When I tell people I’m a sommelier their typical reaction is usually one of both admiration and confusion. “A sommelier?” they ask. Then, “Wow! But what exactly does that mean?” (There was also that memorable time one of my father’s co-workers asked him, baffled, if I was adopted. Yeah, he thought dad had said “Somalian.” Wow, right?)
Truthfully, I don’t particularly like identifying myself as a sommelier. It’s a tricky term laden with misconceptions and conflicting definitions; there’s also an implied stuffiness that I, as a young woman who entered the wine world at the ripe old age of 18, have been fighting against my entire adult life.
The dictionary definition of a sommelier is a trained wine professional who works in the restaurant industry and whose main tasks involve proper wine service and food pairings – essentially, a wine waiter (but a fancy and knowledgeable one, dammit). However, this is the traditional definition that’s often irrelevant nowadays, as the role of a sommelier has greatly expanded in the twenty-first century. Sommeliers exist at all levels of the wine industry: everyone from wine importers and retail shop workers to avid collectors and wine writers (ahem) might decide to pursue this designation. The reasons for doing so are varied: some simply want to learn more about wine, while others may need it to advance their careers. My personal motive was to increase my credibility in the industry – some people found it difficult to believe that a 23-year-old woman could possibly possess any detailed knowledge about wine; being able to tell them I was a sommelier certainly helped my case.
The problem with calling oneself a sommelier, however, is that there isn’t any standardization – many different agencies offer similar training, and even more offer general wine education courses, but a sommelier SAT doesn’t exist (at least not yet). There is also some debate in the wine world as to which agency offers the “best” sommelier course. My opinion is that you should only use the title if you can back it up: you should possess enough knowledge to be able to shoot down anyone challenging your expertise, and you should have passed a rigorous multi-part test (usually encompassing a written exam, blind tasting and service component).
My designation is through the Court of Master Sommeliers. If you haven’t heard of them, you’re not alone in this part of the world – the Court is based in the United States and is geared towards the more traditional definition of sommeliers: someone who works in the service industry in a role focused around serving wine and offering recommendations and food pairings. While their primary focus is on wine, the Court also encompasses spirits, beer and tobacco. Though I have precisely zero experience as a server in a restaurant or bar setting, I chose to go through the Court because they are internationally recognized. There may not be a standardized sommelier test, but one could make a strong case that the Court’s is the closest thing to it. Though I stopped after passing the Certified Sommelier exam, those who are interested can continue further down the Court’s path to the Master Sommelier Diploma Exam – pass that and you earn the title of Master Sommelier. It sounds grandiose because it truly is: as of October 2014, only 219 people in the entire world have ever passed this exam in the four decades that the Court has been around. (For an excellent, in-depth look at that terrifying exam, watch the documentary SOMM.)
Self-directed study is the type of education offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers, which is to say they don’t really offer education at all (other than the Court’s two-day introductory course, which is really more of a crash-course in their blind tasting technique than it is a primer in wine education). Pursuing a sommelier designation through the Court is essentially all up to you – so if you decide to go this route, start reading right now. It’s also mostly geared towards those who work in the wine industry, so having some industry experience is extremely useful.
Two other agencies that offer a sommelier designation include the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and the International Sommelier Guild (ISG). The WSET offers courses a couple times a year throughout centres in North America (including in Edmonton) while the ISG is currently working on establishing a local program. Both of these agencies offer classes ranging from wine basics to more advanced sommelier diploma courses.
For those who aren’t really interested in becoming a sommelier but would like a bit of formal instruction, there are a few wine shops around town that offer regular tastings, usually oriented around a specific theme, region and/or grape variety. The great thing about these tastings is that they cost considerably less than a professional course and you can also pick and choose based on your own particular interests. Or, partner up with some friends to have regular tasting nights in which you can compare notes – and split the cost.
Ultimately, the first step in gaining wine knowledge – whether you go on to become a sommelier or not – is to simply drink lots of wine. Start with a good reference book that explains the proper tasting method, do some reading about each country/grape variety/wine style as you taste, and simply go from there. I recommend Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible for an all-around solid first reference book – it’s comprehensive but very approachable. If you’re really serious about wine, however, you will also need to purchase the World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, as well as the incomparable Oxford Companion to Wine (edited by Jancis Robinson – a personal hero of mine.)
Above all, I encourage you to simply enjoy yourself and keep it down to earth. Being a sommelier may sound impressive, but remember: wine is only fermented grape juice, after all – and no one likes a show-off.