Fine dining aficionados may take wine and food pairings for granted, especially when skilled sommeliers offer service that appears effortless. In fact, lots of hard work and education goes into every sommelier's meal services and wine tastings. The very best sommeliers must blend an encyclopedic knowledge of alcoholic beverages with salesmanship and service that elevates a diner's experience.
Sommelier education involves much more than learning how to pair wine with food. Culinary students and seasoned veterans alike use this professional development path to create elegant, memorable moments for their patrons. The profession requires an understanding of all types of alcoholic beverages, along with the ability to put both the heritage and history of wine into context.
Types of certified sommeliers
Certification can lead to a job as a "floor sommelier," suggesting wine pairings at restaurants and resorts and supervising table service. The complexities of serving wine and spirits with dinner can challenge even experienced sommeliers. A typical dinner service may require a sommelier to monitor wine temperatures, stage special glasses, and supervise service staff. In wine producing regions, certified sommeliers can assist wineries with quality control or stage tastings for tourists.
Master sommeliers use their specialized knowledge in a variety of businesses beyond restaurant service. While many master sommeliers help select wines and spirits for luxury hotels and resorts, other professionals use their certifications to curate beverage offerings for major retailers and distributors. Master sommeliers also work to support the development of their profession by offering training through the non-profit Guild of Sommeliers and the internationally recognized Court of Master Sommeliers.
How to earn the Master Sommelier certification
The Court of Master Sommeliers started offering professional examinations in 1969, with the goal of elevating professional standards in the beverage and hospitality industries. Since then, fewer than 200 professionals have earned the Master Sommelier Diploma, an honor that Court officials call the "ultimate professional credential" among wine experts.
Aspiring sommeliers must pass four separate certification exams on their way to earning Master Sommelier status:
- Introductory Sommelier Exam: The Court offers an intensive course that is designed to immerse students in wine history and culture. After two days of focused learning, students who score higher than 60 percent on the exam can move forward on their path toward certification.
- Certified Sommelier Exam: Earning the industry's baseline certification requires passing a written theory examination on wine, spirits, beer, and other beverages from throughout the world. Prospective sommeliers who pass the test must then successfully complete a blind tasting and a practical service exam designed to test their real world experience.
- Advanced Sommelier Exam: After completing at least five years of work in the hospitality or wine retail industries, certified sommeliers can further test their skills with a "Level III" examination. The week-long process combines training from Master Sommeliers with a practical service exam, a tougher blind tasting, and an even more challenging test on wine theory.
- Master Sommelier Exam: Fewer than one-eighth of the candidates who sit for this challenging professional exam pass. In fact, many successful candidates complete their exam modules over the maximum allotted time of three years. One section of the test explores a candidate's salesmanship and service by examining wine and food pairings in a variety of social settings. Another module tests a candidate's deep knowledge of beverage theory. The third portion of the test gives candidates less than a half-hour to identity the origins and vintages of six different wines.
Because their work doesn't often look as physical as that of chefs or servers, sommeliers labor to ensure their profession doesn't get stereotyped. Experienced sommeliers pay their dues in the retail and restaurant trade, breaking down boxes and assisting their mentors for years before earning their certifications. At the most successful restaurants and resorts, sommeliers help train servers and bartenders to offer the best possible customer experiences.
Applying wine sommelier training to other culinary careers
Considering the intensity of the Master Sommelier training experience, it's no surprise that students who pass either of the Court's first two exams are usually able to bring both knowledge and skill to their subsequent culinary careers. Front of house managers can use introductory sommelier training to learn how to run more pleasant and profitable beverage services. Servers can leverage the same knowledge to make wine pairings that could lead to customer delight -- and to larger tips.
Hotels and restaurants that hire dedicated beverage directors generally pay those professionals between $42,000 and $56,000, according to restaurant ratings guide Zagat (zagat.com, 2011). There is no Bureau of Labor Statistics data on sommelier salaries. Although floor sommeliers don't work for tips, they often participate in tip pools at fine dining establishments, where gratuities can be substantial. Editors at Wine Spectator magazine suggest that most sommeliers prefer the gift of a remainder from a diner's bottle, the rarest prize for professionals that really love a good wine.
- "About the Court of Master Sommeliers," The Court of Master Sommeliers, 2013, http://www.mastersommeliers.org/Pages.aspx/About-CMS-Overview
- "Ask Dr. Vinny," Wine Spectator, 2013, http://www.winespectator.com/drvinny/show/id/45652
- "Sommelier Interview: Roland Micu, MS," Terroirist, 2013, http://www.terroirist.com/2013/01/sommelier-interview-roland-micu-ms/
- "Who Makes What? A Look at Restaurant Salaries," Zagat, 2011, http://www.zagat.com/buzz/who-makes-what-a-look-at-restaurant-salaries
- "You're a what? Sommelier," Occupational Outlook Quarterly, 2003, http://www.bls.gov/opub/ooq/2003/summer/yawhat.htm