“Traditionally, a sommelier was someone with sufficient wine knowledge that worked in a service-based business, generally the restaurant floor,” Master Sommelier Randall Bertao says. “We’ve certainly seen the role of a sommelier evolve, just as we’ve seen dining and different types of restaurants evolve.”
These days, more individuals forge their reputations on restaurant floors and then go on to work as full-time winemakers, retailers, brand representatives, educators, or authors. They are still referred to as “sommeliers” in mainstream media. Meanwhile, the term is increasingly familiar to even the most casual wine drinkers and teetotalers due to the success of documentaries like “Somm.” As a result, enrollment in certification programs is up, and more people are calling themselves and others “somms,” regardless of whether they’ve ever set foot on a restaurant floor.
It begs the question: What constitutes a modern-day sommelier? Do wine industry professionals need to work in consumer-facing roles to be considered a bonafide sommelier? And how does the evolution of the term change the importance of certification?
“For me, a sommelier is someone who works in the restaurant every day. Once you’re off the floor, you’re no longer a sommelier,” Rajat Parr, a one-time sommelier who now heads winemaking operations at Domaine de la Côte, Sandhi, and Evening Land Vineyards, says.
On top of his winemaking duties, Parr continues to consult for restaurants, but remains unequivocal in his view: “I’m 100 percent a winegrower and winemaker,” he says. “I worked the floor for 18 amazing years; those were the years I was a sommelier.”
Meanwhile, NYC wine professional Jeff Porter takes more of a “once a Marine, always a Marine” approach. “If you’ve been on the floor serving wine, and you’ve literally been in the trenches, you’re a sommelier and you’ll be a sommelier for the rest of your life,” Porter says. “Does that mean you do it every day? No.”
Sarah Clarke, beverage director for the Los Angeles-based Mozza Restaurant Group, also thinks service experience is vital for those who consider themselves sommeliers. But when asked whether someone needs to still work on the floor to use the title, she says, “No, not at all.”
Another divisive topic within the sommelier conversation is the importance of formal certification. Through educational organizations like the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), sommeliers can prove their wine knowledge, helping them rise through the ranks and gain higher-earning positions. But formal certification is by no means the only way of achieving success.
In 2015, Parr won the James Beard Foundation’s award for Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional. Parr only ever took one class with the CMS before deciding it wasn’t the path for him.
He’s not alone. Patrick Cappiello, the one-time partner of now-shuttered NYC wine institutions Pearl & Ash and Rebelle, and an esteemed winemaker, never gained certification through the Court or any other body. Cappiello says it’s “crazy” to focus on how an individual reached their position, and whether they gained certification or not. “We’re not doing brain surgery here, we’re serving people booze,” Cappiello says. “If you’re running a wine program and people are coming to drink wine and they’re getting excited about it, you’re doing it right.”
The thing is, Parr and Cappiello are also males in a traditionally male-dominated industry. The importance of certification for women and other minorities in the industry can play out differently.
“When I started trying to get more involved in the wine world, I had a really hard time just getting a foot in the door anywhere,” says Helen Johannesen, owner of L.A. wine shop Helen’s Wines and beverage director for Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s restaurant group Joint Ventures. She had experience as a restaurant manager and considerable service experience, but with a lack of direct wine experience, job offers were nonexistent. “I felt really disheartened and that society was telling me in subliminal ways I needed this certificate, or I needed to prove through a test that I had wine knowledge,” she says.
When she spoke with VinePair, Johannesen did not cite her gender as being a factor in her difficulties entering the industry. But given how many female sommeliers share experiences of guests quizzing and challenging them, and occasionally even sending them away from the table, it would make sense if wine professionals from minority or marginalized groups felt additional pressure to gain certification.
“Everybody comes from a sommelier background, just in regards to their profession before, but we don’t want to hold them to having to go through the process of the Court of Sommeliers,” says Amy Racine, wine director of 701West at the Times Square EDITION hotel in NYC. Racine oversees a team where all servers are also sommeliers. Some but not all hold formal certification. “We want them to do whatever feels right for them,” she says.
The highest certification awarded by the CMS is the Master Sommelier Diploma, a degree so challenging that “there are 165 professionals who have earned the title of Master Sommelier as part of the Americas chapter since the organization’s inception,” according to the CMS website. Among those, only a fraction continue to work on the floor. (As for gender disparity within the profession, 139 of the 165 are men, while 26 are women.) If passing this exam is, indeed, the pinnacle of any sommelier’s career, why do so few continue to work on the floor afterward?
“I think everyone believes that if they [pass the MS exam], it’s somewhat of a ticket for a salary or a title, and the door opens up beyond just becoming a beverage director,” Sam Benrubi, host of “The Grape Nation” podcast on Heritage Radio Network, says.
Benrubi has interviewed over 150 wine industry professionals for his show, a large proportion of whom are sommeliers. He believes it’s inevitable for somms to one day leave the floor. “Eighty-hour work weeks, standing on the floor, the intensity — you just outgrow that when you get into your 40s and 50s,” he says.
Brian McClintic was one of the candidates in the first “Somm” documentary. He passed his Master Sommelier exam during filming but now runs a curated wine club, offering personalized cuvées from some of the world’s leading wineries.
McClintic says the problem with the Master Sommelier Diploma is the title itself, and wishes it were called something else. “Master of Wine is a good title, but that was already taken,” he says. “[The CMS] wanted to create a diploma for people actively working in the sommelier trade, specifically on the floor. I don’t know if they thought at that point the majority of Master Sommeliers would not continue to work the floor; I’m sure they didn’t.”
“These days, I find being referred to as a sommelier sort of distasteful,” says Belinda Chang, a James Beard Award-winning wine professional with more than 20 years’ industry experience. “It seems like, nowadays, taking on that moniker means you are hoping to be on TV and hoping to be the star of the show at the restaurant.”
Chang says the role of the sommelier is “to serve,” and that sommeliers were never meant to be the center of the dining experience. Documentaries such as “Somm” elevate the importance of the Master Sommelier title, she says, and detract from the actual mission of the role.
McClintic and many others spoken to for this article think the title can mislead consumers, too.
“Imagine you’re a working sommelier in New York, and you run one of the top programs in America, and someone comes in and asks, ‘Are you a master sommelier?’ If you tell them no, they somehow think you’re not really a sommelier,” he says. “Whereas I’m not really a sommelier but a customer might think I am because I have that title. I can definitely empathize with how that must feel.”