How to become a Sommelier is probably one of the top three question I hear in the business. I usually respond jokingly, “Well, it’s definitely not something your guidance counselor ever told you about.” The following tips are what I can offer based on my own path and the current trends in the wine industry.
I once went on a run of working 44 out 45 days in the business. It was a combination of having to work and wanting to work. If an opportunity ever presents itself, take it. Every time you are doing something you gain two things: one, experience and two, respect. Both of which will not go unnoticed. Too many times have I had Sommeliers under me asking about hours and days off only to turn around and ask for growth and opportunities. I am not suggesting people do not deserve some R&R, but if there are several people all jockeying for the same position and/or opportunity, the one who is always ready to go inevitably gets the nod.
BE PASSIONATE OR GET OUT
We have all heard the same thing, do what you love. The secret behind the saying is if you truly are doing what you love, work no longer feels like work. It consumes you, becomes part of you. In turn, you will experience success and happiness that is indescribable. Not a day goes by where I wake up not thinking about wine. Every morning I am answering emails before I even get out of bed. At work it is all about wine. Ultimately, it is still more wine at home. Wine, wine and more wine. If wine does not feel like it is running your life you may be able to get by, but you will never excel at the sommelier profession. Make it your obsession.
CHASE THE WORK, NOT THE PIN
A concerning trend these days is that if you have certain pins and/or certifications the promise of landing the job you desire will be waiting for you. That thought is not true. EXPERIENCE above all else is key. Some of the sharpest minds I have ever encountered in this business have never sat for a test or received a certificate. They simply have immersed themselves in a lot of what I described in the two previous points. Take that internship. Take the part-time opportunity. Learn from those experiences and get it on your resume. If I had two candidates in front of me for a Somm position and one had a bright shiny pin but zero restaurant experience, and the other had never taken a wine class but had passion and years of experience working in wine-related concepts, I’d take the latter every time. Just because you know a lot of information about wine does not always mean you know about the restaurant or hospitality industry.
DON’T BE ONE DIMENSIONAL
When I first got in the business here in Chicago about 10-years-ago, I’d say there were maybe 100 or so people competing for around 30 full-time Somm positions. Today, there are probably over 1,000 qualified candidates competing for about 40 full-time positions. So, if you are relying on wine knowledge alone, good luck. Wine knowledge is about a quarter of what it takes to be competitive these days.
Are you good at math? You need to understand P&L’s (or better known as profits and losses), costing, inventories, variance reports, and dollar cost averaging.
Are you a people person? Being a sommelier means a lot of networking, leveraging, and programming involved to be amongst the elite.
Are you innovative? The people who bring new ideas to the table are the ones who move up in the ranks.
Can you perform? Every sommelier should be required to take improv classes, in my personal opinion, to adapt to every single possible clientele.
Can you make your program profitable? Your employer already assumes you know a lot about wine, they want you to make them money.
Are you physically fit? My last shift on the floor consisted of 20,414 steps walked and 84 flights of stairs over a 13-hour day according to my iPhone.
The more you can bring to the table, the more valuable/wanted you will be.
By far, the number one way to learn about wine is to visit the places that make it. It is very hard to describe but there is nothing as good as seeing the places in person you are studying. It is like putting the hardest puzzle together and then all of sudden the pieces just seem to fit when you see it. I feel most comfortable talking about and teaching about the regions I have been to. So if you have the opportunity, visit as many wine growing regions as you possibly can. Start with the major ones and work your way towards the less-known ones.
Possibly the best lesson I’ve ever learned is to have a balanced approach. A lot of people interested in becoming a sommelier are way too involved with pride and their own personal beliefs of what wine should or should not be for whatever reason. The most important person in the wine business is the guest. Know your concept and clientele. Balance out your passion and their passion. You may not want to carry that commercial wine, but your guest probably loves it. You will not have a job long if people don’t come back to your restaurant because they are not comfortable with the wine selection. Balance your lists and concepts with things that make sense for everyone, not just you.
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