From afar, the lifestyle of the successful sommelier looks quite glamorous, featuring perks such as access to a cellar full of Champagne, and with opportunities to show off one’s skills, such as adeptly pouring a magnum with one hand or detailing the weather conditions of a particular vintage from memory. But how does one actually get to become a “somm”? And, more importantly, how can you get into a great restaurant or top wine bar where your career can grow and flourish?
We sought advice from the pro wine slingers of New York City, one of the most competitive wine-industry scenes in the country. The first question was: is it necessary to get a certification? The Court of Master Sommeliers, the American Sommelier Association, and hospitality schools such as New York’s International Culinary Center all offer service-focused education that emphasizes how to store, pour, and taste wine, while the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) provides a solid knowledge base. Your fees for studying with any of these organizations can get up into the thousands, and they will require a significant time commitment. But will they get you the somm job of your dreams?
Maybe, but not necessarily. Sabra Lewis, wine director at the recently opened fine dining restaurant Günter Seeger, acknowledges that she benefited from coursework with WSET and the Court of Master Sommeliers. “The classroom setting was good for me and I enjoyed the small tasting groups that formed from that and the connections that were made,” says Lewis. “It was a good start and a good foundation.” But she also recommends looking to the broader world for learning opportunities. “The most valuable moments for me have always been in the vineyard and cellars of great farmers and producers,” she says, meaning, go out and visit winemakers and ask them questions. Working harvest in 2013 at two California wineries, Scholium Project and Domaine de la Côte, was also instrumental in helping Lewis understand the nitty gritty details of winemaking. Her respect for what winemakers do is evident in the way she presents wine to a table — and that appreciation is critical in helping guests decide to order a bottle.
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Some of the today’s most well-known and lauded sommeliers got to where they are by less formal routes. Take, for example, Patrick Cappiello, wine director and partner in Pearl & Ash and Rebelle, two of downtown Manhattan’s most happening wine-centric restaurants. Cappiello came up through the ranks at Tribeca Grill, where he was the restaurant’s first-ever sommelier, and the legendary restaurants Veritas and Gilt; all the while, his wine education came from reading books, tasting constantly, and mentorship. Today, his two restaurants have an internship program for servers who want to become sommeliers and it starts them off the same way Cappiello did — moving boxes and doing inventory in the wine cellar. You have to start with the grunt work to get to the glamour.
Whether or not you take coursework or prefer learning on the job, adopt a humble attitude at first and accept that it takes time to become a lead sommelier. “The hospitality business is a meritocracy, and if you can put in the work, the hours, and still stay on top of the knowledge, you will be successful,” says Chad Walsh, wine director at the acclaimed “new Nordic” restaurant Agern. Walsh recommends working in “the best restaurant that will offer you a job no matter the position” at the beginning of your career because you’ll learn a lot from your peers and be exposed to high standards of hospitality — and, of course, excellent wines. Victoria James, wine director at Michelin-starred restaurant Piora, echoes this sentiment: “Make sure you start by taking a job where you are learning as much as possible, under someone who is willing to teach,” she says. “This could be as a server or bartender. The best way to learn is hands-on experience.”
Any sommelier will tell you about the importance of constantly tasting wine. It’s important to educate your palate in a systematic way, taking notes and reading about producers and regions as you taste. Once you’re on staff at a restaurant, you’ll begin receiving invitations to industry tastings where you can talk with importers and winemakers while sampling the latest vintages. Go to all of these events and taste with someone whom you admire and can learn from. Don’t forget that notebook. Caleb Ganzer, sommelier at one of New York City’s best wine bars, Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, suggests working in retail at the start of your career, even if you want to ultimately be at a restaurant, because there can be more opportunities to taste wine in a retail setting.
Finally, there’s the practical question of payment. Generally speaking, sommeliers are paid just like servers are: through tipping (of course, if a restaurant is operating service-included, then it would be an hourly rate). The reality of sommelier work, even for leading sommeliers who have a role in buying wine for a restaurant, is that this is a job without benefits or paid vacation, and pay can fluctuate according to how the business is doing on a particular night or week. Some wine buyers are salaried or paid a high hourly rate. I know one New York wine director who is paid $100,000 a year, which might make you rush out to the nearest wine education program, But I also know hardworking wine directors who are paid only from tips, or at a rate of $20 an hour. One sommelier at a top restaurant (who spoke anonymously) is earning between $55,000 and $60,000 a year solely from tips. “I would love to have paid time off, health care, and maternity leave,” she says.
The lesson: don’t enter the sommelier profession hoping to get rich. Enter it because, above all, you love wine and, more importantly, because you love serving it to people. As Caleb Ganzer puts it, “You don’t get into wine to make a fortune. You get into it for the lifestyle and the perks that this business can afford you,” such as meeting winemakers, tasting great wines, and sharing your passion with others. Ganzer also cautions that somm life isn’t all fun and games. “While food and wine can look fun and attractive from the outside,” he sayd, “it is a lot of hard work and takes patience to do it right.” If financial stability becomes more of a priority for you after a few years of working as a sommelier, you can transition into a more lucrative position in the wine industry. If people know you as a serious and talented professional, the offers will come.
If there’s one key to being a successful sommelier, it’s the ability to speak to people about wine in a friendly, natural way, standing in front of them at a table. This is the art of hospitality. Bryn Hagman, beverage director at The Dutch, suggests practicing your table-side wine talk with your coworkers and friends to “get comfortable with ‘wine words.’” But then, don’t get too comfortable because lingo can sound boring or pretentious. Hagman’s pro tip: she uses the thesaurus on her phone to discover intriguing adjectives that add color to her speech. “Someone who really knows how to speak to human beings, that’s what sets a sommelier apart,” says Patrick Cappiello. Because once you’ve spent a year or two memorizing appellations and vintage charts, you need to remember that your guests might not have all that information. If you come off as intimidating when you talk about wine, know what they’ll order? Beer and cocktails. Even if you become a master sommelier one day, remember the humility of knowing very little about wine — and keep that in mind when you’re helping a table find the bottle they want. Because ultimately, it’s about them — their needs, their tastes — and not you. And this approach might help you much more than knowing the exact angle to hold a decanter.