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Proper Pairing: You as a Sommelier?

Sommelier SalariesWhen people think of sommeliers, they tend to imagine a well-dressed server pouring out a small amount of wine for a guest to sniff and try. While a top duty of the sommelier -- pronounced suh-mel-yay -- often is to serve wine to guests, their responsibilities are more complex than uncorking a bottle.

Superb wine knowledge, business skills and customer affability play into the success of a sommelier. These "wine stewards" know the proper way to pour wine so it reaches full oxygenation and flavor and are knowledgeable about the prices of the wines they're recommending and serving to guests. Ideally, they're communicative so that they know how to ascertain a guest's likes and dislikes beforehand. Plus, that sommelier also needs to be able to quickly recall what's stored in the wine cellar, provide superb service so that customers will add drinks to the bill, and stay pleasantly on task so that he or she can meet guest needs throughout a busy restaurant night.

Beverage Service Management

Where do sommeliers work?  A taste of the job

Sommeliers often find employment in mid- to high-end restaurants. However, sommeliers can also look for employment in hotels, on the sales team of wine manufacturers, with event planners and more. Perhaps just as important as where sommeliers work, is when they work. These professionals need to be night owls in all practicality because that is when their services are typically in top demand.

"Make sure you like to work at night," Sommelier Shayn Bjornholm said in a Bureau of Labor Statistics piece that profiles the sommelier profession. "It affects your entire life. You're not going to find a daytime sommelier job. It just doesn't exist."

Attributes of a wine sommelier: The bright notes

While sommeliers vary in personality and the way they approach guests, they all have at least one attribute in common: their knowledge of wines. However, sommeliers are also valued for several other unique qualities and can possess these to varying degrees. These include, but are not limited to:

  • An acute sense of taste. While the average wine consumer might be less sensitive to characteristics such as crispness, astringency or sweetness, sommeliers are specifically trained to distinguish wines for qualities like these and others. Some sommeliers may even be drawn to the field exactly because of their ability to identify subtleties where others cannot.
  • Business acumen: Sommeliers can do everything from putting together wine lists to ordering wines. This means they must know about the price of wines, which to list, which to order and so on. Sommeliers might also be the brains behind wine-tasting events and more.
  • Communication skills: Being able to congenially interact with clientele is an essential part of the job. Before recommending a wine, sommeliers might ask guests about the types of wines they prefer, their price preferences and so on. Part of Bjornholm's way to effectively communicate with guests is to know their price range and then to undersell. "When guests ask for a $100 bottle, for example, I may go for one that's $85," he said. "Never, ever, ever, do I try to up-sell."
  • Certification: Top sommeliers are often those who have gone through rigorous training and reached certification. While not everyone needs certification to succeed, it can indicate that a sommelier possesses the expertise that might be advantageous on the job.

Certification vs. no certification: Papers needed?

Experienced sommeliers can have credentialing from more than one organization. Bjornholm, himself, has achieved certification from multiple groups: the International Sommelier Guild, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, and The Court of Master Sommeliers. Many of these certifying organizations were founded to create standards regarding the knowledge and service in the field. Have a look at some of these top credentialing institutions:

  • The Court of Master Sommeliers: This organization, considered one of the most prestigious examining bodies worldwide, offers four levels of certification: 1) introductory sommelier course, 2) certificate sommelier exam, 3) advanced sommelier course and 4) master sommelier diploma. Its top tier of certification, that of the Master Sommelier, is most impressive: Just some 186 candidates worldwide have completed the Master Sommelier diploma, which allows them to put the letters "MS" after their name.
  • The Institute of Masters of Wine: This London-based institute offers self-study programs of approximately a year in length, which can lead to achievement of the Master of Wine, or MW. To reach this status, students must pass a practical exam, a theory exam and write a dissertation. Currently, there are some 297 people worldwide who have achieved the Master of Wine level.
  • The Wine & Spirit Education Trust: This London-based Trust offers training and certification for professionals as well as coursework to enthusiasts. The Trust offers certification through its various 'award' levels, the top tier -- level 5 -- of which leads to its 'honours' diploma.
  • International Sommelier Guild: This accrediting body based out of Coral Springs, Fla., offers two courses in wine fundamentals as well as a six-month sommelier diploma program. As graduates, students become members of the International Sommelier Guild.
  • United States Sommelier Association: This Association offers a variety of sommelier certificates ranging from a basic six-week sommelier certificate course to a five-day immersion course and even an advanced certificate program. The latter is offered once-a-year in a California winery during harvesting.

However, only a few people ever reach some of the most advanced levels of certification. In fact, just 10 percent of test-takers pass the examination to become a Master Sommelier, according to The Court of Master Sommeliers website. You don't necessarily need a certificate to start on your career: opportunities on the job can help build your knowledge and set you on your way. New learning options can also arise: The United States Sommelier Association indicates that online learning could become a component of its programming in the future, for example, while the Wine & Spirit Education Trust already offers online learning options.

Someone pair me a beer: Beer sommeliers?

Welcome to the beer sommelier, that individual who is knowledgeable about the many types of beers, proper brewing and storage, and more. They also do beer pairings as well! The Cicerone Certification Program, based out of Chicago, is one group offering certification. These come at three different levels: 1) Certified Beer Server, 2) Certified Cicerone and 3) Master Cicerone. ("Cicerone" often refers to a guide, according to Merriam-Webster.) As of early 2012, the program had issued its 10,000th Certified Beer Server certification.

Richness in salary or richness in career?

The median sommelier salary is $57,000, according to 2010 data from the Guild of Sommeliers. However, pay varies by position, location and even training. A floor sommelier, for example, has a median annual income of $48,000 while a wine sales manager has a median income of $90,000. Those on the West Coast also had slightly higher pay - $60,000 - than those working elsewhere. Those working as Master Sommeliers made the most: their median annual wages were $140,000, the Guild of Sommeliers indicates (see breakout box for more).

Sommelier training can take many routes. Learning about viticulture, gaining professional restaurant experience, taking courses from professional sommelier organizations, and working at wineries (and in the case of beer sommeliers, breweries) are all potential avenues for growth for budding wine experts. In addition, many expand their wine knowledge through their own research. Aspiring chefs and restaurant managers who choose to pursue culinary degree programs may also encounter courses on pairing wine with food as part of their training program.

It's OK to start pursuing your career after your job expectations might have taken you elsewhere. Bjornholm began his sommelier career after graduating with a four-year degree from the University of Virginia. He gained experience in restaurants and built up from there. He is now a Master Sommelier -- earning that recognition in 2005 on his first try. For him, though, one of the highlights of being a sommelier comes back to that simple task of pouring a customer the right kind of wine.

"When I see that light go on in guests' eyes when they like something I've recommended, especially when they're skeptical -- that's phenomenal," he says in the BLS piece. "I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't believe wine is the ultimate pairing with food."

Additional Resources on Sommelier Training
Bureau of Labor Statistics: You're a What? Sommelier
The Court of Master Sommeliers
The Institute of Masters of Wine
The Wine & Spirit Education Trust
International Sommelier Guild
United States Sommelier Association
Cicerone Certification Program