Sommelier Certifications

img_1145Becoming certified in a professional area is not only important, but also very difficult.  This is no easy task in the wine industry.  There are many agencies and certificates for sommeliers and wine professionals to pursue, for example, the International Sommelier Guild, the Court of Master Sommeliers, and the Wine and Spirits Education Trust.  I have a number of certifications, and just last week I was on my way to West Palm Beach, Florida, to obtain my second certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers.

For this certification, I had to concentrate and hit the books really hard.  I used Sales and Service for the Wine Professional by Brian Julyan, The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, and The Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia by Tom Stevenson.  These books are not just a wealth of information, but they give maps, detail, tips, and pointers in many areas, especially in the world of wine.  You will learn about vintages, terroirs, producers, and styles.

Now, certifications are not necessary, as I have met many sommeliers without them, but I believe them to be important tools.  They not only sharpen your skills, but they also give you a source of pride and accomplishment.  They are also useful in the fact that you meet and learn from knowledgeable and experienced masters of the profession.  This is invaluable and cannot be learned in a book- I highly recommend the certified route.

When I arrived in Florida, I locked myself in my room at the West Palm Beach Crowne Plaza, and immediately crammed for my exam the next day.  I took a break and traveled to Publix, a local souteastern grocery store, for some cheese, bread, and wine.  I purchased two bottles, one for that night, and one to celebrate my certification, hoping I wasn't being too overconfident!  The selections were slim, but I found a couple of good reds under $15: Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot and Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon.

The next morning I took a ride out to The Breakers Palm Beach for my exam.  The test was divided into three sections: a written, a blind tasting, and service with an oral examination.  It all was difficult, but I marched out with my new certification!  I went back to the hotel to relax my brain, and later headed out to a nearby seafood establishment, Legal Sea Foods, to have some sparkling wine and oysters to celebrate.  It was a good time, but nothing beats an exam in Chicago with some great local celebration!

What is a Sommelier?

Most Chicago restaurants employ some form of sommelier(s) to help guests with beverages, mainly wine, as well as pairings.  But most consumers do not know exactly what a sommelier is or what they do.  Since the Windy City Wine Guy is a sommelier and has been in the Chicago restaurant scene for quite some time, I have decided to give you the scoop.

 A sommelier (somm), as defined in the dictionary, is "A restaurant employee who orders and maintains the wines sold in the restaurant and usually has extensive knowledge about wine and food pairings."  This used to, and recently has expanded to include other beverages, including beer, sake, spirits, and non-alcoholics. 

According to my experience, this definition barely scrapes the surface of a sommelier's responsibilities!  A somm is in charge of every beverage a restaurant carries- from teas to liqueurs.  And this should be done in congruence with the chef, menu, and theme.  The somm is also in charge of everything pertaining to the beverages: storage, glassware, equipment, cleanliness, inventory, budget, sales figures and projections, promotions, and implementation of staff wine/bev education- if the staff doesn't know about the product, how can they work with it?!

There is also the issue of "floor time".  This is when the restaurant is open, and much of the somm's time is taken up attending to the guests and aiding waitstaff.  This is possibly THE most important function- the guest comes first!  There is no ego, no snobbery, and no cheap sales tactics.  Your best somm's can speak with any guest, get to what they want, and surpass satisfaction.  Some guests may be looking for the best wines, some may be looking for the best value- READ and RELATE to the guests.  If a somm can do all this, they will instill trust in themselves and the restaurant while winning over the guest.

It should also be known that a sommelier can learn through study, On the Job Training, and/or classes.  You can be both a sommelier through job title and a sommelier through certification (though not necessary).  The certifications are great to have, and each gained are accreditations and accomplishments, but nothing beats experience.  If you have the time and are interested in becoming certified, I found that both the Court of Master Sommeliers and International Sommelier Guild are reputable and worthy.

(Image courtesy of flickr)