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Sommeliers (or “somms”) play a vital role in the restaurant industry. But where did the profession originate, and how is it evolving in modern times? VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers dives into the history of the sommelier, the role of a wine steward in restaurants today, and how wine lovers can become officially certified. Tune in to learn more.
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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. I was listening to a classic rock playlist the other day, and I was jamming out to Led Zeppelin and all that stuff. And then Guns ‘N Roses came on?!
What’s going on wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. The sommelier — the somm, that person in that position — what is it? We hear it all the time these days. It’s blown up. We’ve gotta talk about the history of the sommelier.
OK, wine lovers. This episode is going to be really cool. I gotta say right up front, I am not a sommelier. I’ve never been one. Instead of doing that, I ended up buying a restaurant and opening a wine shop. That meant that there was no room or time for me to become a sommelier, ever. But I am self-taught. I do have a lot of friends that are sommeliers. I’ve, of course, been interacting with them for years. It’s funny, I actually would watch the somms work, and I would basically copy them. I would do it in my restaurant, what I saw them do. Not 100 percent, but I picked up little things here and there to use in my restaurant, to teach my staff, to make it look kind of cool. We’ll get into all that.
One thing I’ve always been fascinated with is the history of this position or this term “sommelier.” As usual, I’m probably butchering the pronunciation. These days, we just say “somm.” It’s the abbreviation for sommelier. I think it’s been going on for a long time. But in 2013, there was a documentary that came out called “Somm” about this whole industry and becoming a sommelier, and that stuck. So now we all just say somm, which is a lot easier. I mean, again, I don’t even know if I’m pronouncing it right. I might be saying somm the rest of this episode.
It’s kind of hard to start talking about this position, this thing called the somm. Because it’s evolving as I speak it. And it’s a unique sort of position in the wine world because initially, it was intended specifically for fine dining. That basically comes from the invention of restaurants, which I’m going to get into in a second. But that’s changing. Fine dining is not the only place these days where you’ll find a person referred to as a somm or sommelier. The term and the position is evolving in front of our eyes. I started seeing the sommelier coming out of fine dining and going to different restaurant spaces back in New York around 2008. It kind of built and built and built from there.
But before we talk about the modern-day somm or sommelier, let’s talk about how this all started. Where did the word come from? Where did the position in a restaurant come from? How did this all begin? Well, the word is very old, but the position in restaurants is not as old as the word. Let me explain. The word “sommelier” is thought to come from a Middle French word, meaning “an official charged with the transportation of supplies.” The 14th through the 16th century is Middle French. This is when we were just coming out of the Middle Ages, and there were still lords and ladies and the feudal system. So this official was in charge of literally transporting supplies, either into the kingdom, out of the kingdom, to the court, or whatever. Now we say supplies, but if you go back even further to what is called Old French — and this is a language that was around up to the 14th century— the word “sommierier” was used for an official that specifically took care of, transported, and maintained pack animals or livestock. Because the word, sommiere, means pack animal. We can even go back to medieval Latin. That’s like 600 to 500 A.D., where the word “saugmrius” stemmed from the word “sagma,” which is from late Latin 200 to 600 A.D, which basically means pack saddle. If you want to get nasty, we’re going to go all the way back to the Greeks, where they had a word that I don’t know how to pronounce. It’s something like “sattein,” which means to pack stuff. The beginning to the end, or the evolution of this word, is kind of in the vein of maintaining an inventory. And that’s all really old.
The word sommelier was evolving and being used through the 16th century, but the word sommelier to be used in restaurants, we don’t see that until the early to mid-1800s, in Paris specifically. From what I have read, 1829 is the first reference to a sommelier in a restaurant in Paris. How did we get there? I don’t want to go into the full history of the restaurant, but if you ever want to look into it, it’s a very fascinating research journey, in that restaurants really started in the 1100s A.D. over in China and in Japan. But for our purposes, we’re talking about how the sommelier (somm) began, and that happens in Europe. Although England had its own sort of evolution, it’s in France that we really see the evolution of what we know today. By the early 19th century, there had been a couple of things happening in France. You had the word “restaurant,” which is said to come from a specific soup restaurant. On the signs at this restaurant, he called them “restorative”; to restore, restaurant. In addition to that, I can’t really pronounce it in French and I don’t know if I want to try, but there was something called a host’s table. And it was sort of the first prix-fixe menu, where you would sit down at 1 p.m. all paid up and on time, and food would come out in courses. And it was more of a lunch thing. That wasn’t the evolution of the restaurant so much as it became a tradition that, as restaurants came about, it persisted and became part of a restaurant’s culture.
Legend has it that the way restaurants really began in Paris was, after the French Revolution, you had a lot of chefs that were unemployed. They were previously employed by the aristocracy, which no longer existed. So these chefs would either look for jobs in Paris or open up their own restaurants. I like that idea. There are other theories, but that’s the most fun one. And it really is the one that goes straight to what we’re talking about today. This is just a theory of mine. But if we think about the characteristics of the stereotypical French restaurant that has the name of the chef as the restaurant, it kind of gives me the sense of how this all got started. If you think about it, the chefs were at one time probably pairing wine with food, and maybe there was a sommelier in these aristocratic homes. We don’t know. I don’t know. But what’s interesting is, as these chefs started their restaurants, this is where menus began to evolve. And also where wine cellars began to evolve. Because this is France. Wine is important. Restaurants had basements, and that’s usually where the wine went.
That evolved, as well, from just barrels of wine to eventually when the English started really inventing this strong glass. Glass bottles started happening, and the chef may have a relationship with some chateaux or some domaines, and that’s how they would get wine. This is how the inventories of wine would build up, and eventually, wine lists came about. This was sort of the beginning of fine dining. If you think about it, we start getting into the late 1800s and we’re moving towards the First World War. This is the Belle Époque era in France and in Paris, specifically. This is when restaurant and fine dining sort of came into itself. Some of the most famous restaurants in Paris, some that are still there, opened around this time. So with a dense urban population, with restaurants becoming very popular, with people spending money left and right, wine cellars are getting bigger. There needed to be somebody that could help maintain that, because the chef was usually the owner of the restaurant. I’m sure there were servers, one or two. I’m sure it started as the chef and then a server came about, but then servers were busy doing the work of serving the customers. And I’m sure, running down into a dank, old, cold cellar with bottles that are really not labeled that well wasn’t something the servers were spot on to do. So this is where the sommelier comes in.
It was someone specifically to deal just with wine. And as fine dining got more popular, this position became more popular. I’m sure there’s a very specific history in some of the curricula out there that people use to become certified sommeliers. But this position grew and grew to the point that, in 1907, the Union of French Sommeliers was formed. Now, this has gone through a bunch of iterations. It’s merged with other organizations. But the point of it was, fine dining had gotten so popular and so important that this particular position in the restaurant had to have some sort of curriculum to help. I mean, we’re not talking about a law degree or anything like that, but it needed some guidelines to get people on board with fine dining and how it all works, to uniformly create what this position was. Traditionally, the sommelier position was for fine dining. And to this day, it’s primarily geared towards fine dining. Of course, there are different sommelier associations throughout the world, but it is very focused on fine dining.
The job of sommelier starts in that atmosphere, if you will. What they usually do is they are on the floor, and they have knowledge of every wine available in the establishment. When a server takes the food order, they send over the sommelier who will then talk to the customers about what they’re eating and what kind of wine they might want. Once that conversation is done, it’s the somm’s job to make sure that the wine ordered is served correctly, within the guidelines that they spend time learning. The somm will bring the wine and present it to the guests at the table before the wine is even opened, to make sure that there has been no misunderstanding between that conversation that was had for pairing food or whatever. Sometimes, the guest is even asked to actually feel the bottle to ensure that it’s at the right serving temperature. And even if the customer doesn’t know that, it’s a really awesome gesture.
Traditionally, the bottle should be opened in public. It should be opened within view of either the table or out in the restaurant. And if the wine needs to be decanted, that also should happen in public. It usually happens over towards the bar station, but it can also happen tableside as well. And then the somm will come over with the wine, decanted or not, and will do a second confirmation, where they’ll pour you a little bit of wine in the glass so you can smell it. This is it, you walked away, you opened the bottle. We did see you do that, but now you’re putting the wine in the glass, so I can smell it. Cool. This is a great time for you to be like, “Oh, it’s corked, something’s wrong with it.” Or, “Oh my God, this is wonderful. You’re a great somm.”
Some restaurants have multiple somms, and they’ll have a head somm. Sometimes, the restaurant owner will do it, if the chef is a restaurant owner who loves wine. But usually the somm’s job is to buy wine for the wine list, to compile a wine list, make it interesting, distribute the prices well, and then keep the wine cellar stocked and maintained to make sure that all the wine is stored properly. Often in fine dining, the sommelier is tasked with being part of the pre-shift meeting. The chef will come out and talk about the dish specials and everything like that so that the servers can write them down. And then the sommelier might come out and taste the staff on a wine to educate them on wine in general, or to say, “Hey, this is a great wine that’ll pair with this specific special the chef has.” That’s generally what a sommelier does.
It’s a really important job in fine dining because the hustle and bustle of fine dining is so intense, and there’s so many layers to it. Having someone there to be like, “Hey, here’s a little bit of an oasis. I’m here to take a moment and talk to you about the wine,” is almost like a welcome pause in a crazy dining scene to get you excited about the next part of dining — which is the wine that goes with the food. That’s my favorite part.
These days, if you want to become a sommelier, there are multiple ways to do so. There is a growing list of schools you can attend to get some sort of certification saying that you have this experience. There is the actual Court of Master Sommeliers. There is the International Sommelier Guild, the North American Sommelier Association. Of course, there’s the Union of French Sommeliers — it still exists today. And now there’s an Italian one, which I think was developed in the 1960s. It’s the Association of Italian Sommeliers. There are also organizations that don’t have the word sommelier in them, but will give you the same experience of those other schools. You have the International Wine & Spirits Guild, the National Wine School, and the most popular one right now is the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. This is a tutoring system developed so that anyone can get knowledge about wine. They may go into the restaurant business, but they may actually go into other parts of the wine industry as well. It’s just to gain knowledge.
An official certified sommelier’s job is to know a lot about wine in general, but even more so, a lot about the wine that they serve in their current job in fine dining. That’s really where the core is. It’s actually evolved a little bit in the older somm schooling curriculums. They’ve expanded into cocktails, cigars, sake, spirits in general, sometimes coffee. It really is about, literally, fine dining and what happens in that environment and how much that person can take on. But in the end, it does all go back to the root of this word. The somm’s job is a very social job, but it is fundamentally maintaining an inventory. And then taking that inventory to the public and helping the public understand that inventory and enjoy that inventory and pairing with what’s coming out of the kitchen. Again, I’m not a sommelier, but I owned a restaurant for 10 years and it was a wine bar restaurant. Wine is my jam, obviously, so I was the one that bought wine. I designed the wine list. I made sure it was awesome. I stored it properly. So I did a lot of the things sommeliers do. But I never got certified, so I cannot be called a sommelier. I am not a sommelier. The fundamentals of the sommelier job are things that I did, but there is more to being a somm than just what I did. Like I said, it goes into all other things like cocktails and stuff like that. So there are going to be people in restaurants out there doing the job of the somm, but by no means are they called some somms unless they go through one of these certifications.
As restaurants are evolving — which they always are, restaurants evolve every decade, if not sooner — the sommelier is no longer the picture everyone has of someone in a suit with a chain around their neck and a little cup they use to sip and sample the wine to make sure it’s not corked or whatever. That’s changed. From casual restaurants to fine dining, sommeliers are there. If you are a restaurant owner and you have a wine list that you don’t want to maintain, you will hire a sommelier to help. And then that sommelier will be the only somm in the place, or there will be a couple of somms under them. So it’s always evolving. But for now, this is the history of the sommelier.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.