How to Become a Sommelier

Sommelier Opening Wine Bottle
Jun 20, 2019 // by Kyle Thacker

Topics: Wine Knowledge

One of the fastest growing careers in restaurants and hospitality is the sommelier track. In the past few years the growth has been explosive in the United States. In 2017, the U.S. saw the number of sommelier candidates grow by 48%, hitting 19,401 candidates. But how do you become a Sommelier? It takes hard work, dedication, a bit of money to achieve the title, and becoming a Master Sommelier is even more difficult. 

 

What is a Sommelier? 

 

Before we dive into how a wine lover becomes a sommelier, it's helpful to pin down exactly what being a sommelier means.

 

Like many things in the world of wine, sommelier is a French word. When it comes to impact and a rich history of wine, only Italy can rival France. The literal English translation of sommelier is "butler." But the word has mean "wine steward" or "wine waiter" since the 1800s. 

 

A sommelier is much more than someone who knows enough about wine to be consider an expert. It's more than being knowledgable about wine regions and styles. And it certainly means more than just enjoying drinking wine. 

 

Being a Sommelier is a Job

 

Someone who knows a lot about history might be able to teach you something you didn't know, but that doesn't make them a teacher as a profession.

 

For someone to be considered a teacher, they must be certified and employed by a school or learning institution. They are in charge of a classroom and responsible for their students' education, accountable to curriculum, and judged on how well they nurture their class. 

 

Just like a teacher, a sommelier is a profession that requires certification and to be employed by a restaurant or other hospitality venue, as well responsible for the wine program and service. 

 

Job Duties of a Sommelier

 

The definition of a sommelier from the Sommelier Trade Review is as follows:

 

wine professional with formal training in all aspects of wine service, wine and food pairings, and wine storage. 

 

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Two of the most important terms in that definition is "professional" and "service."

Professional implies being employed as a sommelier and service indicates performing a duty for guests in a restaurant. 

 

The famed culinary school Le Cordon Bleu provides a helpful job description for sommeliers that includes a focus on service for guests.

 

Le Cordon Bleu notes that a somm's "key role is to advise the patrons to their personal needs..." as it relates to a guests taste or preference, pairing wine selections with food, the budget or price of wine, and also the occasion for a patron dining at the restaurant. 

 

That description leaves a lot of room for interpretation. But ultimately the most important job duty for a sommelier is in customer service to use their knowledge of wine to advice patrons in order to provide a great experience.

 

In that sense, a sommelier role isn't much different from a service or bartender's role, but the prestige and level of knowledge is much greater. 

 

Here is a list of common responsibilities a sommelier may have:

 

  • Creating a restaurant or wine bar's wine program
  • Advanced knowledge of wine selection including styles, pairings, pricing, vintages, etc.
  • Proper storage of wine
  • Wine inventory and purchasing
  • Wine training for staff
  • Wine-focused event programing

 

Sommelier levels and certifications

 

There are multiple programs for wine certification Sommelier candidates can take in the U.S. But no matter which course you choose, there are 5 levels of wine certifications that are recognized. 

 

There are three national wine certifications that hopeful somms can enroll in to achieve the goal of becoming a Master Sommelier, the highest level of wine certification that can be reached. 

 

The 5 levels of wine certification

 

  • Level One Certification
    • The most basic level of sommelier certification. Only have the level one certification is rare, as not all schools offer wine classes to achieve only the level one certification. Programs like the International Sommelier Guild offer a 3-month course that includes level 1 & 2.

  • Level Two Certification
    • This level requires a strong knowledge of wine varietals, as well blind tasting wines to identify varietals. 

  • Level Three Certification
    • This is where wine courses become much more difficult. Level three sommelier certifications requires a knowledge of wine regions and wine making styles, as well as more intensive blind tasting and requirements on restaurant certification.

  • Level Four Certification
    • This level requires a minimum of two years of education, training, and wine courses. Level four is the most prominent goal for the majority of wine professionals enrolling in wine courses. Somms who achieve the level four certification are consider as Advanced sommeliers.
  • Level Five Certification
    • This is the most advanced certification for sommeliers. Completing a level five certification course bestows the title of Master Sommelier on the candidate. There are 165 Master Sommeliers in the U.S., and 265 wine professionals globally who have earned this title.

 

Sommelier courses and wine certification programs

 

There are a lot of wine schools to operating in the United States. But in order to become a sommelier, the schools will need to be accredited by a recognized sommelier certification agencies. 

 

Here are the top sommelier certification programs. 

 

Court of Master Sommeliers

 

The most prestigious of wine certification programs. The Court of Master Sommeliers is one of the few that provides courses leading to the Level Five or Master Sommelier certification. 

 

Wine & Spirit Education Trust

 

Another well known certification program, WSET utilizes a franchise strategy for their schools and currently has hundreds of schools through out the world. 

 

WSET does not provide Level Five certification, but does provide Level One. 

 

Society of Wine Educators

 

This accredited program provides Level One and Level 2 wine certifications.

 

The Institute of Masters of Wine

 

As the name implies, this program provides the prestigious Level Five Master Sommelier certification. And that is all it does. The IMW does not provide courses for Levels' 1-4.

 

North American Sommelier Association

 

This association provides somm certifications up to Level Two, as well as niche certifications like American Wine Specialist and Master of Sangiovese.

 

International Sommelier Guild

 

Provides a sommelier certificate up to Level Three.

 

 

 

Kyle Thacker

About the author, Kyle Thacker

Kyle is the Marketing Director for Backbar. Before helping Backbar connect with the restaurant industry, he managed multiple bars in Chicago, with a love of whiskey and cocktails.

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