Vintners, retailers, wine critics, wine bloggers – there are plenty of jobs connected to wine. They all require a significant level of wine knowledge. But there is one position that might be even more demanding: the job of a sommelier.
What Is a Sommelier?
A sommelier is a trained wine professional with in-depth knowledge about grapes and wines. Sommeliers know how to identify a wine’s origin, how to store it, and how to pair it with food. As they typically work in high-class hotels and restaurants, they’re also hospitality and customer service experts.
To understand a sommelier’s job to its full extent, let’s investigate the responsibilities and requirements in detail.
What Does the Term Sommelier Mean?
Sommelier means “wine steward” or “wine waiter”, although the job actually includes many more duties. A more precise translation might be “cellarmaster” which refers to a wine cellar.
The term derives from the French language, or more precisely from Middle French. This version was spoken from the 14th to the early 17th century. The Middle French word “soumelier” described an employee who was in charge of handling and transporting supplies at a nobleman’s estate. In the 17th century, the term’s meaning was extended to all people who managed the pantries and wine cellars in private households.
From the 19th century until today, the term “sommelier” has been used for male wine professionals with all the responsibilities we are about to discuss. Female professionals go by “sommelière”.
As this job title isn’t protected, anyone can use it, regardless of education or work experience. And in the last years, many similar job titles for other beverage categories have popped up, such as:
- beer sommelier
- whiskey sommelier
- vodka sommelier
- coffee sommelier
- olive oil sommelier
Where Do Sommeliers Work?
Most sommeliers work in the hospitality business. Luxury hotels and high-class restaurants hire them to provide excellent service for the wine lovers among their patrons. Other venues that might need a sommelier include country clubs, casinos, or cruise ships.
Sommeliers can work in retail, too. Some brick-and-mortar stores, as well as big online retailers, hire them to manage their wine inventory. The same might be true for big supermarket chains that sell food and beverages.
It also isn’t uncommon for vineyards to have estate sommeliers. They primarily execute marketing and sales tasks, like creating marketing materials, negotiating with potential buyers, and hosting tasting events on the estate.
Finally, a sommelier can find a job in education. As many wine enthusiasts want to learn more about their favorite beverage, wine tastings, classes, and seminars are in demand. With their wine expertise, sommeliers are the perfect hosts for these events.
What Does a Sommelier Do?
A sommelier has various tasks to do, and they are all connected to wine. Based on the specific venue and the employer, some of these tasks might be more or less relevant.
Building the Wine List
One of the most critical tasks of sommeliers is creating a restaurant’s (or hotel’s) wine list. They try to find and buy wines that match their patrons’ preferences. Depending on the variety of guests, it can be challenging to match the different tastes (and budgets). A sommelier cooperates with wine producers and attends wine exhibitions and similar events to learn about new wines and the latest vintages to achieve this objective.
Creating Food and Wine Pairings
To find the right wines, a sommelier also has to work closely with chefs and kitchen staff. Together, they discuss the menu and try to create delicious wine and food pairings. These discussions are the basis for producing the wine list.
Managing the Wine Portfolio
Besides finding new wines, sommeliers manage the existing wine portfolio. They administer the wine cellar and ensure proper storing conditions such as optimal temperature, light, and humidity. If necessary, they also sort out wines that don’t match the venue anymore. They also keep the wine menu up-to-date.
In some cases, sommeliers have oversight over all beverages, including beers, spirits, and non-alcoholic drinks.
Monitoring the Financial Aspects
The financial aspects of managing a wine portfolio usually belong to a sommelier’s tasks, too. That includes negotiating purchasing prices, monitoring sales numbers, and reevaluating selling prices regularly.
Providing Advice to Patrons
In high-class restaurants, sommeliers offer their knowledge directly to patrons. They ask for the diners’ food choice and their preferred wine characteristics. Based on this information, they recommend a wine from the venue’s inventory. Once the patrons make their choice, the sommelier presents the selected wine to them, opens it, and lets them approve it.
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If sommeliers don’t work directly with customers, they are often responsible for forwarding their knowledge to their coworkers. They teach staff how to treat wine properly, and they enable waiters to provide advice about food and wine pairings to patrons.
Sommelier Presenting Wine to a Patron
Hosting Wine Events
Some restaurants and hotels offer special events such as tastings or dinners to educate their patrons about wine. Logically, sommeliers play a major role in hosting these events. With their knowledge and experience, they can create fantastic wine events even for inexperienced guests.
Publishing About Wine
Sommeliers also engage in publishing. Some have their own wine blogs; others write for newspapers and magazines. They also collaborate with other experts to award prizes to outstanding wines. One of these prizes is the Sommeliers Choice Award.
How to Become a Sommelier?
As said, sommelier isn’t a protected term. So unlike doctors or lawyers, sommeliers don’t need to meet specific requirements in terms of education. In theory, they can learn everything they need to know on the job.
Nevertheless, several prestigious schools offer extensive sommelier training. And without visiting these schools, the hospitality industry’s best jobs are probably out of reach for a sommelier.
Among others, the following institutions that offer sommelier training are recognized worldwide:
- The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), United Kingdom
- Associazione Italiana Sommelier (AIS), Italy
- Union de la Sommellerie Française (UDSF), France
- Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), United Kingdom
- North American Sommelier Association (NASA), United States and Canada
- Worldwide Sommelier Association (WSA)
- International Sommeliers Guild (ISG)
Most of these institutions offer various types of courses that differ in extent and depth. For instance, the CMS –likely the most prestigious sommelier school– distinguishes four certifications:
- Introductory Sommelier
- Certified Sommelier
- Advanced Sommelier
- Master Sommelier
The introductory course provides basic information about wines, grape varieties, winemaking, wine and food pairing, and customer service. The certified, advanced, and master courses offer deeper and more profound knowledge. Especially the latter stages include expertise about wine appellations and how to distinguish them. Students need to pass a written exam, a practical service test, and a blind wine tasting to be certified.
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Only students who successfully passed the introductory course can enroll for the certified sommelier course, and only those who pass this level can apply for the advanced class. Finally, to become a master sommelier, applicants have to have passed the advanced class before.
Typically, sommeliers have extensive work experience in the hospitality industry before getting a certification. On average, certified sommeliers have between three and seven years of experience. Advanced and master sommeliers usually have worked in their profession for eight years or more before taking the exam.
How Much Does It Cost to Become a Certified Sommelier?
Earning a sommelier certificate is quite costly. The courses and the exams alone typically cost around 1,000 USD each. Because the classes build on each other, it can cost up to 10,000 USD to get to the highest level. That includes costs for travel and accommodation during multi-day courses.
Besides the costs for courses, would-be sommeliers invest a lot of time and money to prepare for their exams. They travel to wine regions to visit vineyards and meet with vintners, attend conferences, and, sample many wines. These activities add significantly to education costs.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Sommelier?
The single courses and exams typically take not more than one week in total. But schools usually require students to have work experience before taking the masterclasses. For instance, a minimum of three years is needed to become a Master Sommelier according to CMS standards. As mentioned before, most students have much more experience by the time of the exam.
What It Needs to Be a Sommelier
No matter whether you pass an official course or not, the job of a sommelier requires various skills:
- Theoretical knowledge about grapes, wines, winemaking, wine regions, wine laws, and wine and food pairing.
- Trained taste buds and practical experience in distinguishing different wines from each other.
- Communication and social skills to work with various chefs, winemakers, and patrons. To deal with dissatisfied or rude guests, it’s also helpful to be a patient person.
- Flexibility and the will to work evening hours, weekends, and bank holidays.
- A basic understanding of business administration and the ability to negotiate with wine producers and retailers.
- At least basic knowledge of languages such as French and Italian to read bottle labels.
More Details on Wine Bottle Labels: HOW TO READ A WINE BOTTLE LABEL (WITH EXAMPLES)
How to Find a Sommelier Job
Not every restaurant and hotel has a sommelier, so this job is relatively rare. If you are looking to work in this profession, you should check the job opening of prestigious hotels (or hotel chains) such as the Hilton, Four Seasons, or Marriott.
To avoid searching dozens or hundreds of websites, check out Sommelier-Jobs.com. There, you can find a lot of relevant job openings from all over the world.
How Much Money Does a Sommelier Make?
On the lowest level, sommeliers have an average income of about 50,000 USD per year. When climbing up the ladder, salaries increase significantly. Certified sommeliers can make 60,000 to 70,000 USD, and their advanced colleagues between 70,000 and 80,000 USD. Finally, master sommeliers might earn 150,000 USD per year and more.
If you are interested in a wine-related job, you should not only focus on openings for sommeliers. Many jobs with different names cover more or less the same responsibilities. And in fact, many professionals who are certified sommelier work in precisely these jobs. Other positions are entry-level jobs that are great for gaining work experience before taking the exam.
- The position of a wine waiter (or wine steward) is a typical entry-level job. Like “normal” waiters, wine waiters focus on customer service and giving patrons advice and recommendations.
- Tasting room managers focus on customer service, too. Typically, they oversee the tasting rooms of wineries that want to present their wines directly to customers. They are responsible for organizing events, instructing staff, and managing the wine inventory.
- A wine director typically has all the responsibilities of a sommelier. That includes managing the wine inventory, creating the wine menu, educating staff, and hosting events. Serving patrons on the restaurant floor might not be part of the job necessarily. Nevertheless, a strong focus on customer service is essential for this job.
- The responsibilities of a food and beverage manager are comparable to those of a wine director. But the focus is not on wine only. Instead, the job requires dealing with all types of food and beverages that the venue sells.
Without a doubt, the sommelier job is an exciting position for every wine lover. But it’s also very challenging as it requires so many different skills and extensive wine knowledge. When you meet sommeliers in restaurants or hotels, keep that in mind. Be nice to them but don’t hesitate to ask for their advice so you can benefit from their expertise.