Sommelier? What is a Sommelier?

So. You want to be a Somm? Why? Who in their right mind wants to spend hours upon hours upon hours of their time reading magazines or books about wine, wine making and the history of wine? Writing flashcards, poring over maps, or straining your eyes at the computer when you're on a website? I know! It must be the wine tasting part. Tasting all the different wine must be fun! If you're tasting correctly, you're breaking down the wine and analyzing the color, aromas and then the taste. And, actually, you're spitting it out (gross) and thinking about what it is and where it came from. Oh, and that's if you've followed the wine grid and deductive tasting method properly. What? Wine grid? Deductive tasting method? Still think that sounds like fun?

Oh, and did I mention the different levels of examinations that you have to complete? Each progressively more challenging than the last. And that there are multiple portions to each exam? Theory, Service and Blind Tasting! So, I ask again, you really wanna be a Somm? Well, before committing to such an arduous journey, maybe we should figure out exactly what a sommelier is.

According to one definition, a sommelier is: ‘A waiter in a restaurant in charge of serving wine.’ In much simpler times, the French word sommelier, literally translated into --> butler! The word referred to a court official charged with transportation of supplies. This use of the term dates to a period when pack animals would be used to transport supplies. It can be traced even further back to its origin in Old Provençal where a saumalier was a pack animal driver. Sauma referred to a pack animal or the load of a pack animal. You read that right; originally, a Sommelier was a butler and to some degree, a beast of burden!

Nowadays, I believe that (with some bias) a Sommelier is much, much more than that. The role of the Sommelier encompasses so many aspects. They must be hospitable - welcoming, warm, gracious and be a good listener. They must understand the ins and outs of restaurant service and have strong technical skills. They must be business-minded when buying and cellaring wine. How exactly do you build a wine list, let alone construct a beverage program? A Sommelier must be a great salesperson to understand what the customer needs and find a way to meet those needs. It isn’t about telling someone they must have this wine with that food. You are there to service the guest, not give them a lesson or make them feel bad for what they like to drink. They must also be an ambassador of wine and represent all the wineries on the list. They need to be a leader, to train and motivate staff. And, above all, most importantly, must never take themselves too seriously.

It’s impressive what you have to learn and apply to be a sommelier. No doubt. With the movies Somm and Somm: Into the Bottle (with a third movie on the way) being such hits, it makes it seem like a Sommelier is a rock star of the wine world. The tremendous amount of hard work and dedication that goes into becoming a Sommelier is just glimpsed at in the films. Not to mention the unwavering support of those around you.

To be a Sommelier, you must have a love for food, beverage and people. That's right, if you love food and wine, but don’t enjoy looking after people, then somm’ing is not the career for you! Being a Sommelier isn’t about showing off what you know or about how well you can figure out what a wine is or where it’s from. It isn’t about showing off the encyclopedia of a wine list you’ve built or highlighting the food and wine pairings you’ve done. No, as I have been reminded on numerous occasions by some of the most respected people in the industry that I know - being a Sommelier is about service. Service to others. It’s never about you. Hospitality, humility, graciousness and genuine care is what epitomizes a true Sommelier.

-- Kerry Ichimasa, Assistant Wine Director