Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Misconceptions About Sommelier-dom

     I'm late posting this week because I spent the weekend studying and taking a test. A wine test. Many thoughts ran through my head as the hours of studying passed by:

A) I'm too old for this shit
B) Where, working in California, will I need an in-depth knowledge of Greek wines?
C) Am I doing this for myself or others?

SF Gate article "The Ultimate Test"
     I'm asked often at work "are you a sommelier?" This question irks me because it's like if I walked up to a bartender and said, "are you a bartender?" If he/she is serving drinks behind a bar, that's kinda the definition of the job. There are different levels of experience and expertise to any profession sure, but, by the book, a sommelier buys, stores, sells and serves wine in a restaurant. Which is what I do, and have been doing for the last few years.

     Of course the Court of Master Sommeliers have done a good job of claiming the term "sommelier" for themselves. This is a group that gives actual credentials for somms, ones that look shiny on a business card or résumé. As much as these are nice to have, anyone who has worked in the business for a whack of time knows that book learning is no substitution for hands-on knowledge. This is acknowledged by the Court of Master Sommeliers, I suppose, in the fact that you can't even apply for the advanced exam without five years in the wine/service industry.

     The holy grail of the sommelier study path is to get your MS, or Master Sommelier. Supposedly if you achieve this, kittens will start flying out of your backside, and you will suddenly start speaking perfect French. Or that's what I've heard.

     To me, my job is work: negotiating, dealing with sales people, unpacking bottle after bottle, and trying to read customers' minds. It seems so far removed from the hallowed grounds of the James Suckling-style "wine experts" out there, that as far as I'm concerned, the Court of Master Sommeliers can keep the term sommelier. I'm happy being just a wine buyer

     Soo, how did I get sucked into this test nonsense then? A year ago I figured I'd shut people up by getting some sort of credential, and looked into the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. Their top credential, the MW, or Master of Wine, is equally respected and as famously difficult to achieve; There are 280 Masters of Wine as of 2010, and 186 Master Sommeliers as of 2011, according to the great Oz (Wikipedia). The main difference between the two credentials is that the MS is more service based, and the MW is more trade and business orientated.

     Because I like being different and I don't particularly enjoy the thought of farting kittens, I decided to go the MW route. The first place for me to jump in was taking the WSET level three certificate. This certificate is a prerequisite to taking a two-year "wine diploma" course (that costs 4,000 bucks or so); the diploma is considered the best way to possibly be granted entry into the MW program (which costs more than $10,000 to complete).

     Oh and the WSET Level 3 is available as a home study course, unlike the first sommelier level, which makes you sit through a two-day all-day-long lecture on beginning wine stuff. Blech.

     No one seems to have a clue why I'd want to take the WSET Level 3 vs. Sommelier 1. I've had some fun conversations like this:

     I'm talking to regular about how I've had to drink more wine instead of beer lately in preparation for my test. A slightly tipsy wine rep at the bar interrupts:

     "So you're going to be a sommelier?"

     "Well, not exactly, this test is a little different. It's more relevant to what I want to do."

     "Yeah and what's that?"

     "It's a bit more industry side of things which I like. I don't think I'll be taking the sommelier test."

     "But you should totally be a sommelier. You are so talented!"

     I had to walk away at this point before I felt compelled to knock my head into the wall next to the bar. I know that this conversation will repeat itself a hundred times, so I might as well get used to it.

     Thank you Samantha Sans Dosage, for bringing to my attention douche biscuit extraordinaire, Brad Newman and his Reviewer Card sham. I mustered up the energy this weekend to do a story about this on Wino on a Ramble, if anyone is curious.
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  1. Okay, you are studying for some wine thing exam, wait tables and write 2 wine blogs?! Holy crap, you make me feel bad about myself.

    1. Fortunately exam is in the bag, and I had dutifully read my wine atlases years ago so it was mostly review. I don't work that many hours a week, so I manage to sneak in a lot of extracurricular activities in my week. As to what would become of my hobbies should I get a real job, who knows!

  2. Just don't stop writing, please ... I look forward to a very pleasant stop here each week. :)

    1. I should say the same about you and your blog!