I wish I had enough fingers and toes to count all the times that people asked me what a Master Sommelier is and what they do, and most often, how do you become one? Explaining what they do is much easier than becoming one, so I’ll start there. Master Sommeliers can be found in almost every aspect of the wine business: working in restaurants/hotels running beverage programs, running a retail wine program, educating future sommeliers about wine, making wine, writing about wine, marketing and promoting wine, importing and distributing wine, and much, much more. The wine business is as varied as any other, and Master Sommeliers are working in all areas of the wine and beverage business.
Wine AND beverage….what does that mean? Well, Master Sommeliers don’t stop their education with wine. To become a Master Sommelier, you have to know about spirits, cocktails, non-alcoholic beverages, beer, and sake. And, that’s not all, but it often means that Sommeliers aren’t just dealing with wine, they work with the bartenders or mixologists to create a cocktail list (or lists), they think about the type of water you drink, what types of teas, coffees, juices, non-alcoholic cocktails, and even soft drinks! Really good Sommeliers and beverage directors have thought of the entire program, and it shows. Take Rouge Tomate, for instance. Pascaline Lepeltier, an Advanced Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers studying for her Masters, runs a complete beverage program. Complete because she obsesses over each cocktail, each juice, each non-alcoholic concoction, and even the teas that you drink with your meal, and it shows. If you haven’t tried a cocktail or checked out the wine list or stopped in for a to-go juice cocktail at Rouge Tomate, then go. NOW. Pascaline is one of a growing handful of Sommeliers that thinks about her entire beverage program, and it makes for a more exciting time choosing your libation.
So, Master Sommeliers need to know about beverages only? Oh, if it were only so easy. Any beverage program costs money, and the Sommelier is often the person who is in charge of making sure that their program is a profitable one. Master Sommeliers know how to create a program that is profitable AND exciting. Easy to say, harder to do. How do they learn this? Often this part of a Sommelier’s job is learned from a mentor or learned on the job. Restaurant hospitality programs may offer classes in restaurant costing, but Sommeliers don’t always attend hospitality management courses. Sommeliers often come to the job with a background in something entirely different, like philosophy, or medicine, or investment banking, or law. So, they learn about costing on the job, from a mentor. Sure, you can buy books on the subject and utilize software packages to help with this, but at the end of the day, you will have to answer questions during the Master Sommelier exam about costing and profitability, without a handy software package or a book to guide your answers!
Beverages and profitability, that’s easy, what else? Well, there’s food. Most people don’t drink beverages by themselves all the time. Sure, there are occasions for heading to the bar for a refreshing drink, or even just slaking your thirst with a cold beverage, but most often, people drink AND eat. So that means that Sommeliers need to know about food, too, and how it’s prepared, and how the interaction of food and beverage will affect the flavors of both. This is one aspect that is really fun and exciting (and sometimes frustrating!). For the past two days, I’ve been watching Sommeliers duke it out in the International Chef’s Congress (Star Chefs) Somm Slam. A large part of what they are being judged on is their ability to pair food and wine and to sell it to the customer. 11 contestants and 11 different pairings with the same exact dish. All the Sommeliers were able to deftly pair a trio of cheeses with a variety of wines, and to describe it to a roomful of judges. Only 6 went into day 2, where they competed again, pairing a smoked quail egg with crispy chicken cracklings, duck bacon, onion flowers, and dehydrated corn silk with wine. That wasn’t all, they also had to pair braised green peanuts (braised in maple and sorghum and chili spices), liquid cornbread with smoked paprika and rabbit bacon. Once again, all 6 Sommeliers made great matches and had to sell them to the judges. 2 winners were chosen to compete on day three, which is today!
Food, wine, sake, spirits, cocktails, juices, sodas, teas, coffees, and waters. A day in the life of a Master Sommelier (or a Master Sommlier to be!) includes spending a portion of each day learning something new. MS’s to be spend a large portion of their time studying these subjects outside of work. Yes, Sommeliers take their work home with them, practicing food and wine pairing, taking classes, getting together to study as a group, or studying alone. Traveling to wine regions is a favorite pastime of Sommeliers and a great way to learn about where your wine comes from. Part 2 of this blog post will outline more steps necessary for becoming a Master Sommelier, so stay tuned for more!