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What is a Sommelier?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 16, 2024
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A sommelier is a wine expert who specializes in the restaurant side of the wine industry. He or she is trained in wine tasting, pairing wine with foods, wine purchasing, wine storage, and the creation of wine lists. Most of the finest restaurants employ at least one wine expert, and for the most prestigious resorts and restaurants, having a master sommelier is something of a necessity.

The core purpose of a sommelier is to ensure that dining patrons are able to find a wine within their budget that fits their tastes and complements their food. At the basic level, this means that the expert works with the kitchen to find suitable wines to pair with each entree dish on the menu, and sometimes with other courses as well. At a higher level, a sommelier is often out on the floor of the restaurant, helping customers to decide the exact wine that best meets their needs.

Becoming a sommelier can be a daunting task, as it involves many hours of study and often a great deal of expense to procure both classes and fine wines for tasting. Most experts come to the job through one of two routes: either through extensive work in fine dining and studying wines “in the field” or through formal training in wine studies. Of course, neither of these paths are entirely independent of the other, as most restaurant employees on their way to being a sommelier take at least a few formal classes, and many formal students get a job in a fine restaurant both to earn money and to have ready access to wines to taste.

The most well-known certification for this job is the Master Sommelier certification offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers. In order to gain this certification, a person must first take an introductory course, take an exam to become certified as a sommelier, continue his or her education with an advanced course, and finally pass the Master Sommelier exam. There are currently 124 people who hold this title worldwide, with 79 of these in North America.

The exam to become a Master Sommelier consists of three main portions. The first is an active portion that asks the candidate to recommend drinks, intelligently discuss the menu and wines, select glasses, make pairing recommendations, and prepare and present wine, brandies, cigars, and liqueurs. The second tests knowledge by asking the candidate to discuss various varietals and regions, answer questions about international wine laws, explain the process of making liqueurs and beers, discuss cigars with authority, and give a run-down of proper storage procedures. The final section is a practical tasting examination, in which the candidate must identify and discuss six wines, referencing the varietal, place of origin, and vintage.

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Discussion Comments

By anon237132 — On Dec 27, 2011

I am a Sommelier at a 5 star resort and restaurant. I also am friends with six Master Sommeliers. I can tell you the number one thing you must have is your ability to understand what people actually want, and be confident enough to just tell them.

I have met plenty of Sommeliers who are completely incompetent and no one trusts. I have also met people who are not sommeliers, but have a great deal of passion and are great at listening to their customers and are fabulously successful, and this is much more important than those with academic training.

I can tell you with certainty that knowledge is necessary, but you can't teach charisma and listening skills.

By yumdelish — On May 10, 2011

I wonder if sommelier courses ever revise the content to keep up with trends and laws. Studying about cigars and how to pair them with wine makes me think of the good old days, when the ladies retired to the lounge and left the men to spark up an after dinner smoke. Is this really so relevant anymore?

By CaithnessCC — On May 08, 2011

@Windchime - I've worked in the restaurant business on and off for a while, and my current place employs an international sommelier. He is partway through the Master Sommelier certificate training, which seems to be quite tough.

As far as I know the Master of Wine course is more academic. If you want a hands on sommelier job then you'd be better off with practical training.

You don't mention any experience in the trade, but that's a great way to start. You also need to be patient and able to explain wine at a level people can understand.

By Windchime — On May 07, 2011

I'm really interested in wine and am thinking about sommelier training opportunities. Someone suggested taking a master of Wine course. Would this be as good as the sommelier education training outlined here?

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