right move for you.

What Is a Sommelier?

A sommelier, pronounced suh-mel-yay, is a highly skilled and knowledgeable wine professional who has undergone formal training in all aspects of wine service. While sommeliers can be found in various settings, they are most commonly associated with fine dining establishments. Their expertise lies in curating and managing a restaurant's wine list, advising customers on wine selections, and ensuring wine service is of the highest standard.

Sommeliers possess a deep understanding of wine regions, grape varietals, production methods, and aging processes. This knowledge allows them to guide customers in selecting the perfect wine to complement their meal. Sommeliers also play a crucial role in wine storage and preservation. They are responsible for ensuring that wines are stored in optimal conditions, including temperature and humidity control, to maintain the quality and integrity of the wines.

One of the primary responsibilities of a sommelier is to build and maintain an establishment's wine list. This involves carefully selecting a variety of wines that cater to different tastes and preferences while also considering the restaurant's cuisine and overall concept. Sommeliers often collaborate with wine distributors and winemakers to source unique and high-quality wines that will enhance the dining experience for customers.

Sommelier Responsibilities

how to properly pour wine

As an expert in all areas of wine service and wine and food pairing, the responsibilities of a sommelier (or somm as they're often called) are as varied as they are demanding. Not only must a good sommelier show a mastery of various wine types, but they must be able to connect with a guest in a way that makes them feel comfortable and part of the experience. Responsibilities for a sommelier include:

  • Storing wines in optimal conditions, including temperature and humidity
  • Rotating stock in proper order
  • Curating a wine list and accurately pricing the list
  • Presenting the wine list to guests and highlighting featured wines/new additions
  • Suggesting starter wines and emphasizing wines that pair well with meals
  • Knowledge of liquors, high-end spirits, beers, and cigar pairings
  • Ordering wines appropriate to restaurant offerings (sometimes directly from the vineyard)
  • Educating front-of-house staff and chefs about wine, wine pairing, and proper service
  • Knowledge of the appropriate types of wine glasses in which to serve the product

How Much Do Sommeliers Make?

Most wine sommeliers typically earn between $30,000 and $75,000 a year in salary. A master sommelier with extensive knowledge and experience can command upwards of $150,000 a year in highly competitive markets. Compare that with the salary of a typical bartender who earns between $16,000 and $32,000 a year and you can see why gaining this expertise has its advantages. As with any profession, the upper end of financial gain depends on the demand in any particular market.

Steps to Becoming a Sommelier

With the right combination of experience, education, and certification, you can build a successful career as a sommelier and contribute to the world of wine. Becoming a sommelier requires continuous learning, passion, and dedication to the craft of wine. By following the below steps, you can embark on a rewarding journey towards becoming a sommelier.

  1. Gain Relevant Industry Experience: Becoming a sommelier requires a deep understanding and appreciation for the world of wine. One of the first steps towards achieving this goal is to gain relevant industry experience. Working at a vineyard, wine bar, or tasting room can provide you with valuable hands-on experience in the day-to-day operations of the wine service industry. This experience will allow you to develop a strong foundation in wine knowledge, customer service, and wine pairing techniques. You may even have the opportunity to work under a sommelier and learn from their expertise.
  2. Attend Wine School: Although a formal education in wine is not necessary to become a sommelier, it can help immensely. Many aspiring sommeliers choose to enroll in a wine school to enhance their knowledge and skills. Wine schools offer a variety of programs, ranging from short-term courses to comprehensive diploma programs. These programs cover a wide range of topics, such as viticulture, winemaking techniques, wine regions, wine tasting, and wine and food pairing. By attending a wine school, you will have the opportunity to learn from experienced professionals and gain a more in-depth understanding of the complexities of the wine world.
  3. Become a Certified Sommelier: Once you have gained industry experience and completed your wine education, the next step is to become a certified sommelier. This certification is often obtained through organizations such as the Court of Master Sommeliers or the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). These organizations offer rigorous certification programs that test your theoretical knowledge, tasting abilities, and practical skills. The certification process typically involves written exams, blind tastings, and a service component where you showcase your wine knowledge and expertise in a simulated restaurant setting. Achieving certification demonstrates your commitment to professionalism and sets you apart as a qualified sommelier.
  4. Apply for a Position: After obtaining certification, it's time to put your skills and knowledge to use by applying for sommelier positions. Sommeliers can work in a variety of settings, including fine dining restaurants, hotels, resorts, wine bars, and wine shops. When applying for a position, it's important to highlight your industry experience, formal education, and certification. Emphasize your ability to curate wine lists, provide exceptional customer service, and make recommendations that enhance the dining experience. Additionally, networking with professionals in the industry and attending wine events can increase your chances of finding job opportunities and establishing yourself as a reputable sommelier.

Sommelier Levels

The Court of Master Sommeliers is a prestigious organization that sets the standard for excellence in the wine industry. As one of the most well-known and sought-after certification agencies, it offers four levels of certification for aspiring sommeliers, each with its own unique set of requirements and challenges. Each level of certification represents a significant milestone in a sommelier's career. Aspiring sommeliers passionate about wine and dedicated to mastering their craft can work their way up through these levels, gaining recognition and respect from their peers along the way. Whether you aspire to be an introductory sommelier or a master sommelier, The Court of Master Sommeliers provides a clear path to achieving your goals in the world of wine.

sommelier tasting wine
  • Level One Sommelier: The first level is known as the Introductory Sommelier certificate. This level is designed for individuals who are just starting their journey in the world of wine. To obtain this certification, candidates must attend a two-day course and pass an exam that tests their knowledge of wine theory.
  • Level Two Sommelier: The next level is the Certified Sommelier certificate, which is the minimum certification needed to begin getting sommelier jobs in the hospitality industry, and it is typically achieved within three years of earning your level one certification. Candidates must complete an in-depth examination to demonstrate proficiency in a wide range of topics, including wine theory, wine regions, wine service, and blind tasting. This examination requires a comprehensive understanding of the wine industry and experience in the hospitality industry is highly recommended.
  • Level Three Sommelier: To earn the Advanced Sommelier certificate, candidates must pass an even more challenging exam that delves deeper into the intricacies of wine, including geography, terroir, and history. This exam includes a blind tasting, a written theory examination, and a service component that tests candidates' ability to pair wines with different types of cuisine. To qualify for the course, applicants must be Certified Sommeliers, have a minimum of 2 years of industry experience, and must be currently employed in the hospitality or beverage industry.
  • Level Four Sommelier: The pinnacle of sommelier achievement is the Master Sommelier level. This is an elite group of individuals who have demonstrated unparalleled knowledge, expertise, and mastery of all aspects of wine. The Master Sommelier examination is widely regarded as one of the most challenging exams in the world, with very few having passed it. Master Sommeliers have a wide range of career opportunities available to them. They may work as head sommeliers at Michelin-starred restaurants, oversee wine programs for luxury resorts and cruise lines, or even become educators and consultants in the wine industry. Their expertise is highly sought after, and they often serve as ambassadors for the world of wine.

Top Sommelier Certification Agencies

Several reputable organizations offer sommelier certification programs for aspiring wine professionals. These programs provide comprehensive training and knowledge in the art of wine tasting, wine pairing, and wine service. Here are some of the top sommelier certification agencies:

  • Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET): The WSET is a globally recognized organization that offers a range of wine and spirits certification programs. Their comprehensive wine certification curriculum ranges from the introductory Level 1 Award in Wines to the Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits. This program is highly regarded and provides in-depth knowledge of wines and spirits from around the world. The WSET also offers specialized certifications in sake, spirits, and fortified wines.
  • Court of Master Sommeliers: The Court of Master Sommeliers is one of the most prestigious sommelier certification agencies in the world. They offer a four-level certification program, starting from the introductory level and progressing to the advanced level and the coveted Master Sommelier title. The program focuses on blind tasting, wine theory, and wine service skills.
  • Society of Wine Educators (SWE): The SWE offers the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) and Certified Wine Educator (CWE) programs. The CSW program covers a wide range of wine-related topics, including wine production, wine regions, and wine-tasting techniques. The CWE program is designed for wine professionals who want to enhance their teaching and presentation skills.
  • International Sommelier Guild (ISG): The ISG is an internationally recognized sommelier certification agency that offers a comprehensive sommelier program. Their program covers various aspects of wine, including wine production, wine regions, wine service, and wine and food pairing. The ISG also offers specialized certifications in sake, spirits, and beer.

Becoming a sommelier is a lifelong journey of learning and exploration. By combining formal education, practical experience, palate development, networking, and certifications, you can lay a solid foundation for a successful career in the world of wine. Whether you aspire to work in high-end restaurants, hotels, or wineries, the path to becoming a sommelier is an exciting and rewarding one.

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