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Culinary Careers: Spotlight on Sommeliers (wine Stewards)

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If you believe wine is the elixir of the gods and would like to accept a mission to help other people get excited about wine, then you might consider becoming a sommelier. A sommelier, also known as a wine steward, helps to make a dining experience that much more perfect by suggesting a wine to go with each course of a meal. From the liquid accompaniment to the cheese flight to wines to cleanse the palette to the perfect dessert wine, it's the sommelier's job to knows which wine is the right wine and why.

Beverage Service Management

What Does a Sommelier Do?

Sommeliers' duties may vary based on where they work, but in general these wine professionals are responsible for:

  • Pairing wines with food
  • Maintaining and updating extensive wine lists
  • Recommending wine based on a customer's palette and price range
  • Maintaining a wine inventory, ordering wine, and checking in shipments
  • Negotiating purchase prices on wine and determining restaurant and retail prices/profit margins
  • Keeping up with wine and food trends and industry developments
  • Educating people about wine

Sommelier jobs can be found in:

  • Fine dining restaurants
  • Wine distributing companies/wholesalers
  • Wine tasting rooms
  • Wine retailers
  • Hotels and resorts
  • Cruise ships
  • Teaching establishments

How Will Formal Education Help You Become a Sommelier?

The only requirement to being a sommelier is that you have to be of legal drinking age, which is typically 21, although states' laws on minor alcohol consumption vary. And though it should go without saying, you should enjoy drinking wine if you're going to become a sommelier (unless you plan on a career of spitting your tastings into a bucket, which can be necessary when tasting quantities of wine, but may not go over well for you professionally over the long term). Although no formal education is required, in "You're a What? Sommelier" the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) points out that a sommelier without any credentials may have a tough time finding a job.

As of 2010, the U.S. Department of Education added a code that allows educational institutions to report on their sommelier programs. Because these programs have not been reported separately in the past, it's difficult to get an accurate count on the number of sommelier degree programs available. Generally, sommelier degree programs and courses can be found at culinary schools and colleges and universities with hospitality programs. Though some of the historical and technical knowledge about wine and the requisite business knowledge could be taught through online sommelier degree programs, becoming a sommelier requires physically sampling the wine and participating in blind tastings, which involve identifying properties of a wine without knowing anything about the wine you are sampling.

Lots of organizations offer foundation courses that provide an introduction to wine and are typically for restaurant industry professionals or wine enthusiasts. These are more elementary than the certification programs you may initially take to become a sommelier, though these foundation courses may provide the basic knowledge that you'll need prior to enrolling in a wine certification program. If you can't list the five important steps of making red wine or define GEBEITE, then some organizations may require you to start with a foundation class before enrolling in a course such as the American Sommelier Viticulture & Vinification Course. This is an in-depth, 24-week academic course that covers the following topics:

  • Grape varieties
  • Climate and geography
  • Grape-growing and wine-making techniques
  • Soil industry statistics
  • Food pairing
  • Blind tasting techniques

Certification courses also include a lot of tasting. In the certificate program from Sommelier Society of America, you'll taste over 120 wines that retail for a total of $6,000 over 21 weeks. Other courses are more intensive and can be completed in as little as 11 weeks. Even these types of certificate courses may leave some ground uncovered when it comes to the roles and responsibilities of a professional sommelier who is trying to make a name for himself or herself in the industry. The Court of Master Sommeliers--considered the premier examining body worldwide--has four different designations when it comes to sommelier education:

  1. Introductory sommelier course and exam
  2. Certified sommelier exam
  3. Advanced sommelier course and exam
  4. Master sommelier diploma exam

To become a certified sommelier, the Court of Master Sommeliers requires that you be employed in the wine industry for at least three years. The certification process includes a fee, a written theory exam, a practical wine service exam, and a blind tasting of two wines. In the 40 years that the organization has been administering exams, only 170 people have earned the title Master Sommelier, which is considered the top credential in the world.

In addition to certification and degree programs, continuing enrichment education is important for sommeliers, not only to expand their knowledge of wine, but also to experience trends in wines. The Guild of Sommeliers has scholarship enrichment programs that allow guild members to travel around the world to sample wines and learn from the wines' makers. Currently, their enrichment programs include Italy, Greece, Germany, New Zealand, and southern France.

Hard to believe that someone would pay you to learn to be a sommelier? In addition to financial aid offered through schools for sommeliers, non-profit organizations such as the Guild of Sommeliers encourages sommelier education. In 2009, this group awarded more than $150,000 in scholarships.

What Is the Job Outlook for Sommeliers?

Though the BLS doesn't collect data on sommeliers or make employment projections for this profession, the majority of sommeliers are employed in fine dining restaurants. In its 2010 Restaurant Industry Forecast, The National Restaurant Association reports that 2010 is the strongest year since the economic downturn in 2008. It also reports that job growth is on the rise in 2010 and that, overall, 1.3 million jobs should be added by 2010.

Average Sommelier Salary

The salary for sommeliers vary widely by the type of establishment and your training and experience. The BLS doesn't collect salary data for sommeliers, but they do report salary statistics gleaned from the Master Court of Sommeliers. Sommeliers with limited experience can earn around $28,000 a year, but a Master Sommelier could earn anywhere from $80,000 to $160,000.

Overall, becoming a sommelier requires a love for wine and a desire to share that knowledge with others. If this sounds like it's too good to be true, then line up the next flight--you're already on your way to becoming a sommelier.

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