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Sommelier Secrets: So You Want to be a What?

Let’s get one thing clear, right this very instant. “Somalia” is a war-torn country in Africa, not the title of a wine professional. “Summon-yay” is the opposite of what you feel when jury notice arrives in the mail, not the title of a wine professional. Repeat after me: “Some-mull-YAY.” “Some-mull-YAY.” While my parents, non-drinkers, have made heroic efforts to understand their daughter’s accidental career direction, I am not sure they know exactly what a sommelier does. (That expensive piece of Ivy League paper with the scarlet “H” was meant to open doors, just not to a wine cellar.)

When I started my wine career seventeen years ago, it was hardly the hip thing to do. Nowadays, it seems like just about everyone I know thinks what I “do” is cool largely because they imagine it means getting paid to sit around and drink wine all day. Wrong there, folks, though that sounds like a good racket. I became a sommelier because I worked as a waitress in fancy restaurants in order to finance lucrative career choices like poet, teacher, actress and chronic grad student. Some nice folks in New York let me be the assistant to a great sommelier mentor, largely because I could speak foreign languages and put in killer hours with a smile. Working as a sommelier was always the background to other pursuits, a way to pay my bills until I gave in and became some kind of save-the-world attorney. Happily, I never did enroll in law school although I did share some good wine advice with the very patient Dean who let me defer for three years in a row before they finally gave my spot away.

So you want to be a sommelier? You must like long hours and lifting a lot of heavy boxes. You must like people. You must have a keen sense of smell. You must sacrifice your nights, weekends and holidays. And increasingly, you must like to study study study. For career-changers, enrolling in a reputable wine education program is essential. The Wine Spirits Education & Trust (WSET) diploma or the Court of Master Sommeliers programs remain the gold standard though there are other curricula worth investigating. Check who is doing the teaching and make sure tasting wines systematically is a part of every class. At my peak of “working the floor,” I would taste and yes, spit, upwards of 150 wines a week. There is simply no substitute for this palate education; no matter how many books you read or maps you memorize, a truly holistic understanding of wine must be both cerebral AND sensual. And it takes time. I am always highly suspicious of wine “experts” who simply aren’t old enough to have acquired a lifetime of tasting data; that’s why credential programs are so important these days. I once met a “sommelier,” featured in Vogue no less, who recommended Riesling as a dry, pink wine from Apulia. Yikes.

Sometimes vocation and avocation intersect and I remain grateful to Andy Cornblatt for refusing to allow me to study tort reform. (Tortes are frankly more my speed.) I love rocks, love collecting old maps, love foreign languages and love people. Ultimately, that all added up to the wine business for me. And it’s the people in this business that matter more than the grape juice. Moving ahead, we’ll profile some amazing sommeliers and their sometimes-circuitous routes to the wine world. From Master Sommeliers teaching a new generation of winos to restaurant refugees making wine out in Walla Walla to writers traveling to vineyards around the world, it is awfully nice work if you can get it. Follow your bliss, especially if it leads to a glass of great wine!

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