What exactly is a Sommelier?

Anyone who fancies themselves a bit of a wine connoisseur knows that you don’t pronounce the “T” at the end of cabernet or merlot. Instead, these words end in a breathy vowel. The more wine savvy among us can even rattle off words like gewurztraminer and Montepulciano with the proper stresses and sound nearly German or Italian. Why is it, then, that only a handful of people can say “sommelier” correctly? Mispronounced variations range from sam-o-yeah to su-ma-e-air. The correct pronunciation of sommelier is: sum-mul-yay. Yes, the “L” is pronounced. If getting the tongue properly positioned, even after a few glasses of wine, proves too difficult, just say “wine steward” instead – that is the literal translation.

For whatever reason, most wine terms have lost their national inflection or have been Anglicized, while the word sommelier has not. This probably has to do with the notion that an expert on wine is so labeled because they are somehow above the fray, aloof, arrogant – traits often attributed to the self-crowned kings of the wine world: the French. And if it’s French, then it must be superior.

The origins of the contemporary sommelier are pretty prosaic. To take the title in the past, all one needed to do was pay for it. The practice dates back to the 1500s and originated in France, when un homme would glom on to the retinue of a nobleman or king, pay a hefty fee, then take on the task of keeping the provisions of the royal carriage, called a somme, stocked.

The other part of the sommelier’s job was to ensure the perishables were still edible and that none of the food or wine had been poisoned. To do so, he had to take a little nibble or sip. During the reigns of certain, less popular monarchs, or in the service of a particularly despised nobleman, the job of sommelier could be short lived, indeed.

Through the years the position evolved, and was brought to the U.S. in the form of the snooty fellow in the dated tux. By the 20th century, sommeliers were arriving at a diner’s table and coercing guests into buying that $200 bottle of wine no one thought was all that great. The amount of revulsion diners felt toward the haughty men and their little sippy-spoons on a chain forced true wine professionals and professional lovers of wine to drop the title and label themselves wine stewards or wine waiters. Only recently has the stigma of the sommelier faded; it has become the lofty title some would have us believe it deserves to be. The position does require a great deal of dedication and the sort of mind and palate one might label as either genius or freakish.

There are several sommelier-sanctioning bodies in the wine world today, each offering what it considers to be the best training available. Two highly respected ones in the U.S. are the Sommelier Society of America (SSA) and the American Sommelier Association (ASA).

The SSA began in 1954 as a union of wine captains at New York’s tony 21 Club who felt that they were not being as well looked after as the waitstaff. Over the years, the group developed into an education and accreditation organization, until 1999, when a radical bric of wine tasters broke away with dreams of going national, spawning the ASA. Both bodies operate nationwide, though the majority of their membership lives in the Northeast. Certification is earned by completing a 20-week program that walks the student through the world of wine. A test is given at the end of each session, culminating in a rigorous final exam. Pass rates for both schools are high, and within weeks of completing the course a fancy diploma will arrive in the mail announcing to the world that you are a certified wine geek.

While both are distinguished certification organizations, they cannot hold a candle to Court of the Master Sommeliers, a select group recognized around the world as the preeminent wine education body.

As the name suggests, this organization is the end-all, be-all wine “school.” The Court was founded in England, where the first Master Sommelier passed the test in 1969. It took a decade for the Court to perfect the qualifications that are now viewed as the gold standard in the world of wine education, service training and salesmanship. In 1977, an American chapter opened. Only a handful of candidates have ever earned the Master Sommelier degree. There are 74 Masters in North America: 61 men and 13 women. There are only 130 worldwide.

To enter the Court of the Master Sommeliers, wannabes must pass three testing levels. Step one is the Introductory Course, a two-day seminar that covers the world’s wine regions, viticulture, viniculture, appellations and production methods of beer, spirits and cigars. At the end of the seminar, a multiple-choice test is given, for which a score of 60 percent is required to pass. Roughly 90 percent who take the Introductory Course get through.

Next is the Certified Sommelier Course. This one is considerably more difficult. Following a three-day seminar, the aspiring wine epicurean has one hour to complete an 82-question test. Next is the blind-tasting portion of the exam, in which the wine cadet must swirl, sniff, taste, then successfully identify six wines. To make it more awkward, the Court appoints two Master Sommeliers to quiz the taster while he sips. The final section is the restaurant service test, during which candidates pour, serve, answer detailed, if not impossible, food pairing questions, and practice their conflict resolution skills. It would be fun to offer a few examples of what sorts of conflicts test takers need to resolve, but these faux disputes are hush-hush. To reveal this information would compromise a test that is so difficult, only 25 percent of takers pass.

To earn the Master qualification, a candidate must be invited. They are also required to wait a year between passing the Certified Course before making their first attempt at the monster of a Masters test. The format is identical to the second exam, except that it is entirely oral, far more detailed and exacting. The pass rate of the Master exam is only 3 percent.

Some sample questions from the final exam (we can reveal these because they change frequently):

1. Name the third growths of Margaux.
2. Describe Loupiac wines.
3. What is the system of Port vineyard grading?

A sample service-related question: What would be an appropriate wine to pair with Soufflé Rothschild? Hint: The soufflé includes candied fruits and Goldwasser, a German liquor with flecks of real gold.

“The hardest part of preparing for any of the MS exams,” says Joe Spellman, who passed the exam in 1996 and was recently elected the chairman of the Court, “is the uncertainty about depth of information required for the theory exam, the equipment available for the practical exam, and the performance anxiety of the tasting exam (six wines in 25 minutes). All are tough, even on seasoned pros, and I feel that I was able to get through them by isolating the tasks and compartmentalizing my work as I prepared. Still, the unpredictability is most frustrating, to be combated only by taking deep breaths.”

Or deep gulps.

Which raises the question, what sort of person would put himself through such a time-consuming, life-altering course of study? In any avocation there must be the moment the acolyte hears the call. For Spellman, it was in the late ’70s, when he was working as a part-time bartender in a mildly upscale restaurant located in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.

“The ‘light bulb’ wine for me was a Puligny-Montrachet by Domaine Leflaive,” Spellman reminisces. “The owner, Alan Mallory, was a wine devotee who wanted to share the bug. My previous wine experiences had ranged from Inglenook Navalle Rose (only on Thanksgiving, at home) to the odd Liebfraumilch (a college apartment staple) to an occasional Chianti (at a pizza joint). The Puligny seemed so much more profound and long in flavor – and I knew it was more costly than most of the rest of the wines we sold, so I wanted to find out more.”

When not keeping order in the Court, Spellman is the director of education at Joseph Phelps Winery – a winery whose 2002 “Insignia” was voted the top wine of 2005 by Wine Spectator.

Of course, a wine expert need not have the MS tacked onto the end of their name, and many of the most praised sommeliers in the world do not. Often, through years of exposure to the wines, cocktails and service-related issues, many fine dining restaurant professionals achieve a similar level of expertise without ever having taken any exams or earning any diplomas.

Along the way they, too, have developed an extensive body of knowledge to draw upon for that odd evening when a guest demands ice and a shot of cola in their Pommard.

Given the amount of training and knowledge a sommelier brings to the table, a diner should take advantage of what a good wine waiter has to offer. There are a few things that one can do to enhance the interaction. First, tell them your price range. While this may strike some as crass, this conversation can be held discreetly. Armed with this information, a good sommelier will be better able to guide a diner to those great value wines on long lists that are often overlooked, and one will avoid the problem of having the sommelier flip the wine list to the back page, where the $2,000 Bordeaux are listed – an act not meant to be construed as presumptuous, but as a demonstration of the sommelier’s certainty that the person they are dealing with is one of great sophistication and means. Right? Other helpful hints include: Inform the sommelier what you and your guests are having for dinner; let him/her know what you have enjoyed in the past; let him/her know what you have not enjoyed. Lastly, remain open-minded. Then, let the sommelier do the talking. In many cases, their knowledge of lesser-known varietals, little-known growing regions or rare finds will greatly enhance the evening – and enhancing your experience is part of the reason they became sommeliers.

Written by Kevin Lynch, “The Making of a Master Sommelier”

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