WHAT THE HECK IS A SOMMELIER ANYWAY?Ryan Poulos
You probably see the hard-to-pronounce title all the time at restaurants – the wine sommelier (by the way, it’s pronounced “sum-uhl-YAY”). You might also wonder, how is there a person whose sole job is wine? The short answer is that sommeliers actually do much more than most patrons realize, and many have gone through an extensive and demanding certification process.
The technical definition of a sommelier is anyone who is trained and knowledgeable in wine and works on the procurement, storage, cellar rotation and service to wine customers. But there’s also a full-fledged certification program for attaining different levels of expertise.
The full certification process to become a Master Sommelier is broken down into four levels by the Court of Master Sommeliers – the governing body of the program. To complete level one, you must pass the introductory course and exam, which is administered over a two-day period. Many food and hospitality professionals take this course to gain a solid understanding of wine for their day-to-day business.
The second level of the Master Sommelier certification process requires passing one-day exam that’s given in three segments, which include a blind tasting of two wines, a written theory examination and a practical service examination. Candidates are required to show up appropriately dressed and equipped for professional wine service and are given 15 minutes to evaluate two wines and fill out a tasting grid that includes several specific aspects of wine classification.
Upon successful completion of level two, you can advance to level three and take the Advanced Sommelier course and examination. After three days of intensive lectures and tastings with Master Sommeliers, a two-day examination takes place. The exam includes restaurant wine service and salesmanship, a written theory examination based on Advanced Sommelier knowledge and a blind tasting of six wines. According to the Master Sommelier’s website, “the Advanced Examination is exponentially more challenging than the Certified Sommelier Examination” required in level one.
The highest and final level of them all is becoming a certified Master Sommelier. It’s so difficult and so rare that people make it this far that since the program began in 1973, only 274 people in the world have been able to achieve the designation.
The Master Sommelier Diploma Examination consists of three parts: a theory examination, a blind tasting of six wines, and a practical wine service examination. This time it’s so difficult, however, that the pass rate for the Master Sommelier Examination the first time around is only about 10 percent.
On top of proving an advanced knowledge of pairing wines, designing menus and being able to display an expert level of skill about wines from around the world, you must also pass what’s called the “practical tasting”. This is what documentaries are made about – in just 25 minutes you must clearly and accurately describe six different wines. You must identify the grape varieties, country of origin, district and appellation of origin, and vintages of the wines tasted.
Whether you’re at a restaurant and are lucky enough to have a Master Sommelier or not – there are only 11 in Texas – you should at least now understand that there is much more to being a sommelier than just hanging out and enjoying wine!