You may have heard the term “sommelier.” You may already know what it means. It’s a word that’s incited controversy and been co-opted by areas other than wine (a mustard sommelier, anyone?). The word has had a fluid definition through it's history, and it's this fluidity that has caused some trouble.
Colloquially known as a certified wine expert, the word “sommelier” derives from the French meaning of "butler." In the late 1890s it became more and more synonymous with wine, and is now commonly defined as a "wine waiter" or "wine steward." Today, we may associate sommelier with the straight-laced, wine expert with fancy certifications under their belt, building hard to understand wine lists and recommending wines based on your meal choices. Does this image sound familiar? It’s what I first pictured when I started learning about sommeliers. But the modern truth is something else.
First off, you don’t need to be certified to call yourself a sommelier. Unlike a beer Cicerone, the word sommelier is not protected, and therefore means there is no one entity that determines your expertise. This may be worrysome to the customer or restauranteur that depends on a sommelier. Don’t fret; it is highly unlikely one could go very far with fake wine credentials. But it is good news for those with desire and a lot of restaurant experience: you could earn high wine status in a restaurant by working your way to top.
So why get certified? I’ll let you in on a poorly-kept secret: wine certification tests are hard. They require intense study and dedication. If you pass one, you’ve proven you know what you’re talking about when it comes to wine. There are quite literally a ton of wine certifications. Some are good for enthusiasts and some are geared toward professionals. Many certifications have different levels, and if you want to see a certification through to the end, you will need to have professional experience in a restaurant. If you’re curious about all the different certifications, I’ve put together a list on our new site, Sommelier Prep School.
What does a sommelier do? In restaurants, a sommelier is the de facto wine expert. They can work with chefs and managers to put together wine lists, and food and wine pairings. They can work with customers to select wine that the customer will enjoy with their meal. Outside of restaurants, sommeliers bring their expertise to other activities. They can work as ambassadors for large wine brands, or wine directors for restaurant groups. They can direct editorial content for magazines and websites. They can be winemakers or wine marketers. They can be enthusiasts and consumers.
In recent months, there has been some back and forth about certified enthusiasts that do not work in restaurants. Some people believe that, if you have no intention of working on the restaurant floor, you have no business getting certified in wine. Others contend that a wine certification can be beneficial to those working in wine other than in a restaurant. A wine writer, maker, collector, even consumer can benefit from the study of wine.
Given my desire to become certified, without restaurant experience, you may guess where I land in this debate. I am not interested in working in a restaurant, but I think there is value in the certifications for me. I grew up around wine appreciators and enthusiasts. A large chunk of my family lives in wine country, and wine becomes the center of nearly every trip we take there, and did so even when I was a kid. When I sit down to study wine, I see a lot of information that I do not know. But I feel as if it is my destiny to know wine. It's a personal journey for me, and one that shouldn't interfere with a professional's career.
Nicole St. Germain is Creative Director of St. Germain Cellars, a craft beer snob, and a wine novice. Her cocktail of choice is anything with St-Germain liqueur. You can follow her journey to become a sommelier on Sommelier Prep School.