So You Want to be a Sommelier?

This story appears in the Fall issue of Austin Man Magazine and looks far better in print than it does here. Pick up a copy. Photo’s of DustinWilson courtesy of Forgotten Man Fimls/Samuel Goldwyn Films 

Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what a sommelier was, let alone pronounce the silly word. That has changed. Now it seems like I encounter sommeliers everywhere I go: in restaurants, wine bars, wine shops and even grocery stores. Hell, even I am now a sommelier. The growth in the profession is mirrored by demand for educational opportunities.

Programs such as the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif., are seeing increasing enrollment. The number of people studying for professional sommelier certifications and pursuing becoming a sommelier as a career is growing, with more than 4,300 taking CMS exams in 2012 alone. Conferences are on the rise as well. James Tidwell, Master Sommelier and cofounder of the world’s largest sommelier education conference, TEXSOM, says that forum has grown substantially in its nine-year existence.

“In 2005, when we started TEXSOM, we had four Master Sommeliers and one Master of Wine conducting educational seminars for about 100 attendees,” Tidwell says. “This year, we have 33 Master Somms, four Masters of Wine and six Certified Wine Educators, and many other luminaries teaching sessions for more than 500 attendees. Nine years ago, there was only one Master Somm in Texas: Guy Stout. Now we have seven Master Somms in the state. While the conference has grown, it has kept a sense of great camaraderie and a sense of purpose.”

Sommeliers have been around for a long time, but the allure of the career is on the rise. It has evolved from a job for frumpy footmen to a career for sophisticated bon vivants. June Rodil, Advanced Sommelier and general manager of Qui restaurant in Austin, believes it’s a natural extension of the foodie culture and the culinary world.

“The starlight shining on celebrity chefs has never been brighter,” Rodil says. (Her boss and Top Chef winner Paul Qui is an excellent example.) “TV cooking shows have gained incredible prominence and are reaching an entirely new demographic beyond the people who traditionally go to fine-dining restaurants. People now understand the care a chef gives to the ingredients and the preparation that goes into making elegant meals. That awareness spills over into paying more attention to which wine pairs best with food. People expect to find high quality in both food and wine.”

While celebrity chefs may still soak up most of the spotlight, sommeliers have a documentary of their own, cleverly named SOMM. The film, which ran at the Violet Crown Cinema in Austin this summer, chronicles the obsessive study habits of four candidates pursuing the coveted Master Sommelier diploma. It’s a window into how challenging it is to master the beverage world. One of the documentary’s stars, Dustin Wilson, now a Master Sommelier and wine director at Eleven Madison Park in New York, feels there was a need to tell this story in film because most people are unaware of the role of the sommelier and the work that goes into the profession.

“Sommeliers are certainly becoming more popular and carving out a stage presence in the burgeoning food and wine world, which makes the SOMM documentary appealing,” Wilson says. “The film gives the public a better idea as to what we do. Even non-wine geeks like the film because it’s not just about wine; it’s about wanting to achieve something very difficult. There is a humanizing element in the film that can touch anyone who has ever pushed themselves to attain something challenging, be it a test, a sporting event, a career change, etc. It tells the story of struggle, success and failure.”

Being a sommelier requires more than tasting wine all day and gliding about the dining room recommending wines to pair with a meal. The business of wine takes up a good part of the day too. Buying wine, schlepping boxes to cold cellars, cellar management and pouring over spread sheets to figure out the complex challenges of finding the right wine at the right price are all critical parts of the job. It might not always be glamorous, but Paula Rester, wine director at Congress Austin, finds it rewarding.

“I get the most satisfaction when people don’t know the role of a sommelier, but they have a great experience with my food-and-wine pairing recommendation,” she says. “When I can turn someone on to new wines, it makes me excited. Other times, I just make sure guests get exactly what they want. My mom likes pinot grigio with ice cubes in it. It’s my job to get that for her. The key to success in the service industry is you actually have to give a s**t. You can’t fake that.”

Follow My Path to Become a Sommelier

You don’t have to be born and raised in the restaurant or wine industry to become a sommelier. I’m living proof that anyone can become a sommelier. It just takes desire and a lot of studying. If you want to spend countless hours studying the soil types, the geography and the climate of wine regions throughout the world; if you want to learn how to recognize the smells, flavors, tastes of wine that let you identify the grape, the country, the region and the year the wine was produced; if you want to learn how to pair the right wine with an elegant meal to best bring out its flavors; if you want to learn how to open a bottle of Champagne using a saber, then you want to become a sommelier. Here is how to get started.

  1. Decide which certification program you want to pursue. Consider studying for exams with either the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) or Society of Wine Educators (SWE). Both organizations have websites where you can find course and exam schedules to plan your education process. I went with the CMS.
  2. Gather your study materials. Join the Guild of Sommeliers to gain access to its amazing study guides and sample quizzes online (guildsomm.com). Buy a few books like the Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil, The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia by Tom Stevenson and The World Atlas of Wine by Mitchell Beazley.
  3. Join or create a sommelier study group that meets at least weekly. Make sure you select serious study partners and try to include at least one member who is already certified (level II), or better yet, reach an advanced level III in the CMS or the equivalent in another organization. You will benefit immensely from studying with others.
  4. Set aside two to three hours a week to study. That’s a good amount of time for the beginning of the process, but be ready to ramp up your hours as you progress in the certification process.
  5. Take the introductory course and exam, and pass it with flying colors.
  6. Get your study group back together and add blind tasting and service to your curriculum. Learning how to do blind tastings correctly can be daunting without a little guidance at first.
  7. Set a budget for wine. It’s more important after the first level, but you will need to practice blind tasting a few different wines at least once a week (learn to spit and be OK with wasting wine). It’s preferable to drink “testable” wines multiple times a week, and stop drinking wines that won’t be on the exam (obscure wines).
  8. Practice proper wine service in a fine-dining setting to pass that section of the level II exam in CMS. If you don’t work at a restaurant, find someone who can help you practice proper wine service.
  9. Study all coffee, cigars, sake, beer, spirits and cocktails because they can all be on the test too.
  10. Pass your Certified Exam and wear your lapel pin. The path is not quick or easy, but if wine is your passion, you too can earn the right to call yourself a sommelier.
Disclosure: The Court of Master Sommeliers provided me with complimentary enrollment in both my Certified Exam and TEXSOM 2013 with journalist credentials. 

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