Let’s establish some definitions: a sommelier is a server in a restaurant who has charge of wines and their service. Sommeliers sell wine at food or booze-centric environments. A sommelier is not your wine-collecting uncle, some blogger, or your friend who just took a wine course and now has a fancy, golden “sommelier” diploma.
As VinePair pointed out last year, becoming a sommelier is a lot like becoming a secretary: you can go through any number of schools or certification programs to learn the job basics, or you can learn on the job. Either way, being a sommelier (or receptionist) is a job that requires a veritable boatload of knowledge and good interpersonal skills to perform well.
With the release of the movie Somm in 2014, as well as a TV series in the works for Esquire network, it’s safe to say sommeliers are the celebrity chefs of the moment. As a wine lover (and “Certified Sommelier” who doesn’t work as a sommelier) I’m thrilled to see dedicated professionals getting the respect and street cred they deserve, as becoming a sommelier takes a great deal of hard work and dedication.
What doesn’t thrill me is how every publication, including Eater and Vox, has decided that since somms are now cool and chic instead of outdated and stuffy, it’s time for every amateur sommelier and wine enthusiast to criticize them.
The job of a sommelier is to enhance dining experiences, not to answer Jeopardy-style questions about obscure wine regions at the table. (Stumping a sommelier on differences between Devonian blue slate and schistous granite may signal that you have too much time on your hands.) As wine writer and non-sommelier Alder Yarrow recently pointed out, a lot of Americans love to hate on wine, wine drinkers, and wine professionals. Articles with titles like “Is Expensive Wine for Suckers,” “Wine Experts Fooled,” or “Blind Tasting Scandal” simply tear down wine for being subjective. It’s comparable to condemning the work of painters, or the hypotheses of chemists on social media for their lack of objectivity.
The point is that the sommelier profession didn’t evolve to make wine complicated or elitist; rather, it’s intended to ease the confusion surrounding ordering, drinking, and enjoying wine. Sommelier certifying bodies, like the Court of Master Sommeliers, also evolved to improve dining experiences by making eaters and drinkers feel comfortable–not intimidated–at restaurants.
If you love wine and can navigate a 500-bottle list with ease, congratulations! Either order without the help of a sommelier, or use their knowledge to make a better decision. If not, trust the sommelier. A good one can absolutely enhance your night out, whether your budget is $20 or $250.
Instead of using the occasion as a chance to lord arcane wine facts over a sommelier or to accuse them of being snobby, treat the interaction like a haircut consultation: politely ask for what you’d like, be as descriptive as possible, and hope for the best.
As with a haircut, you’ll sometimes be positively delighted with the experience, whereas other times the result will be mediocre or even disappointing. Yet, even after a getting a mullet instead of a bob, you probably wouldn’t quiz the stylist. Similarly, nobody quizzes their tax guy on IRS loopholes or the history of the federal income tax. Nor does anyone quiz their plumber on ball valves vs. threaded unions. Plumbers, accountants, and hair stylists focus on their fields so that you don’t have to, and sommeliers are the same.
Being a sommelier is like having any other job. There are good and bad days, good and bad employees, good and bad customers. We’re all just trying to get through the day so that we can relax with a glass of wine afterwards. Even the sommeliers.