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How to Become a Sommelier (Wine Steward)

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.

What is a sommelier?

A sommelier is a wine expert, trained in all aspects of wine service as well as food and wine pairing. Most sommeliers work in fine dining restaurants, and are sometimes in charge of the floor at these restaurants. 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

Sommelier certification and educational requirements

Although no formal education is required, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) points out that a sommelier without any credentials may have a tough time finding a job. Generally, sommelier degree programs and courses can be found at culinary schools and colleges and universities with hospitality programs. Many organizations offer foundation courses that provide an introduction to wine and are typically for restaurant industry professionals or wine enthusiasts. For example, the American Sommelier Viticulture & Vinification Course 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 is recommended to those interested in becoming a sommelier. 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.

Sommelier salary and job outlook

Though the BLS doesn't collect data on sommeliers or make employment projections for this job specifically, the majority are employed in fine dining restaurants. This is a very niche role within a niche of the restaurant industry, so job growth will likely be below average. 

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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