Becoming a good sommelier is hard work, yet it is a profession attracting many more young adults, particularly men.

It’s no wonder, given the increased availability and affordability of wines from around the world, some of which show up in the most surprising places.

Start at home

An article on the Wine Spectator blog published on January 8, 2015, describes the good deals which can be had at Costco in the US with their Kirkland Signature line (emphases mine):

Costco’s head wine, beer and spirits buyer, Annette Alvarez-Peters, oversees what is almost certainly the biggest alcohol-beverage retail operation in the United States. The store keeps prices low by famously imposing a 15 percent margin cap on all products. Wine gets no special exemption. When the products are name brands, the price tags look enticing. When Costco has a guiding hand in the creation and sourcing of the item, they are often borderline unbelievable. Enter its house brand: Kirkland Signature wines.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for example, is one of those wines you really can’t find in the U.S. market for $20—unless you shop at Costco. That’s the price at which the Kirkland Signature Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée de Nalys hovers. Sourced from the respected Domaine de Nalys, the wine usually scores in the high 80s or, in bingo vintages, even low 90s. Little surprise then that the KS brand for wine and spirits, launched in 2003, has been growing by double digits every year—now up to 4 million cases, Alvarez-Peters told me.

There are some who would turn up their noses at a generic label. Not among them: The many esteemed wineries and winemakers who actually produce the stuff. At first, Costco largely had to settle for bulk wine. “However, we found a lot of inconsistencies in the juice from year to year,” said Alvarez-Peters. “Today, the majority of the wine is sourced from name-brand wineries, and now we have developed long-term relationships.”

Although Kirkland Signature does not seem to have arrived yet at Costco in the UK, the chain has a huge selection of wines at every price level for its British members.

In the UK, the Secret Sommelier site has a blog which reviews reasonably priced wine available at supermarkets.

A good way of supplementing wine knowledge is to attend local tastings. Some British off-licences, such as Wine Rack, hold them regularly, free of charge. Customers are able to taste a variety of wines and pair them with the light bites on offer. The knowledgeable staff are on hand to give helpful advice.

Sommelier courses difficult

Before enrolling on a sommelier course, it is worth asking those you know — e.g. wine merchants — what the curriculum and atmosphere are like.

I have spoken with three over the years, one of whom was an amateur, and all said they were difficult. There is much to remember in the coursework, notes are essential and the exams are exacting. Students are expected to identify wines specifically in a blind tasting and explain why by giving a concise, yet precise, profile of the wine: look, nose and taste. Course costs are roughly several hundred pounds or dollars per certificate.

The 2012 documentary Somm gives the average person a good idea of the pressure students are under. Admittedly, the four men profiled are studying to become Master Sommeliers (MS) — open by invitation only — however, even obtaining a basic certificate requires much of one’s spare time.

Bottlenotes’ blog caught up with the ‘stars’ in May 2014 to find out what they are doing now. It should be noted that all of them had extensive experience in the wine industry before they began studying for their MS. Today, one has started his own online wine business. Another has opened a wine bar and restaurant. A third is the Winemaking Ambassador for Australia’s Penfolds. The fourth is now a Wine Director for a restaurant in New York City and has co-founded a Californian winery. Those who went into business on their own have partnered with other expert sommeliers.

Course details

Wine writer Jordan Mackay, who co-authored with Rajat Parr Secrets of the Sommeliers which I reviewed yesterday, says there is a strong possibility that the reputation of the true sommelier is on the downturn with the increased interest in amateurs taking courses. In September 2014, The Spectrum reported that he said:

“The word ‘sommelier’ is almost becoming meaningless because so many people call themselves sommelier after taking some course,” he said last month at TexSom, an annual sommelier conference in Dallas, while moderating a session on restaurant trends. “We are in danger of losing the code of sommelier as someone who works the floor in a restaurant.”

The article explains that the problem extends to Master Sommelier level:

The critics are making three main points: People who never worked in restaurants (and never intend to) become sommeliers merely by taking a test; some sommeliers working toward master sommelier certification are interested more in proving their wine-snob bona fides than in waiting on customers; and (implied in the latter) once they achieve the title, they are less likely to work as sommeliers.

Shayn Bornholm, a Master Sommelier, is examination director at the Master Court of Sommeliers. He told The Spectrum:

“We are aware of the criticisms and are considering ways to address them,” says Shayn Bjornholm, a master sommelier who is the examination director for the Court of Master Sommeliers. Last year the court saw a 20 percent increase in applications for its four levels of certifications: intro, certified, advanced and master. The first two levels are open to anyone, while the last two are by invitation only, reserved for people with strong restaurant experience.

Bjornholm emphasized that there is no official definition of “sommelier.” In many restaurants, waiters, managers or others serve as wine stewards in addition to their other duties. While the court’s advanced and master levels are for dedicated professionals, the intro and certified programs give restaurant workers and those considering such a career a perspective on the sommelier trade, he said.

The New York Journal of Books explains the specifics:

There are basically three tracks that someone wishing to earn credentials in the world of wine can follow: The wine educator track, culminating in the Certified Wine Educator; the wine business track, culminating in the Master of Wine; and the sommelier track, culminating in the Master Sommelier.

All three tracks involve blind tasting, when glasses of wine are placed in front of the exam taker, who must determine what the wines are without seeing the labels. Of the ways in which blind tasting exams are conducted, the one for the Master Sommelier is probably the toughest. The pass rate for the Master Sommelier exam is quite low, and there are only 103 Master Sommeliers in the United States and 168 worldwide. Those who pass are really good at guessing a wine.

Course fees

The US course fees for 2015 at the Court of Master Sommeliers are as follows:

Introductory Course – $525
Certified Exam – $325
Advanced Course – $795
Advanced Exam – $795
Master’s Exam – $795 per section

The page highlights in bold that applicants for the Introductory Course must already have had a minimum of three — preferably five — years of experience in the wine/service industry.

They also strongly suggest that applicants let time elapse between the Introductory Course (Level I) and the Certified Exam (Level II). No doubt the reason for this is that tasting takes practice. Practice makes perfect.

The Court of Master Sommeliers site in the UK has the same courses and shows the pins related to each level. Applying for the Introductory Sommelier Certificate requires a written explanation of why the prospective student needs the certificate. The Advanced Sommelier Course and Exam costs £685.

The UK Sommelier Association also offers courses. One of them, the Certified Sommelier Course, costs £1400 this year, however, it is five weeks long and is comprised of 18 lessons involving food and wine pairing, culminating in one oral and one tasting exam.

What customers should expect from a sommelier

Sonia Simone wrote an article about sommeliers for Copyblogger. Although she works in marketing and Copyblogger is for marketers, she says that the sommelier must also have an appealing approach to customer service.

Simone’s father is the chairman of the Sommelier Society of America, so it is not surprising that she, too, has an interest in wine.

The Society has one course which is open to all, including the amateur who wishes to expand his knowledge of wine. It is 21 weeks long and costs $1295.

Simone sat in on one of the sessions and, from it, wrote ‘5 Marketing Secrets of the Master Sommeliers’. It’s worth reading in full, because this is what every restaurant customer should expect from a sommelier.

These include —

Shaping the customer experience:

The work of a sommelier starts with building the wine list — sitting down among the universe of wines your restaurant or shop could stock … and figuring out which wines will make the cut and which ones won’t.

It’s not a simple matter of “only stock good wine.” Yes, it has to be good, but there are endless definitions of that.

Just as important as quality, the wine has to be the right fit — for your clientele, your neighborhood, the food you serve, the price point you’re working within …

Being knowledgeable and interesting:

A sommelier whose wine list is at the intersection of her own passions and the desires of her customer is a sommelier who’s going to sell a lot of wine.

And as someone who has thought deeply about (and tasted a lot of) wine, the sommelier should bring her knowledge to the table.

If she can tell a great story — about the wine or the winemaker — so much the better.

Listening to, rather than dictating, what the customer wants:

… You need to shape your offers based on a well-defined picture of who the right customer is.

But never tell people “what they want.”

You can educate, you can build a bridge between what they want and something they might like even better. But leave the condescension at home. It’s bad manners and bad for business.

Understanding your customers’ needs:

Californian and other “New World” wines are often drunk for their own sakes. They tend to be “bigger” wines with lots of flavor (and alcohol) and not much acidity. As our instructor mentioned, connoisseurs of this type of wine may knock back some stellar bottles … then have mineral water with dinner. These big wines are often just too overwhelming to serve with food …

Know how your customer wants to drink the bottle. Quite often, even leaving price aside, the “greater” wine isn’t the right wine for that customer’s needs …

Knowing your terroir (soil and environmental characteristics):

Over time, winemakers learn the intricacies of their own terroir. They learn the characteristics of wine that only they can make …

If you’re wise, this will become the foundation of your winning difference or unique selling proposition — the unmistakable thumbprint that distinguishes your business from everyone else’s.

For the rest of us

We can do this at home, too. Frequent tastings, especially with dinner, increase our knowledge and appreciation of wine.

We’ll be able to better describe wines to family and friends when they come to visit. Just as important is the increased confidence we’ll have when talking to our favourite wine merchant.

Some churchgoers believe alcohol consumption is sinful. However, many of our grand European traditions in this regard were started in monasteries centuries ago.

Where wine is concerned, even St Paul recommended it to St Timothy for the digestion:

Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.  (1 Timothy 5:23)