I am not a sommelier. And I do not pretend to be one. I am a wine lover, a wine geek and an enthusiast. I am self taught. Instead of investing the money, of which I never had enough, or time into getting my certification, I learned on the job by reading literature suggested by somms over the years and creating a blog – when they were known as weblogs – to get my thoughts down and begin dissecting the world of wine one layer of soil and aroma at a time.
I used the blog to share what I was learning gonzo-style with the hope of connecting with other wine lovers on the web, starting a dialogue and entering into a community of wine geeks, like Wine Library’s Gary Vaynerchuk and Dr. Vino. I was The East Village Wine Geek and, at a certain point, when I knew this obsession with wine would never subside, I embraced it and made it my industry. I went on to own a restaurant and a wine shop and soon began teaching people what I had learned and was continuing to learn. To this day, I still hold tastings and classes to help people understand wine in, what I hope is, a casual manner. But I am not a somm.
The word sommelier has a long history dating back to pre-revolution France derived from the French word for pack animal, somier, relating to one who was in charge of such animals and their cargo, sommelier.
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In eighteenth-century Paris, the idea of the modern restaurant took form. Aside from the common tavern, these establishments had separate tables and provided food for an individual meal spawning the design of menus. While the restaurant – from the French word restaurer, meaning to restore – spread throughout Europe, the wine world saw a major evolution in their industry. By the late nineteenth century, estate bottling – as opposed to bulk sales – changed wine commerce forever. You could now go to a restaurant and order off the menu, enjoying a meal with a single bottle of wine from a nearby estate. You can kind of see where this is going right? Restaurants began to accumulate stores of wine to offer with their menus, often keeping these bottles in the cool temperatures of the basement, building ever growing lists that would eventually be presented table side. But someone needed to help diners navigate the options.
By this point, the word sommelier had mutated from someone who herds animals to someone who was responsible for the transportation of a certain cargo. For restaurants, wine was that cargo. It was transported in, cataloged, documented and then maintained. A chef wasn’t about to do all of this if he didn’t have to. And so began the job of the restaurant sommelier.
From humble beginnings a prestige arose. The sommelier became as important as the chef. As cuisine evolved, fusioned and changed, wine became an important accompaniment to the meal, complementing the food and heightening the dining experience. It was the sommelier’s job to make sure the wine being served was appropriate for individual meals and that the wine was serviceable in the first place.
In 1907 the Union des Sommelier was formed, and over the next several decades a curriculum began to take shape. Today many countries known for their winemaking have some sort of sommelier certification bodies. The differences between those bodies can be a bit dizzying, so I won’t go into all of them. What is important to know, though, is this: becoming a sommelier is no joke. It requires industry experience, arduous hours of training, a formal education involving exams and classes on wine theory, detailed regional knowledge and the ability to asses wine blind. Beyond this, to be a somm is to have an intimate knowledge of your inventory, be able to educate the staff on any bottle at any given time, budget and maintain a solid and exciting wine program and not lose your mind. To accomplish all this is a definite feat, to the point that there are competitions around the world rewarding the best of the best.
I am not a sommelier and I do not pretend to be. I have too much respect for the history and legacy of such a position. I have a restaurant with over a hundred or so wines on the list. I buy the wine and maintain the cellar. I have an intimate knowledge of my wines and educate my staff, empowering them to have the confidence to sell that great bottle that is going to be perfect with your meal. But I have not endured the scrutiny of the sommelier curriculum. Yes, the word sommelier has a surface meaning of overseeing a certain product, but when we start applying the word to mustard or hot sauce or water it begins to dilute (no pun intended) and take away the hard work these men and women have put in to making this their livelihood. Sommeliers are wine jedis. They have trained for it. To them, “there is no try, only do.” Let’s let them have it.