You Don’t Have to Be Rich to Become a Sommelier

Courtney Schiessl You Don’t Have to Be Rich to Become a Sommelier

5 minute Read

Big-name bottle photos, boozy lunches, trips around the world, wine-fueled conventions, and competitive exams that finish with magnums of Champagne — for many, the sommelier profession looks like a dream job.

The reality of building a career around a luxury item, however, is physically, mentally, and financially draining. Those research bottles, trips, and celebratory magnums don’t pay for themselves. Formal certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers costs anywhere from $595 to $1,195 per course or exam, and rises each year.

“Everything associated with furthering your career and education in wine is very costly,” Matthew Kaner, owner and wine director of Bar Covell, Augustine Wine Bar, and Good Measure in Los Angeles, says. Getting a foot in the door can cost a pretty penny, and maintaining and advancing your career doesn’t come cheap, either.

From the outside, it can start to seem like only independently wealthy people could afford to become somms. That’s not the case. In wine, as in pretty much every career, money certainly provides advantages. In the long run, however, those who are creative about experiences and expenditures can overcome the considerable financial barrier to entry. And the ones who do will not only be better somms; they will also be the ones who move the profession forward.

Sticker Shock

Wine education is pricey. Those CMS certification fees exclude travel costs, study materials, and the likely possibility of having to retake the exam upon failing. Don’t expect these costs to decrease over time, either; Ashley Broshious, sommelier and dining room manager with Charlie Palmer Steak at Archer Hotel Napa, estimates that her study costs doubled from the Advanced Sommelier exam to the Master Sommelier exam.

Of course, education costs aren’t unique to the sommelier profession. Wine education is comparatively cheaper than most undergraduate or graduate programs, and some of the industry’s most prominent sommeliers never pursued formal wine education. It certainly isn’t a prerequisite for the job.

“The best way for a sommelier to become excellent is to work on the floor of a restaurant,” John Ragan, MS, senior director of operations for Union Square Hospitality Group in New York, told me last October.

Other expenses, however, are harder to skirt. “Wine courses can become expensive, but I would say travel and dining out are equally, if not more, costly parts of the job,” Kimberly Milburn, beverage and service manager at Ortzi in Manhattan, says. Dining out, experiencing top-notch sommelier service in action, and tasting $100-plus bottles are invaluable and imperative business expenses for anyone pursuing a career in wine.

“The big advantage sommeliers who have extra coin to drop on high-end wines have is muscle memory,” Kaner says. “Each time you get the opportunity to taste blue chips or fancy examples of the greatest wines on the planet, you end up with a tasting and smelling muscle that separates you from the pack.” Working somms might have the opportunity to taste benchmark wines for free on the floor, but aspiring somms can’t do so without spending their own money.

This isn’t just about bragging rights. Someone who has tasted the five first-growth Bordeaux chateaux has an advantage over those who have merely studied them and list off their attributes. And classic wines are far more expensive today than they were in previous decades — those aforementioned first-growth Bordeaux wines have increased in price by 700 percent in the past 25 years alone.

In my first sommelier position, I was tasked with hand-writing our reserve wine list. I asked another member of the team whether he was familiar with one of the producers: René et Vincent Dauvissat. The grand cru Chablis bottle was listed for $300. “Oh, Dauvissat? I love Dauvi,” he responded nonchalantly. “It’s my favorite Chablis producer. I like them even better than Raveneau.”

It was like there was another language I didn’t speak. My colleague could confidently talk the talk, having grown up around these wines since childhood. But mine was a Beringer White Zin household. I felt like I had an extra hurdle to jump from the start.

Starting Lower, Aiming Higher

These challenges can actually become assets in the long run. Not only do they help inspire the sort of competitive edge one needs to pass an exam with an 8 percent success rate; they also develop skills that prove useful on the floor.

“This is not a job you can just waltz into because you travel to wine regions, drink a lot of wine, and pass a certification exam,” Catherine Morel, lead sommelier at 71Above in Los Angeles, says. Being a sommelier is about more than reciting facts and drinking high-end bottles. It’s about hospitality.

“You can taste an expensive wine but if you cannot explain it to guests and serve it in an elegant manner, you are missing part of the education,” Broshious says.

The guest’s experience is at the core of hospitality, and few guests have unlimited wine budgets. Somms who are familiar with deciphering value propositions of top-shelf and entry-level bottles alike are better positioned to tailor recommendations and offer realistic perspectives to diners.

“So much of what a sommelier or wine director will do is seek wines that represent value to their guests,” Milburn says. Many of the most talked-about wine programs in the U.S. right now, like Maxwell in Washington, D.C. and June’s All Day in Austin, Texas, are focused on value.

Managing a tight budget can also create a hungrier, more motivated sommelier candidate. “Sommeliers who are on a budget have to get creative and they have to get out there, meet people, and prove their craft,” says Matt Stamp, MS, co-owner of Compline Wine Bar in Napa. “No one outside the uber-wealthy really has the budget for DRC, Monfortino, first-growth Bordeaux, top Napa wines — but wealthy collectors often love to share with sommeliers.”

Experienced somms like Stamp suggest befriending guests and collectors who have bigger wine budgets (“Always be gracious, and always be grateful,” Kaner notes), joining a tasting group that will occasionally pool money to taste a top bottle, and attending trade tastings. Many wine-focused restaurants emphasize education and tasting for all front-of-house employees, and it never hurts to ask the wine director whether it’s possible to taste with him or her during sales appointments.

“My advice for an aspiring sommelier who is looking to taste and drink the classics of the wine world is to work in retail for a bit,” Kaner says. “You’ll get the chance to taste so much more wine in that setting.” Many wine retailers offer employees the opportunity to purchase bottles at a discount, and are willing to train those who are just getting into the industry.

There’s no denying that having money is an advantage in an expensive profession; it’s simple math. But while money may give some sommeliers an initial leg up, it isn’t a prerequisite, nor does it guarantee success. It would be nice to drink grand cru Burgundy and prestige cuvée Champagne every day, but sommeliers who think creatively ultimately build the most interesting lists.

These are the sommeliers who will ultimately succeed in a changing wine market. Under-the-radar wine countries like Croatia and Portugal are edging out the classics as millennials become the largest wine-drinking generation, surpassing both baby boomers and Gen Xers. Over half of millennials dine out more than three times a week, and reportedly prize value and diversity above all else. By understanding and sharing the sensibilities of this enormous market, somms who are rich in ideas, if not in pocket, will ultimately thrive.

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