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What is a Sommelier, anyway?

When I told my mom and dad that I was going to take my love for wine into a more formal direction and become a sommelier (pronounced: sohm-ma-lee-yeah), they exchanged looks that I read as 1) does this mean she is going to buy MORE wine then she already does and 2) what the heck is a sommelier?

According to Karen MacNeil, she explains the definition as “The French Term for a wine steward” and goes on to state that many US sommeliers prefer to use the term wine steward as the stereotype of a sommelier is “one who is skilled at making people feel inadequate as he was at wine”.

These days, sommeliers that I know are trying hard to reverse this kind of stereotype. In fact, all of the Master Somms (wine speak since, let’s face it, “sommelier” is quite a mouth full!) that I trained with see themselves as the teachers they are and not as someone who is above the common wine person.

There are many hats that a sommelier can wear and it is true that a “sommelier” title can be used without actually being earned. A sommelier is responsible for the wine list, training the staff on the wines available and must also have a deep knowledge on wine, spirits and other beverages. This working knowledge of the flavors and body of wine and beverages also means that a sommelier works with the chef to develop the best food and wine pairings.

Becoming a professional, certified sommelier takes some real dedicated training and a formal examination given by a certifying associations, of which there are many. In fact, many different countries have their own certifying associations, so there is no “one” certification. A couple different examples of the certifications out there are:

Court of Master Sommeliers – founded in 1977 and offers 4 different levels of certification (Introductory, Certified, Advanced and Master). For a good idea of what kind of knowledge, in both wine and service is required to become a Master, check out the documentary, “SOMM” by Jason Wise. (

Wine & Spirit Education Trust – (also known as the WSET) founded in 1969 and Britain based institution and offers 5 levels of certification.

Society of Wine Educators – also founded in 1977 and offers 4 different certifications on wine education, spirit education and hospitality/beverage certification.

So, long explanation in a more concise sentence. A sommelier is knowledgeable about not only wine but also spirits and service. They should be seen as the person that can find you the best bottle for your budget, for your meal or just for your drinking pleasure and should never make you feel uncomfortable or bad about your choice.


(MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. New York: Workman Publishing, 2001. Print)

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