There’s no better way of learning about the wine business and the sommelier profession than talking with a sommelier. Every person in the industry has their own experiences, lessons learned, and tips to share, so you’ll learn something from everyone.
B.R. Franco is a certified sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS). After almost ten years running wine programs in the restaurant and hospitality industry, including three Wine Spectator Award of Excellence programs, Franco moved on to wine education and became an independent freelance food and wine writer. Here are his thoughts about a few topics we think might interest you.
How is sommelier pronounced?
Sommelier is a French word that means wine steward or the person in charge of wine. It’s pronounced suh-mel-yay and rhymes with “every day.” Of course, many people now call us somms. Whenever I approach a table, I start with something like “Good evening, my name is Franco, and I’m the sommelier,” almost always followed by a ‘what’ face and a “huh?” and then I say, “I’m the wine guy!”. People get it right away, and I just broke the ice.
When I worked as a restaurant manager and sommelier, I introduced myself to the manager; when guests have a problem, they want to speak with the person in charge, not the wine guy, even if it’s the same person.
How much does it cost to become a sommelier?
Being a sommelier is free; I mean, it’s not that much a title but an occupation; it’s just a job. If you’re responsible for wine at a restaurant, you’re the sommelier. I know sommeliers with no certifications who work at Michelin-starred restaurants.
Of course, if you want to get a better job or work at a high-standard establishment, you might want to get certified as a somm. There are plenty of schools and programs to earn a sommelier degree, and not all of them are as expensive as you might think. Many people attend classes for a year and get certified internationally. Others pay for the examination, as with the Court of Master Sommeliers.
The problem with just taking the exam is that almost everyone has to take each exam multiple times. I found that out the hard way. It is better to take a wine course and then take the sommelier exam. I really wish I had done that.
How to become a sommelier?
To become a sommelier, you have to master three aspects of wine: tasting, service, and theory: a deep understanding of the world of wine. Tasting takes practice and guidance; joining a serious wine tasting group is a good idea. You learn service on the floor, like a server, the more time you spend taking care of guests, the better you get at it.
Some institutions like the Court or the Wine & Spirit Education Trust have different levels you can gradually achieve, but they’re not mandatory to become a somm in a restaurant. What’s expensive is that you never stop learning; the world of wine changes fast, and you have to be up to date. You have to taste many wines, and that might get expensive.
The theory part is more complicated. You have to know the wine laws of dozens of countries, their climates, soil types, wine styles, grape varieties, history, and even their food. It’s challenging, but it’s quite fun if you have a passion for it. It’s like traveling without leaving home; of course, traveling helps too.
What does sommelier mean?
The sommelier is the person that takes care of the wine. That’s it. The word has actually a very different meaning: in medieval Europe, the sommelier was in charge of buying groceries for its patrons; and I guess there was plenty of wine involved too. A sommelier knew his stuff; he could tell if the food was good or not if his patrons were getting what they asked for in the first place.
These days, many sommeliers don’t work at restaurants at all. People now get sommelier certification before working at a winery or a wine import company. Those somms usually get their certification at a school that focuses more on the liberal arts, like England’s Wine & Spirit Education Trust or America’s National Wine School.
What does a sommelier do?
A sommelier can do many things and play many roles. Strictly, a sommelier should work the floor; it has to be part of the team and take care of guests every night. That’s if we see it technically. In reality, a sommelier can work around wine in many ways.
You can work in the wine business’s retail side, visiting establishments selling wine, for example. Teaching is an excellent field for sommeliers, too, especially after a few years in the hard-pounding restaurant industry; it’s a nice break. Corporate sommeliers might oversee wine programs without actually working on-premise, negotiating prices, putting wine lists together, making sure you’re running a profitable program; that’s fun too.
My favorite trend is sommeliers working outside the grind of restaurant life. So many somms are now winemakers or running their own wine companies. It’s nice to see.
What are the sommelier levels?
When people talk about sommelier levels, they usually refer to the Court of Master Sommeliers program levels, the most respected institution for wine professionals. You start by taking a level 1 examination, all theory, multiple answers about wine, beer, and spirits. You’re not officially a sommelier until you pass a second-level test, which involves three parts: theory, blind tasting, and service. The exam is quite severe, mainly because you are (obviously) nervous, but around eighty percent of the people pass.
Then there’s the third level, which earns you the coveted green pin and Advanced Sommelier title. Just a handful of sommeliers pass the exam every year; it’s tough. Not as tough as trying to pass the Master Sommelier examination. Only a few hundred people have passed it in several decades.
Which certification is best?
It depends. It’s never about the certification, the school, or the institution you’re aligned with. It’s about you and your constant improvement. There are many wine schools reviewed right here on SOMM. Many of these programs might be what you need to get the foot on the door to hospitality or get a job. If you want to work on the academic side of wine, then the WSET or NWS might be best for you.
To actually work with wine in a restaurant environment, the Court of Master Sommeliers has you covered. I have heard excellent things about other schools, but most are not explicitly geared to restaurant work like the Court is. One thing I would say, though, is that I’ve changed my mind about the court. In the last few years, a lot has come out about how they do business, and it’s disgusting. I can’t recommend them, at least for right now.
Getting certified is the first step. Many certified sommeliers relax and quit studying; their knowledge is useless in a year. The world of wine is constantly changing. You have to keep learning.
Can a somm smoke?
No one should smoke. And it’s never OK to do it, no matter your profession, because of health, you know? Having said that, the hospitality industry is stressful. Long shifts irritating customers, bosses, and coworkers; everyone needs a break. I know many sommeliers that smoke, at least at the end of their shift, but make no mistake, you lose part of your olfactory perception.
The sense of smell is severely handicapped if you smoke regularly, and no sommelier can perform at its best like that. If you aren’t planning on quitting, at least quit smoking a few months before a significant examination, and never smoke before your shift on the restaurant floor; there’s nothing worse for a customer than letting your cigarette scent interrupt their dinner.
What is a sommelier salary?
A sommelier’s paycheck can vary greatly, depending on their role in the industry and their qualifications. A sommelier will have a decent salary in a restaurant, similar to management; they might get bonuses for achieving sales goals and commission for every sale; every establishment is different. Don’t get me wrong. You will never get rich working at a restaurant. Sommeliers make an average of around $40,000 and $70,000 a year.
A Master Sommelier might earn twice as much, mostly because it is rare for them to work at a restaurant. How much you make depends on many factors, but overall, a sommelier is reasonably paid and has an enviable job.
The Ultimate Directory of Sommelier Courses in America
Want to attend a virtual wine tasting with one of the top wine educators in America? Then check out our list of the top online wine classes.
The top sommelier schools are now offering cutting-edge sommelier certifications from the comfort of your own home.
Whether you are looking for a fun night out or seeking to jumpstart a new career, you owe it to yourself to read our reviews.
For the current scandals plaguing the CMS –including charges of racism and sexual violence– please refer to this page: Master Sommelier Scandals