Wine Talk

Snooth User: rrstein82

What does it take to become a sommelier?

Posted by rrstein82, Feb 2, 2011.

Hi everyone, just found this site last night.  I'm a disillusioned attorney seriously considering a change in career.  As I love wine (and the food service industry as a whole), I'm curious what the training and career path looks like for a sommelier.  I've seen organizations that give exams for accreditation, but I'm thinking it requires some significant self study and practical experience.  Do aspiring sommeliers work in the wine business prior to actually becoming sommeliers at restaurants, hotels, etc.?

Thanks for any and all info and opinions!

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Replies

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Reply by Girl Drink Drunk, Feb 2, 2011.

Everyone has their own path to becoming a somm.  I'm unaware of any hotels/restaurants that will hire you to do somm work without being certified, or having passed the first level exam, at the very least.

I certified with The Court of Master Sommelliers.  I had to pass a written exam, a service exam and double-blind taste two wines.  It was 100% self-study. 

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Reply by Gregory Dal Piaz, Feb 2, 2011.

And here I was going to say a business card.

I know several restaurants here in NYC who have hired knowlegable, yet untrained/uncertified folk as Somms.

 

 

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Reply by rrstein82, Feb 2, 2011.

interesting.  @GDD, how long did it take you to become certified with The Court of Master Sommeliers?  How did you you go about studying for the exams?

Also, how do you feel about the job itself?  

Thanks so much for the info.

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Reply by JonDerry, Feb 2, 2011.

I like the 100% self study angle, you shouldn't really need a class to get you to study all the subjects.  If you learn and study the regions one by one (France, Italy, U.S., Spain, Gergmany, etc.), taste all the wines and basically immerse yourself in it, you'll have the wine knowledge eventually.

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Reply by StevenBabb, Feb 2, 2011.

i have my first level, and i didn't do so well when i took my second level test, a month later.... but that was over a year and a half ago...

i've been in the restaurant industry for the last eight years, mostly as a bartender, and i have worked with some great wine lists... trying to be a somm isn't for the casual wine enthusiast... not to say that you are, but it can take a certain level of patience, hard work, and humility... and understanding the fact that just when you feel like you have a grasp on something, keep going, because you really have a long way to go   : )

good luck with it... i've only been going strong at it for about a year and a half... the quickest the master somm's i have spoken with have completed the 4 levels in 6 years... some 10 years...

and i would recommend testing through the court of master sommeliers... it's the only internationaly recognized certification...

 

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Reply by gregt, Feb 2, 2011.

I think Greg hit it.  There's an increase in people who do the certifications, etc., but there are plenty of people who just know a hell of a lot about wine and never attended a class, and they're working as sommeliers. 

You're an attorney, so you know how to study.  And as you remember from law school, the people who study h'ard usually do better.  If you can do law, you can learn about wine. In fact, there's no comparison, at least insofar as anyone can start wine classes but there are admission exams for law school.

But nothing substitutes for connections and experience.  Think about it.  Would you hire an attorney fresh out of law school or a somm fresh out of som school?  Nope.  Maybe for some lower level work, but not to run the place.  And your problem is that you may have 5, 10, or 30 years as an attorney, but you have no credibility as a som.  So even if you get some kind of certification, it's meaningless really until you get some experience. 

And frankly, if it were me, I'd value the experience way more than the certifcations.  Because remember, it's not just about knowing what Merlot is - you need to understand how to put together a wine list, what kind of mark-ups you'll be able to take and how likely it is that you'll sell a wine, etc.,  In other words, you need some real world business experience in that field.

And then you need to know about service, etc.  I figure I've probably tasted as much wine as a lot of sommeliers, and I'm not impressed by someone who passes off his opinion or some distributor's tech sheet as knowledge, but do you pour from the left or the right, do you take a bit in your tastvin, do you present the cork or not - all of those things are part of the story.

And finally, on a personal note, as an attorney who transitioned into the wine business and then back, it's REALLY HARD to make any money in the wine biz.  It's one of those stupid industries like fashion, publishing or TV where people do it for love so they're willing to work for peanuts and consequently kick the floor down to unimaginable depths.

My advice? 

Forget about being "disillusioned".  That's a luxury. 

If you're disillusioned, you have some experinece in your field.  If you don't, then you have no business being disillusioned.

Stay disillusioned and find a way to be involved with wine and food some rational way. Unless you want to give up your apartment, sell off your wine collection, and live like a student again.

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Reply by dmcker, Feb 2, 2011.

Well put, Greg(s). I think I stated in another thread on a similar subject just this past week that it's advisable to consider a way to earn the money to drink the wine you want and visit the winemaking areas, or wineserving restaurants you want, if you can do so outside the industry and in ways that don't mean losing your soul....

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Reply by Girl Drink Drunk, Feb 3, 2011.

GregT, in my area, there are very few, if any, somms working without certs.  Perhaps it's common in areas where somms are more popular, ergo, more are needed, but near Boston, you need the cert.

Also, you seem to be confusing the responsibilties of wine directors and somms.  Most (notice I said most ) sommeliers have none of the responsibilties you mentioned above ("running the place", creating/pricing a list, sales forecasts).  Those are left to the wine director or the beverage director.  An entry-level somm is usually a learning position, who assists guests and service staff, while gaining personal knowledge.

I do agree that you won't get rich, at least not until you certify as a Master.  Then you can do financially well, as Masters are few and far between in the US, and anywhere, really, and are often paid six figures.

OP, it took me a couple years for certification, but the beginning stages were fairly passive, as I'm a procrastinator.  The first level test is a breeze, but know your geography.  They threw a couple doozies in there when I tested (most western viticultural area in Australia?  Margaret River, but I don't care for most Australian wine and had no idea, etc.).  Being all self-taught, you could certify in a little as a few months (rare) or as long as ten years+.  It's up to your livel of discipline.  You need to read and taste constantly, and, be prepared not to enjoy wine for quite some time.  That glass is no longer a tasty hobby, it's a critical analyzation about the grape, the fruit characteristics, the non-fruits, the country of origin, the region and the vintage.  I tried to taste 50 wines a week.

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Reply by gregt, Feb 3, 2011.

A lot of overlap between wine directors and somms over here.  Sometimes there's a beverage director who covers everything, sometimes the somm is the head of it all.  But then too, the size and type of the restaurant matters, as well as the crowd they're pitching to.  Some of them also have teaching duties - talking to the staff about the wines, etc.   

As long as there's not any kind of license involved and people can pretty much call themselves what they wish, the word is used rather loosely - in some places the waiter also doubles as a somm and even sometimes calls himself that, whereas in others there are really knowledgable, smart, well-traveled somms who have tasted and worked across the planet.  I imagine the latter group gets POd about the former - I would.  It's kind of like being a carpenter - anyone can pick up a hammer but there really is a difference between someone who's good and someone who decided to build a porch one day.

But at some of the best known restaurants in NYC, the somms are also hustling around the floor greeting guests and acting as hosts. Which makes sense really.

I think the idea of certifications, etc., has taken off in recent years as Americans improved their palates.  The first organization for somms in NY was when - late 1950s or 60s or something like that?  Around the time of le Pavillion.  But as more and more restaurants open, and more and more people want wine, there are more opportunities for people who know what they're talking about and too many BS artists around, so owners look for some level of validity. So maybe it's different for people starting today and I guess that makes sense too.  I know lots of somms w not certifications, but they've all been at it for a long time.

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Reply by Ahli Anggur, Feb 3, 2011.

Most somms start as waiters.  For an alternative to the Court for certification, with better classes, consider the Guild:

https://www.internationalsommelier.com/

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Reply by dmcker, Feb 4, 2011.

Obviously it depends on the restaurant/organization. Was impressed with the level of knowledge I first encountered at Chez Panisse way back when, when in the restaurant downstairs there was no sommelier but every waiter also performed those duties. Their list has never been huge but is put together quite well, IMHO. Whether through selfstudy, directed training, likely both, or whatever, the level of skill and knowledge was quite high in every waiter I've encountered there.

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Reply by Richard Foxall, Feb 4, 2011.

GregT made a great point (he often does, and on the points that aren't being directly raised) when he talked about businesses that people go into for love and drive down the wages.  That said, I have slightly different advice: If you can afford to do it, I say go for it.  If you already spend a lot of your time and money on wine, you'll be drinking lots of wine as part of the job, so you get paid back that way. 

I am a lawyer, in a trial right now (we are not in court on Fridays, which is why I can write this).  Most lawyers become disillusioned. Happens to other folks, too, but lawyers get it the most.  That said, I also worked in fashion (where I made decent money because I was on the business side, not the creative), and publishing (where I made peanuts because everyone in publishing except the guy at the top makes peanuts), so I also know a thing or two about those businesses that drive wages down.  The managers also mistreat employees more there than in, say, software (done that, too) because they know that there are many people waiting for the jobs. Publishing, my first career, left me jaded for many years to come, unwilling to do anything for the love of it.

 I think being a somm probably is similarly insecure, and heaven knows the food service business is cutthroat. So you want to think twice before you jump into anything.  One way to get less disillusioned and use your current skills is take a huge paycut and use your skills for something that will make you feel less disillusioned.  Help people whose insurance companies are just stonewalling them, hoping they won't make a claim for their chemo treatments if the insurer refuses to pay it the first time. http://journalfromtheplagueyear.blogspot.com/search?updated-min=2010-04-01T00%3A00%3A00-07%3A00&updated-max=2010-05-01T00%3A00%3A00-07%3A00&max-results=13

But you may already be doing good service, and that can be disillusioning, too, when the judge or administrator doesn't see it your way.  So I won't deny that a change of career might be in order.

And, right as GregT had it, there's no reason you can't work for low wages if you choose.  Maybe you have enough already, and your kids are done with college (or there's another payment plan like grandparents).  Or you don't mind, even like, living the way grad students do.  So go for it.  The fact that you have expertise does not oblige you to use that expertise.  Could Sandy Koufax have pitched another couple years?  Andy Pettite?  It's your life. 

I know this question started as a request for advice on becoming a somm, but I just had to respond to a GregT's post--after all, lawyers need to hear both sides of an argument, and they often feel compelled to give both sides of the argument.

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Reply by gregt, Feb 5, 2011.

Foxall - you're of course, entirely correct.  At least about working for low wages.  I don't know the questioner personally, so don't know the circumstances, but in a romantic moment we often think we can get by with less, and in truth we most certainly can.

I just wanted to point out that it's a different thing if he'd never have considered buying a wine than it is to know that last year he was able to buy it but this year he's counting change.  

Plus there's another issue.

At least for me.

It's true that he'll get to try a lot of wine, which is a nice perk. 

However, even if you're a crappy lawyer, people give you a little bit of deference because they figure you at least had to get into law school and then get through it.  As a somm, he's going to have to start at the bottom which means he'll have his former peers snapping their fingers at him, bloviating about things they don't know, and leaving him no tip!

Again - maybe it's just me but I tend not to be too deferential.  But sure - if one is clear about what one wants and pursues it, all the more power to him or her.  My wife has spent her entire life doing what she loves.  Doesn't make a fortune but happens to be at the top of her field, so she's happy.  It's a great way to live. 

Off topic entirely - this thread just reminded me of something that happened a few  years ago.  I worked with some accountants and one of them had become disillusioned with the job. I don't remember offhand if he was a CPA or had tried taking the exam and didn't make it.  In either case, he wanted to do something else.  So he came to me and told me his dream was to be a law professor and did I have any advice about getting into law school.  Said it was all he could think about any more.

"WTF?"  I asked him politely. 

No idea how far he got with it.  Last I heard of him he was suing a contractor who'd put in a porch and steps for him.  The guy miscalculated and by the time he got to the last step, there wasn't room to put it because it would stick out on the sidewalk.  So he just made it 18 inches high.

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Reply by Richard Foxall, Feb 5, 2011.

GregT: As always, good points.  I want to say that here.  And of course the grass is always greener...

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Reply by VegasOenophile, Feb 5, 2011.

In working in the biz a few months now, I do get the impression in talking with certified somms, that the advanced certifiction is pretty intense.  Listening to them describe some of the tests, I know for sure I'd fail miserably.  THey not only have to test wines blind and know its origin, alcohol, oak, etc., they also have to test on service and not only wine, but spirits as well.  It can get pretty intensive, so I have a lot of respect for anyone who's gone through the process and earned the accreditation. 

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Reply by Girl Drink Drunk, Feb 5, 2011.

Vegas, it was even worse when they used to include cigar service!!

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Reply by Richard Foxall, Feb 6, 2011.

BTW, GregT, only a lawyer could say WTF and do it politely.  Or think he did it politely. ;-)

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Reply by Stephen Harvey, Feb 6, 2011.

GregT/Foxall

I am a Chartered Accountant - CPA in your world, and plenty of professional accountants get dissillusioned and think the grass is greener on the other side [wherever that is]

I am just entering my 30th Year and like everyone you have good and bad days.  I spend about 50-60% of my time dealing with wine related businesses from growers to wineries, to multi nationals to closure suppliers to distributors to retailers and off course wine lawyers.  Even the wine business can create dissillusionment but sometimes you just have to tough out the bad days.

Back on Sommeliers - it is unfortunately not a well practiced art in Australia with many restaurants not valuing having a strong wine culture.

To me as a consumer - a great sommelier is someone who takes the time to understand your wine preferences, tasting desire etc etc and then recommends a wine he/she thinks will work for you and if it does not, takes the time to discuss why it did not work.  I find this a particularly useful exercise as it helps me understand what did not work.

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Reply by ArgentoWine, Feb 16, 2011.

 

Sorrel Moseley-Williams recently interviewed three top sommeliers in Argentina about their experience making it in the industry... check it out:

http://www.therealargentina.com/argentinian-wine-blog/wine-tasting-in-argentina-interview-with-three-top-sommeliers/

 

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Reply by HostedWineTasting, Feb 16, 2011.

Sommelier is a job title anyone may claim without being certified.  Same as a Chef, a Project Manager, etc.  If you are moving into the wine business, I recommend that you look at your future job (e.g. what do you want to do in the wine business) before proceeding through a certification track. Certain jobs, like wine sales at retailers or distributors, typically do not require this certification.   

Regarding on-line/self-study, it is fine to build a wine knowledge foundation but I STRONGLY recommend formal wine training in a classroom.  When I first got into wine I completed wine courses through the Wine Spectator School then went to the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley and studied through their wine program.  You can't ask a computer questions and the discussions you will have with your classmates/instructors are much more valuable than just the material being presented. 

One last note: the food and wine industry is not lucrative by any stretch of the imagination.  I have talked to some of the best sommeliers in Vegas and New York and they maybe scratch out a $100k/year working at the best restaurants in the country.  Salary.com lists the median income for a sommelier in Las Vegas at $52k.

Cheers!

Brandon Walsh, Owner, Hosted Wine Tasting

 

 

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