Sommeliers are leaving the restaurant business in droves due to better-paying job offers elsewhere. The historically low pay and long hours have left them with very little time or money to have much of a personal life. This includes sommeliers with and without the professional credentials. In fact, the majority of sommeliers who have passed the exam and are credentialed have accepted higher-paying jobs elsewhere.

“When the big boys come calling, waving those nice big fat paychecks, they’re hard to ignore,” said a winemaker I met at a recent dinner.

He says he wasn’t enticed away because he was able to make a good inexpensive wine priced at just $10 a glass right on-premise. But in truth, he is in a way part of the trend, as many Master Sommeliers end up representing national brands that sell high-volume wines at affordable prices.

While the major exodus from the restaurant business does make sense, it also raises the question as to whether the prestigious degree that inspired the movies “Into the Bottle” and “Somm” is really just another hunting license. Maybe this degree is simply a way of exploiting those interested in the perceived glamor of the wine business, which in reality is extremely competitive, offering largely low-paying jobs.

I was curious about all of this, so I got together a group of MSs to see if I could figure out why they bothered to sit for the exam to get their credentials. I wanted to understand what wines they loved enough to promote during their careers, and what it was that motivated them to take corporate jobs.

This exam is no piece of cake, but nearly every MS I spoke to said they saw this as an intellectual challenge they wanted to meet and a personal goal they were driven to achieve. The wine industry offers little in the way of recognized degrees, but they felt this credential did set them apart at the end of the day. I was told that it brought them more career opportunities and ones that offered bigger paychecks.

Many people seek out the MS degree just to carry the title. There are just a handful of institutions regulating the qualifications required in the wine industry. These would include the Institute of Masters of Wine, Court of Master Sommeliers, both having been established in England and the National Wine School, the one program developed and offered in the United States.

Having a notable title or degree is very important in the U.S. and this certainly not lost on those in the wine business, but it’s ironic since most of the French nobility were killed off in the French Revolution, just because they did have them.

I heard stories from many sommeliers about how they and their families really suffered when they worked at restaurants. They had little personal time together and a very erratic income with little or no benefits.

One former sommelier said, “To succeed one has to be willing to relocate to cities offering the best jobs, otherwise you won’t make a decent paycheck. It might easily be someplace not very appealing, not to mention the inconvenience of it all.”

Having the degree does open doors to consulting jobs and those in staff training. An MS can also have a certain amount of clout if they’re working for a wine producer or a wholesaler who offers their wines to restaurants. In fact, there are some major players now working for wine producers in Napa Valley.

A wine-rep with this type of credential would clearly be an advantage for the marketing company selling wine, as well as for the MS. By having an MS on staff you have more credibility as a company. You can establish a reputation as being serious about the actual wine you are selling, rather than a company that would just sell anything to make a buck.

Although it’s clear that an MS on staff may impress the outside world, in reality it is highly unlikely that they would find fault with any of the wines their employers are selling. On the other hand, one restaurateur I recently spoke with said he feels a bit awkward when an MS comes calling with a bunch of wine brands they’re trying to hawk.

Because wine is glamorized in the movies, there is a certain amount of cachet associated with the profession and this encourages the youth entering the job market to seek out this particular degree. Many of the millennials who’ve earned the degree have taken some of the snootiness out of the wine business, but you still have an excessively determined industry foisting underappreciated and maybe even questionable wines upon everyday consumers.

The latest crop of somms are more likely to move from place to place because their employer finally got the picture that the wine selection at the restaurant was nothing to brag about and not making them any money. The fact is that an MS holds a service position, one that takes care of customers, but must also make money for the establishment.

A sommelier that has been given a lot of responsibility is usually involved in other aspects of running a restaurant, doing much more than just selling wine on the floor. They must worry about how the POS system is working and what the well drinks are costing, etc.

MSs are abandoning the restaurant business in a quest for a more interesting ways of being involved in the world of wine. They might venture out to make their own wine, start a restaurant, or even a wine distributorship.

It is kind of funny to see the manner in which some MSs have reinvented themselves. The irony is that a lot of them have spent careers in staff positions touting wines from exotic regions of the world, like Bali, and suddenly they’re selling brands that are highly commercial.

These brands are among many that new SMs would never have stooped to consider for a wine program way back when. This underscores the change in focus that takes place with many MSs once they’ve departed the restaurant business.

The corporate world has opened its arms up to the new Masters and these companies are throwing money their way to rep wines using their clout. They want an MS to add the look of legitimacy to the wines they’re producing even if they’re stale old commercial brands.

Career of the Master Sommelier
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