Sommelier Roundtable: What's the Hardest Part of Your Job?

From diners suspicious of being ripped off to cellar-management tedium to working past midnight, every night—these 8 wine pros tell us what really puts them to the test
Sommelier Roundtable: What's the Hardest Part of Your Job?
Take one down, pour it around .... Managing an ever-changing inventory of thousands of bottles can be pretty draining. (iStockPhoto)
Apr 5, 2019

Follow your favorite restaurants' sommeliers on Instagram and you could be mistaken for thinking they're living a Champagne dream of endless rare bottles, high-roller parties and "work trips" to the valleys of New Zealand or the shores of Provence.

The job has its perks, but behind the scenes, somms spend many hours on budget-balancing and cellar-managing tedium, cranky customers, studying flashcards, taking meetings and working long days, much of them spent on their feet hauling cases of wine. We asked these eight wine pros from Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners what the toughest part of a day in their lives is.

Wine Spectator: What is the hardest part of your job?

Amy Mundwiler, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Maple & Ash in Chicago

The hardest part about being a sommelier is, hands-down, getting the guest to trust me, and also trying to understand their "wine language" so I can get them into the right bottle.

I had a guest the other day tell me she didn't want a Pinot Noir that "snapped" in her mouth. She was awesome, we had a great conversation and were both laughing about not understanding each other. But a lot of guests aren't that agreeable about the whole thing. Wine language is so subjective—and I don't judge. Being a sommelier is being able to listen to how someone is describing a wine, figure it out and get them into the right bottle.

Getting people to trust me can also be an issue. I love every wine on my list—it's absolutely my pleasure to see you loving a wine that I was able to choose for you. I don't care if it's $30, $300 or $3,000. I'm not here to upsell you. I'm here to make your experience the absolute best. I actually have a policy here at Maple & Ash: When a guest tells you their price range, come in under or at the bottom. But people tend to think all we care about is money. Every somm I know has inexpensive hidden gems on the menu—we love selling those!

Ben Teig, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Redbird in Los Angeles

I think the hardest part about being a sommelier is the hours. As the wine director for Redbird, my day starts at noon sometimes. I have to go through deliveries, check the invoices to make sure that not only is the right product delivered, but the pricing is correct. Any new wines are added to the list, and then I’m usually taking tasting appointments—what everyone loves.

After that it’s into service, where I am not only selling and serving wine, but helping in any other area I can, like running food. After service is over, I have to restock the wine that was sold, and then I go and answer more emails. I usually don’t leave until around midnight.

Through both television and social media (#sommlife), being a sommelier is seen as being so glamorous, but there is a lot of hard work going on behind the scenes that isn’t shown.

Richard Healy, wine director of the Sydney, Australia,–based Rockpool Dining Group

Bottle envy! We are always trying to get our hands on the best wines for our lists, so sometimes seeing some of the wines we just don’t have access to in Australia is a little frustrating. Otherwise, trying to keep that work-life balance where you don’t do over-the-top hours at the expense of your actual life.

Brad Nugent, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winners the Grill, the Pool and the Lobster Club in New York

I think the hardest part about being a sommelier is balancing all the work that needs to be done off the floor. Cellar management, wine list management, inventory control, costing, scheduling. This list goes on and on. More often than not most sommeliers have duties that extend beyond selling wine on the floor. The wine aspect of the job can sometimes be the easiest part.

Cedric Nicaise, wine director at Grand Award winner Eleven Madison Park in New York

There’s definitely some parts of my job that I don’t like or that tire me out more than others, but I look at it as a whole. Every part of my job is what makes my job what it is, and I love working here, I love the team I get to work with. Could I have fewer meetings? Sure, it’d be great to have fewer meetings. But then this restaurant would be different. So I try not to dwell on the negative parts of my job because that breeds animosity and it breeds unhappiness.

William Moss, wine director for the Best of Award of Excellence–winning restaurants at Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas

We strive to give consistent service and tailor each guest experience, and when under pressure and with high volume, it can be challenging. This is why it is important for us to have more than one sommelier available at each venue.

Gabriela Davogustto, wine director at Award of Excellence winner Clay in New York

Staying healthy. Working service in a restaurant, the late hours and constantly tasting wine make it challenging to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Elizabeth Kelso, beverage director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Craft Los Angeles

"Hard" isn’t really the word I would use to describe the difficult aspects of my job as a sommelier and beverage director. I would say that most of those difficulties are actually challenges. The challenges include efficiently managing your time, honing the ability to delegate tasks and remaining organized at all times.

All of that, plus being a warm and jovial social presence on the floor every night of the week, while continuing to maintain a creative and passionate perspective about your program. All of that can be exhausting and tiresome. So keeping the energy up and the quality of your contribution high is really the goal.

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