I am frequently asked how someone interested in wine can become a sommelier. Let’s assume you already have a job in a restaurant, and want to take more responsibility when it comes to wine.
When I am asked what is the most important organ needed in becoming a wine expert, it is usually implied that it is either the sense of smell or the palate. I usually reply that barring an injury to the olfactory nerve or to the brain, most everyone can taste at an advanced level.
No, I say it is not really a question of preternaturally acute olfactory organs, even less so of supersensitive taste buds. The organ most responsible for making a great connoisseur of wine is the brain. The brain is engaged on many levels: analyzing the taste, remembering the taste impression at a later date and being able to recall it when confronted with similar wines.
Therefore, in my opinion, the road to becoming a successful sommelier is littered with as many dust jackets as capsules and corks. The books that you should read are so numerous that it is not an exaggeration to state that a person who wants to become a top sommelier can never have read enough.
The basic references that I have used are fairly easy to obtain. They include the most recent edition of the World Atlas of Wine, by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, Tom Stevenson’s Sotheby’s Encyclopedia of Wine and the comprehensive Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Jancis Robinson. Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine provides a compendium of tasting notes in covering the wines of yesteryear. Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible is another great work with a slightly different perspective.
Wine Spectator’s California Wine, by James Laube, gives a great overview of the history of winegrowing in the state. And Evan Goldstein’s Perfect Pairings offers the groundwork for making any decision on matching food and wine.
Of course you need to read all the magazines and pay attention to all the wine reviews you can afford to. Wine Spectator is a good place to start.
Above all, it is important to be so solid about your facts that you are a walking encyclopedia, and you can remember even the source of your information.
Next in importance comes tasting. Just as you can never read too many wine books, you can never taste too many wines.
In my opinion, the best—and most fun—way to taste is in a group, with each person bringing a bottle. Eight to 10 people is a good number. That gives each person a good taste out of each bottle and guarantees there are enough bottles to make an interesting tasting.
In groups, the competition to be the first with the most information accelerates the learning process. It is also great to be able to be the one who brings a wine that no one else may have ever had before, or a wine that may come from this ancient old-world region but is a dead ringer for Napa, or vice versa. I highly recommend getting together with friends and tasting wine and focusing on a region that you all like.
If you are looking for a more formal structure, many places offer courses through which you can build both your knowledge and tasting skills. I trained with the Court of Master Sommeliers organization (www.mastersommeliers.org.), which offers certification programs and exams and has an American chapter.
The only way to succeed in any profession is to invest passion and hard work. For sommeliers, information and tasting are the two keys, and they are equally important.
Justin Schuchardt — San Rafael, CA — January 30, 2007 4:39pm ET
John C Winkelmann — Cincinnai — January 30, 2007 6:37pm ET
Chris Lavin — Long Beach, CA — January 30, 2007 8:26pm ET
Larry Stone — Rutherford, CA — January 30, 2007 8:50pm ET
Chris Lavin — Long Beach, CA — January 31, 2007 1:36am ET
Whit Thompson — Rochester, NY — January 31, 2007 8:46am ET
Larry Stone — Rutherford, CA — January 31, 2007 11:01am ET
Whit Thompson — Rochester, NY — January 31, 2007 1:59pm ET
Larry Stone — Rutherford, CA — January 31, 2007 3:13pm ET
John Stickler — nyack ny — February 2, 2007 7:00am ET
Sarah Warner — Los Angeles, CA — February 3, 2007 1:50pm ET
Larry Stone — Rutherford, CA — February 6, 2007 3:55am ET
Lee Edwards — Little Rock, Arkansas — February 6, 2007 6:58pm ET
Joseph Karpowicz — Stony Brook, NY — February 7, 2007 9:21pm ET
Larry Stone — Rutherford, CA — February 8, 2007 5:08am ET
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