A career as a sommelier: one option for those wishing to enter the hospitality industry is to be a sommelier. Sommeliers are specialists in wine service. They have in-depth knowledge of wines as well as other beverages and food. They also advise chefs
WHEN customers in an upscale restaurant want to order a bottle of wine with dinner, they could be overwhelmed by or are unfamiliar with the selections offered on the wine list. When this is the case, they can ask the sommelier for advice. Sommelier is French for cellar master or wine steward. These are people with a love of wine who are eager to impart some of their knowledge to the customer.
They can describe the regions, grapes, vineyards, and vintages of an assortment of wines. They either help to create the wine list and recommend wines that suit the customers’ tastes and budget. Even diners who are knowledgeable about wine can benefit from the sommelier’s advice as he would know which wines go best with which entrees.
Tommy Lam is president of the Singapore Wine Academy and holds a wine MBA, Bordeaux Ecole de Management, from France. He organises training for sommeliers in Singapore and says customers can be easily intimidated by wines and may not understand the terminology used to describe them.
“A good sommelier can coax from clients a description of their desires and be understanding of their budgetary limits. When they select a wine, the sommelier brings it to the table with the appropriate glasses and pours it for the customer to taste. The sommelier should encourage the patron to smell the wine first and should describe its components to him, bringing the wine to life for the patron before it even touches his palate,” says Lam.
Drinking and judging wine may sound like an ideal job, but it’s difficult work that requires extensive practice and knowledge. Many sommeliers are knowledgeable about the chemistry behind making wine, how to taste the wine, and how to judge its colour, aroma, flavour and body. A good sense of taste and smell are as essential as a keen understanding of food chemistry.
Extensive and frequent travel is part of the sommelier’s career. Many travel regularly to different regions to learn more about wines for their restaurant. Knowledge of wine alone doesn’t make a sommelier. Lam says: “Can you use one hand to pour a bottle of Champagne into eight flute glasses to the same level, each in one continuous pouring while answering your customers questions of other drinks? That’s part of the job.”
Sommeliers also decant wines when necessary. Decanting is usually done to red wines aged over 10 years and is the process of pouring the wine into a decanter before serving it. This is done to allow the wine to breathe and to separate it from any sediment that may have settled at the bottom of the bottle.
Lam believes that a sommelier is an entertainer by nature and needs to be extremely knowledgeable: “He is as important as a restaurant manager or the executive chef. If you want to become a sommelier, your work will go far beyond the dinner table. You need a sharp palate, a good memory, and a passion for sharing your acquired knowledge. Sommeliers must also develop excellent listening skills to understand what customers are looking for.”
In the past, many sommeliers developed their skills through a passion for wine and working experience. Today, many colleges and universities in Australia, Europe, and America offer various levels of sommelier education and awards to nurture their passion and dedication.
But many enter the industry after completing some form of culinary training. You might be wondering why culinary school is necessary for this particular occupation. But only by developing a thorough understanding of what goes into making each meal can a sommelier possibly hope to develop an understanding of how to pair up different wines with different tastes.
Lam adds that there is a science involved with uncorking the bottle and pouring each portion into a glass. Knowing that red wine traditionally but not exclusively accompanies red meat is not enough to work in fine restaurants. Grape type, region, vintage, and season are just a few of the variables that go into selecting the appropriate wine for the appropriate meal. In addition, a sommelier-in-training must learn how to properly store and care for the bottles for maximum flavour and longevity. Thus, becoming a sommelier requires some in-depth culinary arts training.
In Singapore, there are two accreditation streams that budding sommeliers can take, either the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) qualifications or the Court of the Master Sommelier accreditation.
“Combining both will be the best option and direct path. WSET is the leading wine and spirit education programme with different levels where learners progress step by step. The Court of Master Sommelier is more exclusive as in all there are but 160 master sommeliers in the world. The Court organises seminars and accreditations, with each of the four levels being a pre-requisite of the next. Learners have to fulfil a minimum knowledge and skill to be able to progress further, it is de facto standard a sommelier should achieve,” says Lam.
The WSET develops and manages vocational qualifications for the wine and spirit and related industries. It is approved by the British government as a national awarding body of vocational qualifications. Its qualifications provide underpinning knowledge which can be applied in a number of different job functions. There are seven core awards but in all five levels of accreditation from Level 1, a foundation certificate in Wine to Level 5, an honours diploma.
In May 2007, the Academy of Wine Singapore together with the Singapore Institute of Management had three master sommeliers conduct the Court of Master Sommelier introductory sommelier accreditation programme in Singapore. The courses and exams, usually held in Britain and America, were available in Singapore for the first time.
The Court of Master Sommeliers was founded in London in 1977. They conduct education and testing for restaurant wine professionals. There are four levels of certification within the organisation: introductory, certificate, advanced, and MS Diploma (Master).
The Introductory Course is a two-day educational seminar. It covers wine regions of the world, viticulture (vineyard management), viniculture (winemaking), appellation rules for various countries and regions, production methods for beers and spirits, cigars, food and wine pairing, service and blind tasting technique. Blind tasting are steps to evaluating and identifying wines by appearance, smell, and taste.
At the end of the seminar there is a multiple-choice exam for which a score of 60 per cent is required. Lam believes this course is very helpful to any restaurant wine professional or manager and the Introductory exam can be passed with just a little advanced preparation. Passing the Introductory Course examination guaranteed that the candidate had a seat in the Certified Sommelier Exam to be held in Singapore in 2008.
The other levels of certification are more complex and comprehensive. They cover the same material but at a more detailed level. The pace is also faster as it is expected that candidates are prepared for the exam prior to attending the seminar. The seminars are longer than the Introductory Course.
The test is the real difference though. It is a two-day test in three sections. The first section is theory. It is an 82 question test with multiple choice and short-answer questions. The second section is blind tasting. The candidate has to identify six glasses of wine as two Master Sommeliers listen as he swirls, sniffs, tastes, and describes each wine. Points are awarded for analysis and deductive reasoning as well as identification of the wines.
The final section deals with restaurant service. Master Sommeliers judge a candidate’s skills at opening still and sparkling wines, decanting, cigar service, freehand pouring of spirits, wine and food pairing, proof reading of wine lists, setting tables for a variety of menus, conversing with the guests, and complaint resolution. About one in four candidates makes the grade.
Lam says the test for Master Sommelier is by invitation only. The test is the same as the advanced but the theory portion is verbal instead of written, the questions are much more detailed. The pass rate for this exam is very low. “After 30 years of testing, only some 160 people in the world have completed the Master Sommelier (MS) level. The next time you see MS after someone’s name you will know what he or she went through for those two letters,” he adds.
Job Duties and Prospects
After the apprenticeship, most sommeliers work independently and enjoy increased responsibility such as choosing the house wine for a restaurant or bar, a task considered very important as it defines the establishments’ wine selections. The salary range for sommeliers ranges from S$24,000 at the low end, to upwards of S$70,000 depending on experience.
Sommeliers may have to work long and irregular hours, including evenings and weekends. Restaurant and bar environments can be busy and demanding. Sommeliers often spend a lot of time on their feet, speaking to customers and colleagues, or visiting the kitchens and the cellar.
After several years, a sommelier has usually built a career as a well-respected wine expert, and earned his industry spurs as a sommelier. He may write articles for magazines or work as mentors to up-and-coming sommeliers. Some hold their own workshops to share their knowledge on wine with the public.
Lam believes that the Singapore market has not given sommeliers the recognition they deserve: “It is long overdue. Sommeliers are treated only as a captain or the most, an assistant manager, when they are responsible for more than 60 per cent of an upmarket restaurant’s revenue. A customer can only eat so much, but drink a lot more. When it comes to selecting the right aperitif, wine, or liquor to accompany each course, the sommelier is in his element. Different wines either compliment or bring out the flavours of each dish to make the dining experience unforgettable. And that is what sets a good sommelier apart.”
COPYRIGHT 2008 Singapore Institute of Management
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