There’s been some controversy recently about non-restaurant people usurping the title of “sommelier.” After all, the very definition of the word, per the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “a waiter in a restaurant who has charge of wines and their service: a wine steward.” So, by that definition, am I a sommelier? Not in the least. My last restaurant experience was in the Dairy Queen drive-thru several years (okay, decades) ago, upselling high-margin extras: “Would you like nuts and whipped cream on that sundae?” Is it to impress my winemaker customers? Not really. From the perspective of the production side of the business, winemakers and somms seem to be more like “frenemies” than true allies. Is it part of the continuous academic growth and challenge that some crave? A little.
So why the sommelier route? While I’ve sold oak products to wineries for over a decade, the industry supplier where I spent 13 years is more widely known for its closure and packaging side of the business, and I definitely have a healthy dose of geek-level cork-capsule-and-screw-cap expertise. But with closures, one always hopes for neutrality; the goal is to leave the wine the way the winemaker intended, without contributing ANY flavors (TCA, oxidation, reduction, etc.). Diving from the top of the bottle into the bottle requires some different skills because barrels or alternatives do significantly (for better or for worse!) impart aromas, flavors, weight, and texture to the finished wine. Third party palate validation through a quantifiable system of tasting and describing wine using The Court of Master Sommeliers’ Deductive Tasting Method is a great way to ensure that what I am tasting when I’m in the barrel room with my customers has some basis in objectivity. There are a few other excellent certification programs, but the one I completed previously didn’t have a tasting component, and the ones that did didn’t work logistically for a mom who runs a full-time business from home but still travels a lot.
But at its crux, the reason is less rational and more emotional. For those of us who develop a passion for wine but don’t actually make any wine or work in a vineyard, there is a deep need to be somehow connected to the grapes, the growers, and the makers; to feel like a part of the process, even if only through our shared enthusiasm, camaraderie, and nerdy love of the minutest details intrinsic to the world wine community. It’s why so many shout about wine into the social media abyss, wax poetic about it on blogs, publish wine reviews that may or may not ever be read by another human, and study its history and service tradition even if there’s never any professional opportunity or intention of pouring it for others. Education and certification through competitive programs can help validate a fierce and somewhat crazy obsession with what is, at the end of the day, just grape juice. When you make wine, you end up with a bottle, something deliciously tangible. When you merely adore, study, and stalk wine and its people, it is reassuring to finally have something real, albeit a piece of paper and a pin, to show for the hours (days, months, years!) spent with noses buried in books, flash cards, wine cellars, and wine glasses in the quixotic pursuit of this elusive wine world, that says, “You belong here.”
Congratulations on being “official.” I live in Napa Valley and feel the urge to get my somm certification from time to time. But I was recently at Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg and the nationally known chef, Charlie Palmer, introduced us to his “somm.” No formal training, but clearly had a strong palate and knowledge of wines. It’s an interesting question you pose and I understand why you went through the program. Looking forward to reading more of your stuff. You may enjoy our wine country blog at http://www.topochinesvino.com. Follow us if you like what you see.
Thank you, John, and I will definitely check out your blog! And yes, there are thousands of somms with no formal training who head restaurant wine programs all over the world, and for them I have the utmost respect. Keeping one’s composure on the floor and making guests’ experiences great is harder than it looks when you’re on the other side of the table!