A sommelier is a wine expert who specializes in the restaurant side of the wine industry. He or she is trained in wine tasting, pairing wine with foods, wine purchasing, wine storage, and the creation of wine lists. Most of the finest restaurants employ at least one wine expert, and for the most prestigious resorts and restaurants, having a master sommelier is something of a necessity.
The core purpose of a sommelier is to ensure that dining patrons are able to find a wine within their budget that fits their tastes and complements their food. At the basic level, this means that the expert works with the kitchen to find suitable wines to pair with each entree dish on the menu, and sometimes with other courses as well. At a higher level, a sommelier is often out on the floor of the restaurant, helping customers to decide the exact wine that best meets their needs.
Becoming a sommelier can be a daunting task, as it involves many hours of study and often a great deal of expense to procure both classes and fine wines for tasting. Most experts come to the job through one of two routes: either through extensive work in fine dining and studying wines “in the field” or through formal training in wine studies. Of course, neither of these paths are entirely independent of the other, as most restaurant employees on their way to being a sommelier take at least a few formal classes, and many formal students get a job in a fine restaurant both to earn money and to have ready access to wines to taste.
The most well-known certification for this job is the Master Sommelier certification offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers. In order to gain this certification, a person must first take an introductory course, take an exam to become certified as a sommelier, continue his or her education with an advanced course, and finally pass the Master Sommelier exam. There are currently 124 people who hold this title worldwide, with 79 of these in North America.
The exam to become a Master Sommelier consists of three main portions. The first is an active portion that asks the candidate to recommend drinks, intelligently discuss the menu and wines, select glasses, make pairing recommendations, and prepare and present wine, brandies, cigars, and liqueurs. The second tests knowledge by asking the candidate to discuss various varietals and regions, answer questions about international wine laws, explain the process of making liqueurs and beers, discuss cigars with authority, and give a run-down of proper storage procedures. The final section is a practical tasting examination, in which the candidate must identify and discuss six wines, referencing the varietal, place of origin, and vintage.