What Is A Sommelier? A Master Sommelier’s Craft
If you’re reading this, it’s probably fair to assume that you love wine just as much as we do. While it’s wonderful to drink, it’s also important (and enjoyable!) to learn more about what you’re drinking, what to pair it with and how to serve it. That’s where a Sommelier comes in, the true elites of the wine world. Think of them as professors of wine, and read on to find out why becoming a Master Sommelier is such a big deal.
What is a Sommelier?
For many, working in the world of wine would be a dream come true, with a Sommelier role being the crème de la crème (getting paid to taste and talk about wine - where do we sign up?!)
Mostly found in high-end restaurants, Sommeliers (pronounced suh-meh-lee-ei) are there to select and purchase wine, store it correctly and advise diners on what to drink. If you’ve ordered the mackerel pâté, the sirloin or the vegan risotto, you’ll want to know which wine pairs best with it. Somms need to be charming, deft and to have your wine perfectly selected and poured before your food arrives at the table.
They are professionally trained and have a deep knowledge of the wines they’re suggesting; they’ve tried every single one of them! While tasting and recommending wine sounds like the job of our dreams, there’s actually a LOT of hard work and study that goes into becoming a Sommelier; especially a Master Sommelier - not just anyone can give themselves this covetable title. To become a Master Sommelier for example, you have to pass a series of extensive exams, and only 274 people have passed since it began fifty years ago. You could say they’re the best of the bunch...
Becoming A Master Sommelier:
The summer of 1969 was iconic for many different reasons, one being the start of the very first Sommelier exams, which were held in the UK. By 1977, The Court of Master Sommeliers was seen as the leading professional body across the world and hopefuls were applying in their droves (with many walking away empty handed, due to the intense examination period.) No wonder Sommeliers need to drink wine to pass it!
There are four exams to complete: the Introductory Sommelier Course & Exam, the Certified Sommelier Exam, the Advanced Sommelier Course & Exam, and finally, the Master Sommelier Diploma exams. These exams aren’t for the faint hearted - expect a two day course with a written theory exam on the morning of the third day for starters. It covers everything from how to serve wine, to being able to speak with confidence about a variety of grapes and wine styles. No pressure!
The second stage, the Certified Sommelier exam has three parts: tasting, theory and service. If you pass this, you’re a Certified Sommelier and can wear the coveted blue and gold pin to let everyone know just that. But if you want to get to MS level, there’s a little way to go yet.
The third step is to become an Advanced Sommelier. And you can’t start cramming for this exam just after you’ve become a Certified Sommelier (relax and enjoy your success, maybe even have a glass of wine?) You need to wait a year to adequately prepare and have at least 3 years’ restaurant experience in a sales or service role before applying and must currently work in the hospitality industry. The Advanced Sommelier exam is a 3 day long affair, and tests applicants on their theory (a written exam), their tasting (a verbal exam) and their service and salesmanship (a practical exam).
And finally, if you make it through steps one to three, you can apply for the Master Sommelier examination. Another 3 part test, this exam is considered to have the highest failure rate of any test in the world, with a pass rate of approximately 10%. No biggie....
Budding Master Sommeliers are expected to arrive appropriately suited and booted with all tools of the trade (aka definitely a corkscrew) ready to go. There is a fifty minute verbal examination on theory, covering everything from global wine laws to proper wine storage. Next is practical wine service and salesmanship, where candidates must demonstrate their knowledge of food and wine pairings, suggest aperitifs for guests, handle complaints and other awkward moments with delicacy and select and prepare glassware for everything on the menu. Lastly, a Sommelier’s most important tool is put to the test: their palate. They’ll need to identify grape varieties, regions and vintages all through tastings. Blindfolded. Our hands are sweating just thinking about it!
Applicants have 3 years to pass these incredibly difficult exams, with any failure resulting in returning to where you started. Even after all that, if you happen to miraculously pass, you may be invited to become a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers (if they deem you worthy), at which point you can add the letters MS to your professional title. Phew.
It’s no wonder that this is one of the most coveted and challenging qualifications in the world! If you ever meet a Master Sommelier, you should probably give them a round of applause (in fact, a standing ovation) - they’ve definitely deserved it!