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Culinary Arts

What Is a Sommelier?

Written by MasterClass

Feb 1, 2019 • 3 min read

Where do you start when you’re looking at a massive wine list, or one where the wines you recognize are not wines you want to drink? Ask to talk to the sommelier. They can tell you what the restaurant specializes in, and help you find good values on the list, or even recommend special wines that are not printed on the menu.

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What Is a Sommelier?

A sommelier is a restaurant wine steward. They will know what wines the restaurant has both on and off the wine list and can help you find the right wine for your occasion. Many sommeliers are accredited through professional organizations like the Court of Master Sommeliers or the Wine and Spirit Education Trust.

What Do Sommeliers Do?

  • Develop the restaurant’s wine list.
  • Train restaurant staff about wine.
  • Manage wine inventory.
  • Work with culinary team to determine ideal food and wine pairings.
  • Speaks directly with patrons.
  • Have knowledge of all other beverages in the restaurant.

How to Talk to a Sommelier

When dining out, endeavor to connect with and learn from your sommelier—they can help you in a variety of ways. Here are tips for getting to know your sommelier.

  • Use their expertise. Sommeliers know the wine list front to back, and their expertise will always be additive, even to the most well-educated patrons.
  • Be clear about your budget. Ask for a few suggestions in your price range based on a description of what style of wine you want, like “a full-bodied red from Italy with some oak between $70 and $90,” or “an aromatic white with lower acidity, for under $50.”
  • Let them know if something is wrong with your wine. You should always have a conversation with your sommelier if you think the wine doesn’t taste right to you. It’s important to understand that most of these problems are only relevant to the particular bottle you have open. A different bottle of the same wine may well be excellent, and the sommelier will be the person best-suited to making that determination.
  • Practice good etiquette. It’s polite to order a bottle off the restaurant’s list as well for every bottle you bring in of your own, and to offer a taste of your wine to your sommelier. Don’t forget to tip for the wine service whether you brought the bottle or not.

How to Become a Sommelier

While there are no government-mandated regulations or requirements for using the title “sommelier,” you’ll need credentials to be hired as one. Some of the top accrediting institutions for sommeliers around the world include:

  • Associazione Italiana Sommelier (AIS), in Italy
  • Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), in Britain
  • The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), in the United Kingdom
  • North American Sommelier Association (NASA), in Canada and the United States

What Is the Difference Between a Sommelier and a Master Sommelier?

Just as there are different levels of higher education (bachelors, masters, doctorate), there are different levels of sommelier certification. The Court of Master Sommeliers, arguably the top organization in the wine industry, has four levels of accreditation:

  • Intro
  • Certified
  • Advanced
  • Master

Many sommeliers reach the certified or advanced level, but there are few Master sommeliers, because reaching that level is so demanding. A Master Sommelier is the highest achievable level for wine professionals.

How Much Do Sommeliers Earn?

The different levels of certification make a huge difference for a sommelier. A Master Sommelier earns an average salary of $164,000 per year, while an Advanced Sommelier earns an average of $87,000—about half as much, despite being just one level below.

How to Become a Master Sommelier

The three-year master sommelier examination for the Court of Master Sommelier is famously demanding. The pass rate is less than 10%. That explains why since 1969, there have been less than 300 people who have attained master sommeliers status across the world.

There are three parts to the master sommelier exam:

  1. The blind tasting portion, in which you must identify key characteristics of six wines—grapes, region of origin and vintage year—in 25-minutes.
  2. An oral exam involving discussion of wine theory for 25 minutes with two masters.
  3. A service portion, in which instructors might act as difficult customers to test the applicant’s customer service skills.

Candidates must memorize the intricacies of every one of the 10,000 wine grape varietals in the world in order to receive the master sommelier diploma and become a certified sommelier.

Are There Other Types of Sommeliers Besides Wine?

Other specialized beverages also have sommeliers. These include:

  • Beer sommelier (also called a cicerone)
  • Sake sommelier
  • Whiskey sommelier