5 Things an Aspiring Sommelier Needs to Know

During the past few years, we've witnessed the rise of the "celebrity chef," with myriad television shows glorifying a once-humble profession to the point of rock-stardom. With that glorification come the countless folks who dream of dropping out of the corporate rat race, going to culinary school and becoming the next Gordon Ramsay. This dream is typically crushed in short order upon realizing that cooking for a living is back-breaking work with weird hours and less-than-great pay.

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Thanks to the notoriety of a few great sommeliers -- like Rajat Parr and Mike Madrigal -- and the popularity of the documentary Somm, the profession is poised to be the next big thing. I'm sure there are those wine enthusiasts out there who wistfully consider escaping their cubicle and joining the ranks of wine professionals. Not that I'm trying to talk anyone out of it, but if you're really going to do it, here's what you need to know.

Comprehensive wine knowledge

So, you like to drink wine, read about it, and taste it as much as you can. Great. Now you need to turn that into serious learning. You should be able to speak intelligently about every major (and most minor) wine-growing region in the world. Not only should you know that nebbiolo is the grape in Barolo and Barbaresco and that the Piemonte in northern Italy is its home, you should also be able to name the other grapes grown there. Ditto with Burgundy, Bordeaux, The Rhone, etc. You should be able to wake up from a dead sleep and recite the five first-growth Bordeaux, the grapes that go into them, and what "first growth" means.

Tasting acumen

Not only should you know these seemingly trivial facts, you also have to be able to connect them to what's in the glass. Turning "theory" into tasting skill takes years for most of us, which is why most somms came up through the ranks as bussers, then servers, and finally to sommeliers, tasting and learning as we went. The ability to taste a wine blind and figure out what grape it is, where it came from, how old it might be is the benchmark of good sommeliers.


Coming up through the trenches is the most common way to get a wine education. If you're changing careers, though, you'll need a jump start. There are several educational and certifying bodies out there to help you take your wine knowledge and tasting ability to the next level. The most prestigious and best known is the Court of Master Sommeliers, which offers a four-level certification process that is more or less self-directed. You pay the money, take the tests (one at a time), and pass or fail them. For a more classroom-oriented approach, the WSET (Wine and Spirit Educational Trust) offers courses both online and off. The International Sommelier Guild is another one that offers in-depth classroom training. And the Society of Wine Educators, a self-directed process, offers two levels of certification. You don't absolutely have to be certified to be a sommelier, but it definitely will open doors for you down the road.

Graciousness and hospitality

Okay, so you're pretty knowledgeable and a good taster. You understand how wine interplays with food, how to pair it. Awesome. Now you have to convey that knowledge to the general public in a restaurant setting with poise, a smile, and no hint of condescension. When a guest says, "I like light and fruity wines, like petit sirah," you must stifle your inner urge to educate that person and, instead, distill your vast understanding of wine to put a bottle in front of them that they will love. No easy skill.

It's not that glamorous

Sure, you get to taste a lot of wine during the course of working as a somm. That's really about 5 percent of what you actually do day in and day out. The majority of your time is spent schlepping cases of wine in and out of cellars and tracking inventory, cost, and margins. You polish a lot of glasses -- I mean a lot of glasses. You work long hours on your feet and mostly in the evenings. You don't get holidays off -- or any paid time off, for that matter. You have to update the wine list almost every day, educate your staff, be nice to rude people, and make money for the restaurant. And all of this had to be done with your best smile.

There's a lot to love about the sommelier profession (and the restaurant industry in general), which is why so many people make a career out of it, but take the romantic lens off and realize that it's just plain hard work like any other job worth doing.

When I'm not writing this column or reading vintage charts to my daughter, you can find me pouring wine at FnB.

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Nathan Claiborn
Contact: Nathan Claiborn