What the Heck is a Sommelier, Anyway?

There are many wine blogs out there that talk about wine, but only a few of them talk about sommeliers and what they do.  Quite often, when I tell people I’m a sommelier I’m met with a blank stare, followed a few seconds later by, “A what?”  Contrary to popular belief, a sommelier is not a person from a certain country on the African continent;  indeed, some pronounciations of the word may make one think so.  My husband tries to simplify things by saying that a sommelier is a “wine expert”.  I love his confidence in me, but I certainly don’t think of myself as an expert.  Jancis Robinson is an expert; Hugh Johnson is an expert; Canada’s own Tony Aspler is an expert.  In the wide and wonderful world of wine, the extent of my “expertise” can be thought of as a tick trying to burrow its way into the hide of an elephant.  Now, I admit that I may know more about wine than the average bloke who lives on my block, and I would certainly love to call myself an expert one day (my goal is to pass the MW exams by the time I’m 60),  but I feel very uncomfortable calling myself an “expert”.

Back to the question of what a sommelier actually is.  The concept of a professional who specializes in the service of wine has been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  One could argue that the first “sommeliers” were employed by the Ancient Greeks for their symposiums.  The word symposium actually means “drinking together”.  The modern definition of the word as being a “learned conference” came about because of the long conversations the Greeks had over a few glasses of wine.  The Ancient Greeks always drank their wine diluted with water.  To drink it full-strength was seen as somewhat barbaric.  The person in charge of serving the wine would add more water, lessening the strength of the wine, if the conversation was getting a bit rowdy, and would add less water, increasing the strength, if it seemed the conversation was dying.  Nowadays, a sommelier would not dilute wine with water or with anything else for that matter – unless it was one of those bizarre requests from a patron – so, that brings us back to the question, “What the heck is a sommelier, anyway?”

Out of curiosity, I decided to look at a few sources  to find out their ideas of what a sommelier is.   Many definitions are very vague to say the least, so it’s no wonder much of the general public doesn’t have a clue.  For example, take the definition in the Oxford Dictionary of English; it says that a sommelier is a “wine waiter”.  That is a gross over-simplification if I ever heard one.  Since the word, “sommelier”, is a French word I decided to look in a French/English dictionary only to find that it also used the description “wine waiter”.  Sometimes dictionaries will throw around the term “wine steward”; whatever that is.  Jancis Robinson goes into a bit more detail in her Oxford Companion to Wine, in which she states that “The sommelier’s job is to ensure that any wine ordered is served correctly and ideally, to advise on the individual characteristics of every wine on the establishment’s list and on wine and food matching.”  She also goes on to say that sommeliers may also be responsible for “compiling the list, buying and storing the wine, and restocking […]the cellar.”  This is a better explanation but there is still more to being a sommelier.

The best definition I found was on Wikipedia.  Wikipedia states that a sommelier is a “trained and knowledgeable wine professional, commonly working in fine restaurants, who specializes in all aspects of wine service.  The role is more specialized than that of a wine waiter.”  (Thank you, Wikipedia.)  They also go on to say that sommeliers have “the necessity for a deep knowledge of how food and wine, beer, spirits, and other beverages work in harmony” and they liken the importance of the role of a sommelier in a fine restaurant to that of an executive chef or chef de cuisine.

Now that we have a basic understanding of what a sommelier does, let me elaborate on a few more details.  Yes, sommeliers typically work in fine-dining restaurants where they may be responsible for all the things listed above, but it’s important to note that they also have direct contact with patrons of the establishment, and good sommeliers are able to anticipate the wants and needs of guests in relation to their wine purchases.  Interacting with guests may be one of the most important responsibilities of a sommelier.  In addition, sommeliers may be responsible for inventory management and keeping the wine costs in line with the expectations of the establishment.  This, in itself, can be a huge undertaking depending on the size of the wine cellar and the frequency of its turnover.  It may also be the job of the sommelier to train the restaurant’s servers on wine knowledge and proper wine service.  It is also important to note that many sommeliers are also in charge of all other beverages available at their establishment, from beer to spirits to non-alcohol drinks.  Many sommeliers employed in restaurants also serve as managers of the establishment so add on a few of those responsibilities as well.

Not all sommeliers are employed by restaurants, however.  Many work for or as importers of wine, in wine shops, in wineries, as wine consultants, wine educators, and wine writers.

Although, technically, anyone can call themselves a sommelier as there is no governing body, there are some courses you can take in order to be able to call yourself a “certified sommelier”.  The course I took is the year long program through the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers.  The International Sommelier Guild also runs courses, as does the Court of Master Sommeliers.  More information on these courses can easily be found on the internet if you’re interested.

I hope this clears up some of the confusion and misconceptions about what a sommelier is and does.  The days of the stuffy, stiff, stuck-up sommelier who makes people feel intimidated are, hopefully, over.  Nowadays, (most) sommeliers are passionate about their jobs and  more than happy to share their knowledge and experience with you.  Most are down-to-earth and very approachable.  So, the next time you are in a fine restaurant and would like some advice about what wine to order, just ask for the sommelier.

I know there’s more, so please leave me a comment and let me know what you would like to add.

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