After a bad day at work, it's not uncommon for most people to grab a bottle of wine, plop down on their sofa and, after their fifth glass, exclaim: ‘Look at me! I’m a sommelier!’ But if getting drunk at 6pm is the only requirement to become a wine expert, then shouldn’t there be more of them?
Currently, there are around 3,000 sommeliers worldwide; a majority of them belong to the introductory level, at least 300 have advanced certifications and only 249 are Master Sommeliers. Needless to say, it takes a lot more than drinking copious amounts of wine to be in this profession; otherwise, more people would’ve already taken this career path.
But if you have an extrasensory gift for taste and believe that you belong to this prestigious association, then here are the steps you should take to land this dream job.
1. Research the Profession
Like most jobs, it’s best to gather as much information as you can to make the best possible career decision. To help you save time, we’ve outlined everything you need to know about this particular profession below.
Contrary to popular belief, a wine sommelier’s job involves a lot more than jetting off to wineries and tasting grapes. In reality, the primary goal of all sommeliers is to sell wine in the restaurant that they work at. Apart from this, their other duties include:
- checking delivery and purchase orders
- opening bottles and pouring wine for guests
- creating and preparing wine lists
- ordering and checking wine inventories
- conducting wine tastings
- training and educating waitstaff on the different kinds of wine
- recommending wine and food pairings to patrons or guests
- discovering new wines for the menu
- cultivating relationships with vintners and distributors.
Essential Skills and Qualities
One of the biggest misconceptions about being a sommelier is that you have to be wealthy to become one. But stripped of the fancy trips and extremely hard-to-pronounce words, at the core of every sommelier’s job is great customer service. So, to excel in this profession, you must possess the following skills and traits:
- hospitality – you must exude warmth, sincerity and respect at all times while serving your customers
- humility – despite your extensive knowledge of wine, you must always concede to your guests’ wishes
- discipline – you must take care of your sense of taste and smell, which means giving up vices like smoking
- inquisitiveness – to keep growing as a sommelier, you must always ask questions and learn more about wine with every opportunity you get
- sophistication – you’re expected to act and dress appropriately at all times
- confidence – serving wealthy and influential people can sometimes be intimidating; to succeed in this role, you must project confidence
- good memory – apart from remembering the different names of wines, you should also know where and when they were made
- finesse – pouring and serving wine requires exquisite delicacy and precision
- storytelling skills – sometimes the difference between selling a $200 bottle of wine and a $500 one is a good story
- communication skills – you must tell and convince guests about the wine you are recommending in a simple but eloquent manner.
Working Hours and Conditions
Believe it or not, wine sommeliers spend a lot more hours working than the regular 9-to-5 employee. Since most fine-dining restaurants open at noon, their days don’t usually start very early. However, it can also end very late and often depends on when the kitchen closes. Sometimes, they also work on their days off to inspect deliveries and check orders.
But a sommelier’s job also has some great perks. One of the best parts of their job is travelling to different places (sometimes even countries!) to sample and pick wine for their restaurant.
Much like any job, your salary will vary depending on your level of experience. For sommeliers, it also depends on the level of training and certification you get.
PayScale estimates that entry-level sommeliers who have less than five years’ experience earn around $47,650 (£37,050). Meanwhile, according to the Guild of Sommeliers’ most recent salary survey, advanced sommeliers are paid $400 (£310) per hour, while masters get $1,000 (£780).
Due to the decreasing popularity of fine-dining restaurants, many presume that the need for sommeliers will also decline, but there's a slew of other industries that still require their services. These include cruise ships, wine retailers, five-star hotels and even casinos. The 2012 documentary Somm also helped revive interest in this profession.
2. Get the Qualifications
Technically, formal education is not required to become a sommelier. However, many establishments prefer applicants who hold degrees in the culinary arts or hospitality management. If you want to stand out and get that extra edge, it would be best to consider majoring in these courses.
After graduating from your chosen degree, you must get certified to work as a sommelier. There are numerous institutions around the world that provide certification, including:
- Cape Wine Academy (CWA) (South Africa)
- International Sommelier Guild (ISG) (worldwide)
- North American Sommelier Association (NASA) (US and Canada)
- Union de la Sommellerie Française (USDF) (France)
- Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) (UK)
- Worldwide Sommelier Association (WSA) (worldwide)
The most popular of them all, however, is the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS). Widely considered as the premier international examining body, the CMS offers four levels of certification for sommeliers. The first is the introductory level, followed by certified, advanced and master sommelier levels. You don’t need to pass all levels to work as a sommelier but bear in mind that your level of certification does affect your salary.
3. Land Your First Job
Networking is essential in getting your first job as a sommelier (or any profession for that matter!). To grow your network, attend as many wine tastings as you can and make sure to exchange business cards with the people you meet. Also, be sure to regularly check for job postings from any of your local fine-dining or five-star establishments.
4. Develop Your Career
Naturally, one of the best ways to develop your career is to try and increase your level of certification. Each level also marks your growth as a sommelier and can only be passed through years of accumulated knowledge and skills.
For example, to qualify as a Master Sommelier, you must have at least 10 years’ working experience, and you won’t be allowed to take the exam if a member of the Court didn't invite you. But don’t lose hope if you don’t get to this level as most people never do. In the past 50 years since the exam was first created, only 200 people have passed, giving it a dismal passing rate of only 3% to 8%!
Another tip from experienced sommeliers is to always travel. Travelling exposes your senses to new tastes and flavours which strengthens your palate and muscle memory, which is vital to your success as a sommelier.
The path of a sommelier may not be as glamorous as it seems, but it is hugely rewarding for anyone who enjoys the simple but immeasurable pleasure that comes with a great bottle of wine.
Do you think you can be a Master Sommelier? Let us know in the comments section below!
Currency conversions are based on rates supplied by XE.com on 3 September 2018.