“You work in wine, have you seen the movie Somm? What level of certification do you hold?” This question has become ubiquitous for almost anyone who works in wine, whether on the floor of a restaurant, with a distributor, at a wine shop, or even as a lowly writer.
There is no question that the attainment of the sommelier certification is on the rise. Current figures supplied by the Court of Master Sommeliers show that people sitting for the introductory exam has almost doubled over the past five years and people sitting for the first level of certification has risen by 20 percent. But there aren’t that many restaurant jobs in America requiring someone to attain this sort of certification, so what gives?
Much like art in the ’80s where enthusiasts took classes, majored in the medium and yet never held a job in the actual profession, the attraction of wine enthusiasts to attain certification in order to prove their knowledge of wine to their peers is at an all-time high. Yet it seems to come with a fundamental misunderstanding of what it truly means to be a sommelier, and the reinforcement of this trend is slowly eroding the respect we should have for people that work in restaurants, while reinforcing an ever-growing rise in snob wine culture. The idea among the general public of what a sommelier is has been tainted by people with no interest in ever actually serving in the profession, causing the role to be seen as someone more concerned with tasting notes and being able to identify wines blind than facilitating a wonderful experience for the diner. This has ultimately led to a growing distrust for the sommelier — an unfortunate result.
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Wine enthusiast culture is nothing new, this demographic of wine consumer has always been a part of American wine, with current data showing they represent about ten percent of all wine drinkers. But what they lack in numbers, since the majority of wine drinkers make up the remaining 90 percent, they make up for in volume. Enthusiasts have held a tight grip on the industry for quite some time, influencing how we buy and appreciate wine, and that enthusiasm, especially recently, is at a fever pitch. “The idea of becoming certified as a sommelier has become trendy, the movie Somm has a lot to do with it,” Seattle wine professional Zach Geballe recently told me.
“The idea that sommeliers just sit around rattling off tasting notes and blind tasting with their peers is misleading,” said Carson Demmond, who wrote an article about the myth of sommelier certification for the site Punch Drink a few months ago. Yet, for the most part, this is the aspect of being a sommelier that most enthusiasts romanticize.
At a gathering of wine enthusiasts I attended in New York the group blind tasted expensive bottles they had brought from their respective collections. The goal was to see who could identify what each guest had brought, naming not just the region it came from, but the specific bottle and vintage. A member of the group informed me that this event was a regular occurrence for his friends and him, who during the day worked in diverse trades around the city, from finance to law and advertising. It was the primary way they drank wine together. They enjoyed challenging themselves and one another to see who “knew” more about wine, whose palate reined supreme. When I asked him whether or not these blind tastings did anything to actually help his friends and him realize the types of wines they liked or disliked he simply shrugged. In this new era of wine passion among rabid enthusiasts, it was more important to determine who knew more. Getting certified as a sommelier is just the next step in that process.
When speaking with other members of the group, many were considering taking the sommelier exam, while several others already had, yet, when asked, none of them had any plans to ever work in a restaurant. This is the main issue many take with the current state of sommelier certification. Despite the ever growing amount of people taking the exam, there is a disconnect between what a majority of those people think sommelier certification means, and what the role of a sommelier actually is. “Not everyone who is a great blind taster and knows a lot about wine is cut out to serve the public,” said Geballe.
The traditional role of the sommelier is one based on service. As defined by Wikipedia: “A sommelier or wine steward, is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, normally working in fine restaurants, who specializes in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food pairing. The role is much more specialized and informed than that of a wine waiter: In fine dining today the role is strategically on a par with that of the executive chef or chef de cuisine.” It’s a role for someone who not only loves wine, but also loves food and restaurants and is passionate about facilitating the best possible marriage of the two for guests. What being a somm is not about Demmond told me is “pushing your own creative agenda on guests or just creating a list based on your favorite obscure wines. It’s about compiling selections that complement the cuisine and make people happy. It also involves long hours on your feet and hard work, some of it dirty: unpacking cases, mastering spreadsheets, managing inventory, dealing with fussy diners and making sure service is seamless and that every glass is filled and ready before the food arrives.”
And yet currently there are a lot of certified sommeliers who have no interest in performing the fundamental role that is attached to the position. In a recent conversation with a beverage director in New York, he relayed a tale of a young would-be sommelier who recently failed her certification exam. The reason: the service portion. When he counseled her following the disappointment, she commented on how uninterested in service she actually was. Dealing with patrons was not what she thought the role of a sommelier was going to be.
Part of the issue can be attributed to the letters one is able to place after their name following passage of their certification exam. Americans are a competitive bunch. No matter what our passion, if we can become certified in said passion the appeal becomes that much more attractive. We have seen this phenomenon before where those passionate about something seek to become certified in the trade. A decade ago, at the onset of foodie culture, many people headed to culinary school, seeking the fame and fortune associated with their favorite celebrity chefs. Yet in the same way a host of people who desire to become certified sommeliers have no interest in actual service, many culinary school attendees had no clue what it meant to work the line, nor any interest.
“You can’t take someone seriously if they haven’t spent a fair amount of time in that profession. It’s one thing to pass the test; it’s another thing to work on the floor of a restaurant,” says Geballe. And it is for this reason that many people working in wine on the floor of restaurants are rejecting the certification all together. As Demmond wrote in her piece for Punch, “Sommelier” isn’t an abstract title or a generic, yet highbrow name for ‘wine expert’—it’s a job. A restaurant job. And certification is by no means prerequisite to being a good one.”
The easy target to place blame on the current phenomenon of rabid attraction to certification would be the Court of Master Sommeliers itself, but can they really be blamed for simply providing what is currently in high demand? From my conversations it doesn’t seem like anyone believes they are stoking the fire of the current craze, so should they really turn people away who want to spend their hard earned money on the certification?
In truth, the real brunt of blame lies with the culture of wine in general. More than any other beverage, wine is something for which we believe the more facts and figures you know the better appreciator you are of the substance. So if there’s a test that then allows you to challenge the knowledge you posses and become certified in it, can one be blamed for romanticizing it? When chatting with Demmond she relayed an encounter she recently had with a sommelier while dining out. During this dining experience Demmond inquired about a wine on the list of which she was unfamiliar. Instead of talking about what he loved about the wine, the sommelier instead took the question as an opportunity to recite all the facts he knew about it. “It seemed that 1. He didn’t appreciate the wine for what it was but for what he knew about it and 2. He had no idea how to help a guest choose between selections – that that wine was ‘30 percent Grenache’ (which it wasn’t) to a lay person wouldn’t tell me at all whether it was juicy or more approachable than the other wine we were interested in. Or whether it made sense for our dish. It seemed like he was more concerned with coming across as being knowledgeable than he was about giving us a great service experience. It was sad.” There is something to be said for thinking too much when it comes to wine, and trying to turn something that should be about relaxation and elevation into a contact sport where the more you know, the better a taster you are.
It seems the main solution to this whole mess would be to stop elevating the sommelier certification as the pinnacle of what it means to be a wine expert. “Attraction to being a sommelier should come from wanting to work in a restaurant, wanting to some day be a beverage director or run a restaurant group,” said Demmond.
Zach Geballe puts it this way: “The single most important part of being a sommelier is facilitating the best experience for the customer possible, not pushing people to an obscure wine you are geeking out on, or proving how much you know. Some people look at the sommelier position as a glamour position, which is elevated above the service industry, and look at being a sommelier as a way to side step actually working your way up on the floor.”
All trends eventually pass, as this one will too. In the meantime, it’s important to recognize the achievement of those who have worked on the floor as sommeliers, whether certified or not. It seems all certified sommeliers are not created equal.
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