A sommelier or “wine steward” is akin to a maître d’ of wines. Every upscale restaurant, especially hotel restaurants, employs a sommelier or at least a wine consultant who helps them purchase appropriate wines and pair those wines with appropriate dishes.
What does a Sommelier do?
The central task of a sommelier is to assist patrons of a restaurant in choosing the best wine pairings for their meal. People choose wines based on several factors: price, taste preferences, what they’re ordering, the occasion (for example a wedding, birthday celebration, etc.)
A sommelier also helps the restaurant choose which wines to keep in stock and manages the inventory. A restaurant decides which wines to keep in stock based on several factors such as what type of cuisine that restaurant serves and how expensive that restaurant is. For example, Bouley, one of the most expensive and fancy restaurants in New York City, needs to stock the finest, most expensive wines. A sommelier deals directly with wine suppliers to coordinate orders and tries to lock down the best prices for desired wines. Sommeliers have to keep their fingers on the pulse of the wine market. They have to go to wine tastings regularly and scope out good wines for their restaurant.
Another important aspect of a sommelier’s job is to educate other staff members and waiters at the restaurant about wines so that everybody can make recommendations to patrons. It’s also important to note that most sommeliers have extensive knowledge of all liquors, not just wine, although traditionally recommending wines is the central job of a sommelier. Having a broad knowledge base of all alcoholic beverages and even tobacco products (i.e. cigars) makes a sommelier that much more useful to a restaurant.
To be a good sommelier, you need to be a salesman who appeals to a wealthier, more sophisticated customer base. Often sommeliers greet patrons at the front desk of the restaurant, so a sommelier must be dressed and styled appropriately. If you’re a sommelier at Bouley, for example, you need to wear a suit and be clean-shaven. If you’re a sommelier at a vegan restaurant, maybe you could pull off a ponytail and wear more casual clothes. The personality of the restaurant determines what type of salesman you need to be.
Another aspect of the job is customer service. Sometimes customers will complain that they don’t like a wine or a waiter may spill a glass of wine on somebody’s lap. You have to cater to the customer.
How To Become A Sommelier
The best way to become a sommelier is to gain experience in the wine industry any way you can. Work for a wine store. Research a particular brand of wines and write an eBook on the current market for that wine. Study and research wines. In order to be a good sommelier, you HAVE to know everything about wines. Another thing you could do is reach out to local restaurants and offer to assist the sommelier or “intern” for the sommelier free of charge on the weekends. You won’t be making money doing this, but maybe if you do a good job, that restaurant will start paying you. If not, you’ll be gaining valuable experience that you can leverage into a full time sommelier job elsewhere. You can also reach out to restaurants that don’t currently have a sommelier and offer your services at a discounted rate.
If you have trouble finding a sommelier job or don’t feel as though you’re qualified, there are many sommelier training schools and certificate programs. Most of these programs are pricy—upwards of $10,000—but some are only a few hundred bucks. Keep in mind, however, that a restaurant doesn’t care too much what sommelier degree you hold; a restaurant simply wants a sommelier who makes the customers happy. You don’t even need a college degree to be a sommelier. You need to know a lot about wines and liquor, and you need to make the customers happy. The hospitality industry runs on customer service.
Salary and Lifestyle
An entry-level sommelier makes around $30,000 per year whereas more experienced and sought after sommeliers make at least $40,000 per year. If you’re one of the top sommeliers in the world, there’s no limit to how much money you can make. Private wine consulting is a lucrative industry. Very rich people have wine collections. You can help a few billionaires keep track of their wine stock and make good money in the process. With hard work and effort, the possibilities for a sommelier are endless.
The lifestyle can be hard, especially when you're establishing a name for yourself—early mornings and late nights. The early part of the day is normally spent managing the wine stock—coordinating shipments, unloading shipments, doing inventory, etc. You may also go to a tasting or two during the day. At dinner (and in some restaurants at lunch), you’ll have to work the floor of the restaurant and deal with customers directly. Weekends can be the busiest time for sommeliers because people often go out to eat on the weekends.
Basically there are two sides to being a sommelier that you have to manage—the business side and the customer service side. Balancing these two sides can lead to long hours, but if you love wine, then you’ll get to spend your life surrounded by something you love. Not to mention, you’ll get a lot of free wine, so having a slight buzz throughout the day might help you cope.