So after my last post I read a thread which posts the question, "Do you have to work in a restaurant to be a sommelier?"
The answers were all over the place, though in this case they all referred to wine. Many felt the term was strictly restaurant specific. Most seemed to think that the term can refer to anyone who is a wine professional. Some felt that a strong educated interest qualified.
Merriam-Webster is quite specific, "a waiter in a restaurant who is in charge of serving wine: a wine steward." First known use was in 1829. The term derives from the Middle French, "soumelier: official charged with transportation of supplies, from old french, pack animal driver."
Merriam-Webster also asks why the word was referenced. There were 62 responses. Many concerned pronunciation. An equal number wanted to know what the word meant. A good number had children or knew someone who was a sommelier. Most of these were wine sommeliers, most restaurant, a couple were retailers. And most were wine, there were also coffee, water, tea, tomato, fresh raw juice, chocolate and beer sommeliers.
The Court of Master Sommeliers does not help. Though their focus is always on service, they offer their lower two levels of certification to those in the wine trade or to anyone serious enough to pay the money to take the tests. They're not cheap and they're not easy. I know a number of professional 'wine consultants' who have taken the tests and not passed. The Advanced and Master certificates are only open to serious candidates with a minimum of five years in wine service and written recommendations from Master Sommeliers.
Sommelier skills certainly apply to retail wine sales. To work in a large store requires knowledge of all major wine regions, the culture, the food, the wines , the grapes and the producers. Customers expect to find menu consultants, food and wine pairings and wedding and party planning. I've had customers call from Paris, New York, Las Vegas for help making selections from wine lists. One called from his Alaskan cruise ship, he had to put his phone down to take a picture of a calving glacier. On the service side, we are expected to make recommendations on opening and decanting, proper serving temperature and storage.
So, somm or no somm?
I wrote in my previous blog Semi Somm about my sister's reaction to the movie SOMM. She had a similar lengthy reaction to my onesided reporting of her position. She is an ardent believer in greater knowledge about almost everything. She has been to biodynamic farming workshops in Napa, she has been through professional wine education courses. What she's against is elitism and certification for certification's sake. You can read her words in her comments to the previous post.
There is a reaction to the sommsnobbery.Here's a link to a column in the Washington Post which begins with the question, "Are we seeing a backlash against sommeliers?" Yikes!
But the need for educated wine sellers is greater than ever. Wine, like everything else is rapidly fragmenting. Electronic media combined with modern transportation and marketing have made small producers available like never before. But the consequence is that reading a good wine list or walking into an unfamiliar wine shop is more bewildering than ever. And the key to reaping the benefits is a well trained sommelier or wine consultant who is passionate about his or her products.
Or of course you can shop the major brands off a plastic wine list and at a nationally franchised restaurant at your megachain discount grocery store.