What Is A Sommelier?


This picture is actually a photograph and looks great.  The winery name Merryvale can be seen against the back wall and the link at the bottom can take you to a short blog post about.  However, I picked the photo to make a brief point here.  I actually found a very similar photo in the current issue of Wine Spectator in a full page ad for an airline.  The former cellar is a much larger one with smaller but greater number of barrels.  And my point is?  People involved in the wine business carry many titles.  In the US, the titles are very flexible which means anyone can create or use an existing title unless heavily regulated.  I do not think anyone in the business will get away with calling oneself a Master of Wine or a Master Sommelier if one is not but many call themselves wine director, sommelier, wine director and so on.  A basic question remains of what is a sommelier?  One can find many definition.  The dictionary provides a few leads and the standard resources a few more.  Anyone who has been in the business has some sort of working definition.  Since I have worked as a sommelier and insulted a few last week by comparing a sommelier to a house servant, I feel obligated to clarify the point.  I think a great way to understand what a sommelier does is by understanding the history especially at its best.  The profession of sommelier did not go public until the French Revolution and existed as a high skilled position with an aristocratic household as a private position.  I was given this illustration of the profession a long time ago and still think is one of the best.  If one is to understand the essence of what a sommelier does, you should keep this photo in mind.  The cellar with its many barrels is where sommelier position happened.  Historically, wine was not sold in bottles from famous producers with fancy labels and descriptions.  It was sold in barrels.  The barrel holds the wine while it ages.  The wine changes slowly as it ages.  In a wealthy Old World household, one or more cellars existed on location to house the wines.  The significant thing to remember is the consumption of wine took place in quantities unlike what is seen in the movies with a bottle presented and uncorked for a rich couple dining.  The purchase, storage, care, distribution and the service of wine was fairly complicated.  A typical cellar held many barrels of different wines from various producers.  The vintages and other conditions varied.  Each of these variable factors made the understanding of that wine more complicated.  The process was very subjective and one or more professionals were needed who understood the wine and could manage the ever-changing wine cellar.  This person could tell based on who made the wine, where it was made, when it was made, what was put in the wine, how it was made, the price of the wine and many other factors what the drinker would experience by drinking the beverage.  The final qualification was truly subjective and an art.  If the sommelier could do this properly, he was appreciated as a great skilled servant.  And if not, everything would be off for everyone.  The actual service of the wine blended with food and events making it more complicated.  The sommelier decided which wine for what occasion served at what point of the meal or celebration (occasion).  The sommelier unlike what today people would believe was not the well-dressed polite person helping with wine selection and serving the bottle.  That can be done by a trained wait staff or house servant.  The sommelier is the person who can actually stand in a strange cellar of barrels (not bottles with labels of information) and is qualified to figure the barrels' contents out.  Only a truly qualified and skilled person can achieve this task.  How does one accomplish this?  Every single element that can be taken into consideration can aid.  The more knowledge of the origin and the making of the wine, the better.  The sommelier in the worst possible situation uses one's nose and palate to check the wine.  He (she) ought to be able to tell as much about the wine as if he has a printed sheet of information.  What is the use for such accurate information that a skilled person can acquire blind? He can estimate the price of the wine.  He can tell the varietals and the area.  He can tell the vintage.  He can tell the condition of the wine today and the future.  He can match the wine with food or propose occasions suitable.  He can decide to release the wine, keep it or sell it outright.  Sommelier can do this and great many things more.  How does one become a sommelier?  High skill is developed by study, practice, experiment and most of all learning from a fully qualified person.  The level of knowledge and skill is high and subjective.  Only a body of very qualified peers should determine if a person is at the proper level.  US is built on standards created by the locals for their own benefit.  In other words, the standards are subjective but not qualified by the qualified.  Anyone with some wine knowledge and involvement in the wine business sets one's own standard of who is qualified.  So is a sommelier a high-end wine servant? Historically, he was but the position became part of the not-private world benefiting greater many while surviving the challenges of maintaining standards and traditions, sommelier became a serious profession.  

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