How to Become a Sommelier: Here's the Training and Experience You'll Need
Four experts share their steps to earning this special designation.
Maybe you want to break out from behind the bar at which you work. Or perhaps your idea of a little light reading is brushing up on the latest Bordeaux to be released from wine caves in southwest France. Either way, it seems like becoming a sommelier—the person whose job it is to choose the wines served at a restaurant, pair them with dishes, and train the staff, or who has simply earned the certified honor of knowing everything about wine—is your dream. But where to start? We turned to four sommeliers for a step-by-step guide.
1. Start small. If you ultimately want to flex your wine-knowledge muscles in a restaurant, then Lauren Friel, an advanced sommelier and the consulting wine director at Committee Boston and Dirt Candy in New York, suggests you snag a job as a server.
"Understanding the way service works, tableside, is invaluable," she says. "As a sommelier, you're part of the service team, no matter how high up you get." Working in the back of the house, where you can glimpse how the restaurant operates, will also give you a 360-degree service view.
But better yet, Friel says, "get a job working for someone you respect—someone who has time to teach you." That's because, she explains, being a good sommelier comes down to knowing more than soil types and appellation d'origine contrôlée designations. "There are tricks- and tools-of-the-trade that you're only going to learn in the field, working under someone who knows what they're doing and is invested in teaching you," Friel explains.
2. Choose the right program. Google "sommelier certification," and you'll populate dozens of results, with most programs arriving at the same outcome: earning a certificate that says you can work as a pro. But how you earn that certification differs program to program.
"We all learn a little differently," points out Coly Den Haan, owner, wine director, and sommelier of at Vinovore in Los Angeles. For Haan, that meant attending classes through the Italian Sommelier Association, which broke classes down into viticulture, enology, and regions; tasting; and food pairing and service, she says. For Nick Morisi, sommelier at Yvonne's in Boston, a 12-week intensive course at Boston University did the trick; it covered about 150 wines and gave an in-depth look at every major wine region in the world, Morisi recalls.
Whatever course you take, you'll need to take a test at the end in order to earn the title "sommelier." There are four tests in total, with the last (and most difficult) test earning takers the highest sommelier designation: master sommelier. These tests are available through the Court of Master Sommeliers, and more details are available on its website.
3. Network. Andrew Rich, sommelier and beverage director at Woods Hill Table in Concord, Massachusetts, humbly admits that "making friends and meeting colleagues already in the wine world has been one of the single most important factors to my development."
Like any career or even dedicated hobby, "it's important that you have a mentor that has been in the industry longer [than you]—who is a better taster and brings a different insight into wine," Rich explains, in order to get better yourself. People who enter the field at the same time as you are people you should also pay attention to—"those relationships will be quite beneficial as you work together to gain knowledge and try new wines," points out Rich, remembering a wine shop early in his career with comrades.
"They let us open bottles and taste," he says now. "Those are still individuals I admire and whose opinions I respect.
4. Travel. Your wine education isn't over after you've earned a certification and a dream job. It's ongoing—and it's everywhere. (At least, everywhere wine in produced.) Friel says you should "get on every wine trip you can. Spend all of your vacation time going to wine regions, meeting with winemakers, eating in the local restaurants, and absorbing the wine culture. You can't fully understand a region—and, thus, a wine—until you've been there."