How to Become a Sommelier

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The term 'sommelier' is derived from the French word 'soumelier'. In old French, the term referred to an individual who drove packs of animals. Middle French, on the other hand, used the word to refer to someone in charge of the transportation of goods and supplies. In modern French, as well as the rest of the world, the term has come to refer to someone who is responsible for nearly all things wine related, including storing, selling, pairing, and serving wines. They may also have knowledge of various other beers and spirits, with some in the trade branching out to study cigars as well. Needless to say, the sommelier is much more than just a wine waiter as many people may believe.

In old France, the most important commodity was meat. It's what the culture thrived on and farming cattle was a large percentage of the lower and middle class's income came from. With meat being such a highly valued item, great responsibility was placed on the person responsible for driving packs of animals from the areas they were raised to the locations where they would be slaughtered. If anything were to happen to the animals in transport, the sommelier would be held directly responsible.

As time passed, the people of France developed a much wider taste palate. While cattle and other animals still played an important role, the demand for other items such as cheeses, wines, and fresh produce quickly increased as well. Each of the larger courts in the region would often assign one court servant who was directly responsible for ensuring all the needed food and drink items were delivered to the court as needed.

The Modern Sommelier

Over the years, of all the food and drinks in the court, wine became one of the most cherished of all, making this delightful beverage the sole charge of the sommelier above all else. This is the primary reason that the primary responsibility of a modern sommelier is, in fact, just wine. While originally just in charge if the transportation of the wine, as it began to play a more central role, the focus of responsibility for the sommelier became much more detailed. The modern sommelier is, in fact, required to have knowledge of many different aspects of wine and the wine industry.

Sommeliers are often employed by fine restaurants around the globe. Smaller restaurants may employ a single sommelier, while larger ones will typically staff a lead sommelier who will, in turn, select one or more individuals to work beneath him. Many individuals who have retired from the food service industry choose to use the knowledge they gained as sommeliers to open their own wine stores or even start small vineyards of their own.


A Day In The Life

As mentioned earlier, a sommelier is far from being just a wine waiter. Even the title of wine steward doesn't seem to do a good enough job of encompassing all of the knowledge and tasks associated with being a sommelier. The easiest way to understand just how detailed the role can be is to take a closer look at what could be considered a typical day for a modern sommelier.

One of the most important duties a sommelier has in ensuring all of the restaurant's wine are being stored in optimal conditions. This includes maintaining the wines at the proper temperature, keeping the bottles stored in the right directions, and making sure all the stock gets rotated in the proper order.

Once the restaurant opens, the sommeliers first task is to greet each table of diners, present the wine list, emphasizing any new additions or featured wines, and suggest an appropriate starter wine for the meal. If the table does select a wine, the sommelier will proceed to retrieve the wine that has been ordered and prepare the bottle for serving. Before he returns to the table, the sommelier may take the first sip of the wine himself, to ensure it is in top form. He may also choose to return to the table and offer the first taste to the head of the table, as is the customary tradition. Which practice is used often depends on the particular restaurant itself.

Once the starter wine has been served, the sommelier will then go over the basic layout of the wine list itself. Emphasis will be placed on which wines work best with which types of main courses, such as fish, steak, chicken, or pork. Wines may also be recommended based on the regions they come from, or more specifically the vineyards in which they were produced. The sommelier will check in with the tale periodically during the course of the meal to make sure they are happy with the taste of the wine and also check to see if additional bottles are needed. When dessert is ordered, the sommelier will repeat the same process as he did for the main course,placing particular emphasis on sweeter wines that pair best with the after dinner indulgences.

While many people may think that sommeliers are well versed in wine alone, the are mistaken. The sommeliers main knowledge base is structured around wines, however, they also tend to be highly knowledgeable when it comes to a variety of spirits and beers. Keep in mind though that a sommelier may not be the best person to ask if you're looking for a whimsical mixed drink. He is, however, the person to turn to for suggestions regarding higher end spirits, such as brandy, whiskey, or bourbon. The sommelier will also typically be familiar with the various regional and import beers the restaurant may have to offer. In some cases, the sommelier may also be able to recommend the best cigars to pair with the after dinner drinks.

The sommelier will also meet with the restaurant staff, the chefs in particular, to discuss any upcoming specialty dishes that may be featured on the menu. This allows him to make sure the appropriate wines are stocked to pair with the various entrees and desserts. The larger wine menu itself is typically reviewed on an annual basis to ensure that the list is still relevant to the various core offerings of the restaurant. Some sommeliers may also work directly with various vineyards or wine distributors to buy the wines on behalf of the restaurant. If there are vineyards local to the area in which the sommelier works, he will be sure to establish a relationship with them in order to help promote local flavors.

These are the basic daily tasks of the professional sommelier. Larger restaurants may split the various responsibilities amongst a team of people, while sommeliers in smaller dining venues will be responsible for nearly everything listed above. Being a sommelier is by no means a simple task and involves much more than just being a wine waiter. Because of this, the training that most sommeliers undergo to become certified is extremely intense and ensures that only the best of the best are granted titles such as Certified Sommelier, Advanced Sommelier, and Master Sommelier. While it is true that anyone can call themselves a sommelier, the time and effort an individual has placed in his training and studies is typically very apparent.

Sommelier Training And Education

As stated before, anyone can call themselves a sommelier. There is no formal training or education required to bear that title. Individuals who take their role as a sommelier seriously, on the other hand, will almost always purse the available certifications to stand behind their title. The most common courses and certifications are provided by The Court Of Master Sommeliers. Over the years, this organization has been recognized as one of the most prestigious groups to belong to and their educational programs are believed to be the best of the best when it comes to sommelier training. The Court Of Master Sommeliers offers four courses of study in total and three certification levels.

Level I-Introductory Sommelier Course And Exam

The first course offered is the Level I course titled the Introductory Sommelier Course And Exam. It is open to anyone interested in taking the course, although they do recommend individuals have at least three years experience in the wine and food service industry before they pursue taking the class.

The introductory class is two days total, but instructors expect all students to have put in a substantial amount of their own time into self-study. After the two day regimen of classes, the student must pass a 70 question multiple choice test based on genera wine theory. The course itself focuses on three major concepts: overall knowledge of wine, basics of proper wine service, and wine tasting. While this class may seem intensive, there is no certification granted upon completion. All students who wish to progress to the Level II class, however, must successfully pass the Level I class first.

Level II-Certified Sommelier Exam

Unlike Level I, the Level II course consists solely of an exam, with no formal classes being offered. The belief is that students completing the Level I class will use the knowledge and skills gained to take back into their workplace. As they are successfully able to incorporate the teachings into their daily duties, their own knowledge base will continue to grow based on the added experience they are receiving on a day to day basis. When they feel they have mastered all of the information gained in Level I, they may return to take the Level II exam.

The Level II exam covers the same areas of focus as the Level I class did, wine knowledge, wine service, and wine tasting. It does, however, cover them in much more depth than the first class did. Wine knowledge, for example, places a larger emphasis on the various wine growing regions of the world, the most popular vineyards, and grape varieties. The wine service portion focuses on champagne and decanter service, as well as wine service. It will also test the student's knowledge of food and wine pairings, proper wine storage, and communication and sales abilities. Finally, the wine tasting test portion of the exam relies a blind tasting of two wines using the Master Sommelier Deductive Tasting Method.

If a student successfully passes the Level II examinations, he is granted the title of Certified Sommelier. This certification will not only improve his potential earnings, it can also open up doors at may higher end restaurants looking to hire reputable wine sommeliers. The results of this exam are also very important, as they will give the governing board of educators a general idea of each student's strengths and weaknesses.

Level III-Advanced Sommelier Course And Exam

While both levels up to this pint have been open to nearly all students, the Level III courses are conducted on an invitation only basis. Once a student successfully completes and passes both Level I and II, and has served in the wine and food industry for at least five years, he is allowed to apply to take the Level III course. All applications are reviewed on a periodic basis by the admissions committee of the Court Of Master Sommeliers. The committee then proceeds to hand select students based on their backgrounds and past test results to be invited to take the Level III course and pursue the title of Advanced Sommelier.

The information offered during the Level III course entails the same three general topics discussed earlier: wine service, wine knowledge, and wine tasting. Students receive three days of intensive lectures on all three areas and are then subjected to a two day examination. The format of the exam is identical to the Level II class, however, it once again delves much further into detail with regards to the individual topics covered. The wine tasting portion of the exam consists of six different wines, as opposed to the Level II exam which only included two varieties.

If a student passes the Level III exam, he is granted the title of Advanced Sommelier, a well respected title for anyone on the wine and food industry. This title, once again, increases earnings potential as well as marketability. He also then becomes eligible to take the final Level IV course in hopes on becoming a Master Sommelier.

Level IV-Master Sommelier Diploma Exam

Similar to the Level III testing, Level IV testing is conducted strictly by invitation only. The Level IV exam covers everything has has been tested in the previous exams as well as additional testing to prove the student has mastered the art of wine itself.

Being awarded the title of Master Sommelier is considered one of the highest accomplishments a sommelier can receive. Even just being invited to sit for the exam carries with it its own sense of accomplishment. In essence, those hand picked to sit for the Level IV exam are considered the best of the best in every sense of the word. In fact, as of 2010, there were less than 200 people that carry the title of Master Sommelier.

Tools Of The Trade

Even the best sommeliers can't function properly without the proper tools. Believe it or not, they actually need more than just a corkscrew to carry out their duties.

One of the largest tools a professional sommelier needs is a wine service cart. Sometimes referred to as a wine service table, this is a small, often round, cart that typically has an upper surface, as well as a lower shelf for additional storage. Some even have a small wine rack like feature that holds two to three bottles of wine. The cart is used for moving both tools and wine from table to table and is often organized according to the individual sommelier's preferences. The rest of the sommelier's tools are typically kept on the cart or on his person.

Nearly every sommelier carries at least one or more decanters on their cart with them at all time. Many good wines should be allowed to breathe before they are served and the decanters, often made of glass or crystal, allow a decorative means of storing the wine while it is allowed to air out, as well as a method to dispense it when it is ready to be consumed. The structure of the decanter also encourages any sediment in the wine to remain at the bottom of the decanter, as opposed to being served into the wine glass.

In higher end restaurants, particularly those that have more mood oriented lighting that is somewhat dimmer than normal, sommeliers will often keep lit candles on their cart as well. While many people think this is done strictly for ambiance purposes, the candles are, in fact, a tool the sommelier uses to monitor the amount of sediment in the bottom of the decanters and ensure it is not being disturbed too much and stays below the neck portion of the decanter while the wine is being served.

If the sommelier does not wish to let the wine breathe naturally, he may use a wine aerator to speed up the process. The aerator is placed on the top of the wine bottle and adds a certain amount of air to the wine as it is poured through. This is ideal for times when the sommelier needs to serve a wine quickly, allowing him to aerate the wine on the spot.

For wines that require chilling, such as dry white wines or dessert wines, the sommelier uses an ice bucket. With the advent of modern technology, many prefer to use insulated containers that are able to create and maintain cooler temperatures, as opposed to having to deal with actual ice.

Serving baskets and wine cradles also prove very useful when dealing with older wines that are prone to sediment. By keeping the wine bottles at a slight angle, it encourages the sediment to remain on the bottom of the bottle, similar to a decanter. The specific angle also allows the sommelier to serve the wine without having to disturb the bottle too much and stir the sediment.

One of the most important tools is the bottle opener since, without it, there would be no wine for the sommelier to serve. For champagne bottles and certain other sparkling beverages, the sommelier uses a pincer to remove corks which cannot be removed manually. The pincer resembles a nutcracker in design and helps to either remove the cork completely or simply loosen it to the point where the sommelier can remove it by hand.

For wine bottles, in the other hand, a sommelier knife is the tool of choice. A cross between a jackknife, a bottle opener, and a corkscrew, the sommelier knife is an true multi-purpose tool. The jackknife portion is used for cutting the foil wrappers from around the top of the bottles. The bottle opener is used for prying off lids, such as the ones on beer. Finally, the corkscrew is used to burrow into the cork of the bottle and subsequently remove the cork with it as it is pulled back out.

One tool carried by many sommeliers is actually a sign of tradition more than it is a useful accessory. The tastevin is a small metal saucer or cup that was once used to measure the color and the clarity of wines that were stored in low-light wine cellars. The highly polished and faceted silver surface inside the tastevin allowed sommeliers to better judge the various visual aspects of the wine without the need for an increased light source. Since tastevins are no longer used, sommeliers will often carry one with them as a way to honor the old traditions of the long revered profession.

A wine collar is used to wrap around the neck of a wine bottle. It is often made of a fabric or other absorbent material and is used to prevent any wine from spilling down the side of the bottle when it is being poured. Some sommeliers are more traditional and use their small hand towels to wrap the bottles in and serve as a wine collar as well.

Wine stoppers, once reserved for professional use, have seen a tremendous rise in popularity among the home wine connoisseur. The wine stopper was originally used strictly for functional reasons by the sommelier to keep the wine bottles temporarily sealed in between servings without the need to re-cork the bottle. While they are still widely used today, they are also available in a nearly endless range of decorative and novelty designs for use in the home.

A wine journal is something nearly every sommelier has, though he may not always carry it on his person. It is basically a record of various items of note when a sommelier tastes a new wine or finds a new method of wine pairing. It may also contain a list of personal favorites with regards to vineyards, vintages, or regions. The wine journal is most often used when visiting various vineyards or attending wine tasting events.

Another tool the sommelier may use when paying a visit to a vineyard is called a wine thief. This is a small tube like device that can be used to remove wine samples from casks for tasting purposes. This tool is typically kept at the vineyard as the sommelier would typically have little to no reason to carry one on his own person.

The Importance Of The Wine Glass

One of the first thing a sommelier learns when he begins his training is which type of wine glass pairs best with which variety of wine. While many people may think the two choices are a wine glass or a champagne glass, there are actually nine different types of glasses that are used for the majority of all wine or sparkling beverage service.

The first type of wine glass is used by sommeliers is referred to as a flute. This tall thin glass is intended for use with sparkling champagnes or wines as it accentuates the stream of bubbles up the long length of the glass. It also allows the beverage to air gradually, releasing the full flavor and aroma over time as these types of drinks are meant to be consumed slowly.

Sweeter sparkling wines and champagnes, on the other hand, are served on wide shallow glass with long stems. The shallow chalice like design of this particular glass, sometimes called a coppa, allows the flavor and aroma to instead be released immediately, favoring the fact that sweeter sparkling wines are often consumed more quickly than the drier varieties.

When serving a younger white wine, the sommelier knows to choose a wine glass that is on the smaller and slimmer side. Since younger white wines tend to have a fruitier taste and scent, the sommelier knows that this shape of glass helps to bring these qualities to the forefront. The rim of the glass is also shaped to allow the wine to flow to the portions of the tongue that can detect the light acidic scent.

White wines with stronger aromas, on the other hand, are served by the sommelier in slightly larger glasses that are generally round and tapered in at the rim. The tapering allows the scent of the wine to remain somewhat captive in the glass, enabling it to linger for an extended period of time.

The sommelier also knows to serve rose wines in glasses similar to those used for young white wines. The glasses for the rose wine, however, are slightly wider at the base but also tapered on top, like aromatic white wine glasses.

Red wines can fall into one of three categories, each with their own corresponding wine glass. These are young red wines, mature red wines, and older vintage red wines. Young red wines should be served in a medium glass with a wider base and a slightly narrow top, similar to the shape of an egg. This particular shape helps maintain the scent and flavor of the wine. More mature red wines, on the other hand, are served by the sommelier in larger glasses with a similar taper as the young red wine glasses. For red wines with much older vintages, the sommelier uses a type of glass commonly known as a "ballon". This particular glass is the largest variety and has an almost goblet like form to it.

Last, but not least, dessert wines are served in tall slender glass, very similar to those used by the sommelier for dry sparkling wines. Like the glass used for sweet sparkling wines, dessert wine glasses are designed to allow the flavor and scent of the wine to be released immediately.

With regards to glass placement, if the sommelier is working at a private venue, each wine glass to be used in the service is included together in the formal place setting. He would also place the glasses in the order they will be used going from right to left. In a restaurant, on the other hand, the various wine glasses are brought to the table at the point when the corresponding wine is about to be served.

Famous Sommeliers

Although many of the top sommeliers around the globe aren't household names for the general public, they are recognized within the wine industry itself.

Aldo Sohm, for example, was named the Best Sommelier In America in 2007. The following year, he became the first American to ever bear the title of Best Sommelier In The World. Sohm was working as head sommelier and wine director at Le Bernardin, a highly rated New York restaurant. The competition is held on an annual basis and overseen by the World Sommelier Association.

George Pertuiset, a well known French sommelier, garnered headlines in 2008 when he presided over the Gourmet Wine Dinners at the Square Restaurant in Cape Town. These world famous dinner events feature a four course meal, each featuring its own wine selection, as well as a conversation with Pertuiset on a variety of topics. Like Sohm, Pertuiset has also been named Best Sommelier In The World, taking home his title in 1980.

Stephen Asprinio is another popular American sommelier, exalted to his current celebrity status while competing on the show "Top Chef" during its first season. At 22, he had the rare honor of being both a head chef and a sommelier at the same time. He was also the youngest sommelier to ever complete all four courses offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers, as well as the youngest to be certified by the United State's Sommelier's Association.

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