The job of a sommelier as we know it now is relatively new, requiring broad wine knowledge, extensive tasting, a finger on the pulse of what's exciting and a knack for conveying your passion to the diners you serve. But does it require a degree, formal education or certification?
The question has become divisive in recent years: Some think that knowledge is no substitute for experience, while others feel that accreditation provides some proof of one's chops in an increasingly crowded field of wine pros. We asked eight somms who lead cellars at Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners—their credentials ranging from self-taught to Master Somm—for their thoughts.
To get a fuller glimpse into the lives of somms—Atrium's Alex LaPratt, Maialino's Jenni Guizio, the Capital Grille's Brian Phillips and Jockey Hollow's Christopher Cannon—check out "Somms: A Day in the Life," in the June 30 issue of Wine Spectator, on newsstands now.
Wine Spectator: Do you think someone needs schooling or certification to be a sommelier?
I think schooling and certification are an important step in the process to become a sommelier. It is important to build off of a good foundation of knowledge and service fundamentals. No amount of school or certification will make you great at it. It is a craft and takes many hours of practice to hone. School is in session when you get on the floor and start doing the job. I learned more in the first six months on the floor as a somm than I had in the previous year taking classes and studying on my own. You learn how to sell, how to educate, when not to educate, and how to deal with people successfully. The job is much bigger than talking about wine and pulling corks.
Amy Mundwiler, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Maple & Ash in Chicago
My short answer is no, but it's much more complicated than that. I have had no schooling and am not certified at all. I have to work harder to overcome it and prove that I've earned my seat at the table. I've worked alongside Advanced Somms going for their Master Somm pin who have passed the Master's Theory exam. That's intimidating. In one situation it was really difficult; I had to fight daily to prove I deserved to have my title. In another situation, it was absolutely wonderful to have that sort of mentorship.
My advice to anyone wanting to be a somm: Get your pin—unless you're willing "to be humble, be hungry, and always be the hardest-working person in the room" (my favorite quote and something I live by daily). But no, you don't need schooling or certification. You need a passion for what's in the glass and how it got there. You need a love for history and for storytelling. You need to love people. Wine isn't just what's in your glass. It's the people behind it. I sell stories. You don't need a certification for that. It will just make your somm career easier. So do it. Get it.
Since I have never been schooled as a somm and do a decent job, I would say no. There are numerous people that have come out of very good programs who do not have certification and do a great job. Daniel Johnnes [of Daniel and other Daniel Boulud restaurants], Levi Dalton, Paul Grieco, Aldo Sohm [of Le Bernardin], Juliette Pope, Karen King and Glenn Vogt [of Crabtree's Kittle House Inn] are all friends who are at the forefront of the wine industry and who rose up through the ranks the old-fashioned way.
I do not think one needs to be certified or have gone through specific schooling in order to be a sommelier. There are many paths to knowledge and I respect all of them, provided that the end result is a well-rounded and in-depth understanding of wine, service and hospitality. Some people excel following a disciplined study and tasting regimen that culminates in an exam. Some people thrive in a classroom setting with guided tastings, lecture and discussion. There is a tremendous amount of learning that comes from hands-on experience under the guidance of a mentor, accompanied by self-study and travel. I can think of incredible sommeliers that come out of all three camps or some combination of the three.
It comes down to having the motivation and curiosity to study everything you can get your hands on, forever, because wine is endless; having the patience to gain the experience needed to be truly great on the floor; and [having] a genuine love for continuously finding ways to make people happy.
Richard Healy, wine director of the Sydney, Australia,–based Rockpool Dining Group
Some of the best sommeliers I know didn’t do the whole WSET [Wine & Spirits Education Trust] or CMS [Court of Master Sommeliers] path, so, not necessarily based on that. Personally, I never really enjoyed school or university but loved wine classes, so it’s down to the individual. I prefer that my teams do a course or two, most certainly.
Elizabeth Kelso, beverage director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Craft Los Angeles
Guests commonly ask where I studied to become a sommelier and my response is always that this is a trade, similar to becoming an electrician or a construction worker. There is no Harvard for sommeliers. People who follow this career path are usually ushered in by a mentor, colleague or friend. And yes, there are classes or certifications one can take at culinary or hospitality schools and through trade organizations, but ultimately one’s ability to succeed is not dependent on those things.
The most important qualities in pursuing a career in this field are love of food and wine, love of hospitality, enjoyment of social interaction and caring for others, immense drive, work ethic and desire to learn, willingness or ability to make financial and personal sacrifices in the short term for potential long-term gain, and humility.
I sometimes find wine recommendations from servers, who are not formally certified sommeliers, more refreshing and honest. Formal wine certifications do not teach a server how to listen to and read their guest’s wants and needs. They do not ensure the guest gets the wine they really want and not what one thinks they should have. There are many extraordinary wine professionals in every aspect of the wine world setting standards without any formal education or certifications. Our service teams are reminded that the moment they hand a wine list to a guest, they are a sommelier, and to respect this naturally inherited responsibility, certification or not—and many of our best are not certified.
That said, a certification or formal education is not a guarantee of success for most jobs or tasks, but they do certify that one’s knowledge has been furthered. When that knowledge is properly applied, it can enable one to be an even better sommelier—"properly applied" is the key point.
Short answer: absolutely not. The world of wine is not about an accreditation or certificate. It’s about life, adventure, culture, food, passion and exploration.
Long Answer: It’s complicated. The profession of being a sommelier is receiving more attention than it has ever received before. This attention leads to increased demand for trained professionals as the public’s knowledge on the subject, and consequentially their budget for it, increases.
In my eyes, the sommelier is a true craftsman (or craftswoman). Classically, someone learning a trade would apprentice and would learn from a mentor how to perform the required job functions with skill. This is my preferred way for a sommelier to develop. Does that involve any sort of certification? No. It involves years in a dark cellar arranging bottles, carrying heavy cases around, reprinting (or writing) wine lists, tasting, visiting wine regions and countless hours serving guests.
I am currently a Master Sommelier but I had been studying wine since I was 18, and I didn’t receive a notable accreditation until I was 26. I had spent eight years as a waiter spending all my extra time reading, volunteering (often with inventory and moving boxes or cellars) and tasting before I ever took an exam.
If someone comes to me with immense theoretical knowledge and no experience, then we’re going to have a disconnect when it comes time to do the job. I suggest an approach of a little of both for the modern sommelier.
One, pursue an accreditation or course. The world of wine is immense. You could spend your entire life studying one region and still not know it all, so it’s easy to get sucked into that vortex. A class, course or accreditation can give you a great survey of the world of wine and could be the perfect introduction to this profession.
Two, work for the very best wine program that will hire you. This could be a restaurant or wine store. It doesn’t matter what position you start at. At that point, keep studying, come in on your time off to volunteer and get as involved with the wine program as you can. Make yourself familiar with the wine list and it’s regions, producers and vintages. Ask as many questions as they can answer and be a sponge. Don’t push too quickly to advance. Hard work is always noticed and things move very quickly in this industry.
Three, when you get your first position: Here is a secret that many young sommeliers overlook. You don’t need to know everything in the world of wine. You only need to be very well-informed about your wine list at a bare minimum. If you know all the wines, producers, vintages and information on your wine list, then you’re more than capable of helping guests navigate to something they enjoy.
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