A question people ask me almost every day is “Are you a sommelier?” When I respond that I’m not, their faces kind of drop.
The fact is, I possess a decent amount of wine knowledge. I feel confident in my job, educating people about different aspects of wine, and talking to my peers about certain wine topics. But, like everyone else, I’m always learning. I enjoy researching new topics and bringing myself closer to becoming an ‘expert’.
Yet I have a slight problem with the assumption that the ‘experts’ who work with wine have to be sommeliers ( or somms). That combined with the look of disappointment when I reveal that I am not.
If I look at it one way, I feel flattered that the people who ask me do so because they have noticed my knowledge and enthusiasm towards wine. But, more often than not, I see it as a source of frustration because I can tell that when I admit my non-sommelier title, I automatically lose some of the respect afforded to me when someone was under the impression that I was a somm.
To tell you the truth, it’s not an avenue I’ve ever wanted to go down. My view may change later, however, right now it is something that doesn’t appeal to me. Somms are typically found working in fine dining restaurants where you pay a lot of money for a smaller portion of food. The whole role seems a bit too ‘old boy’ for me.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with fine dining restaurants but, when a somm is reserved for this kind of setting, I feel that it almost suggests that wine knowledge goes hand in hand with affluence.
I have worked in these restaurants and have witnessed people pay ridiculous prices for a bottle of wine, based on the impression that the member of staff talking to them was a somm. In one establishment we didn’t have a member of staff officially in that post, so a friend of mine was designated the ‘wine server’ simply because he was French. It’s actually hilarious because JB knew fuck all about wine but could just pronounce the names on the bottle better than everyone else.
Fortunately for me, I’ve made it this far without having gained a single accredited qualification in wine. I got my initial taste of the wine industry (no pun intended) like most people do, through working in restaurants, and then got serious about it when I moved to France. Now, I find myself working in an emerging wine region and the opportunity I have been given here is completely out of this world.
Most recently, I hosted a whole event showcasing the concept of pairing wine with music and explained two techniques that I have been working on (read more about these techniques by clicking here). To my knowledge, this was the first event of its kind, so the faith and trust that Luckett Vineyards placed in me for this evening was incredible. As this concept is what I am hoping to base the bulk of my career on, I am very grateful to have been given the initial platform to test, explore and establish the idea of connecting wine with music.
The thing is, I know that going forward when applying for roles or contacting establishments/organisers with this idea, people will want to see my credentials. It’s all well and good having the first hand experiences, but without a formal qualification I fear someone with a WSET diploma will always be favoured. When I return to England I am going to enrol on a course, just to get this piece of paper to validate my ideas.
I appreciate how hard it is and how much you have to learn to become a somm, and I have a lot of respect for those qualified, I just can’t help but feel that the term and what it appears to represent is a bit antiquated. I’m sure that there are a lot of qualified somms doing really cool things. In fact there does seem to be a shift in the amount of younger somms breaking through the ranks, which I can believe can only help make the stereotyped persona less prevalent.
Dining patterns have changed, and I’m hoping that wine patterns will soon follow. I love the casual dining scene and the whole concept of good quality food in an informal setting is everything that I try to emulate when I talk about wine. I also think that the rise in ‘New World’ wine has helped bring a more fun side to wine culture, with interesting names from bigger producers such as ‘Goats-Do-Roam’ and the ‘Fat Bastard’ brands. It’s harder for European wines that are steeped in so much heritage to break the mould. However, there are a number of younger generation European wine makers having fun with their labelling like Domain Wilfried, a brother and sister duo from France whom I met at a global wine fair a few months ago.
The documentary ‘Somm: Into the Bottle’ highlighted some of the changing personas of the profession and really did highlight the beauty of wine. There were a couple of moments that I cringed at, because of the occasional pompousness, but it was a great insight into the younger generation of somms coming through. It was also encouraging to see more diversity in a trade that has often been dominated by older white males.
Going back to my previous point of ‘New World’ wine regions having more fun, I think this is palpable in the documentary. There’s always going to be a direct link with fine dining/elitism and somms, because there’s always going to be people willing to pay more for a bottle of ‘great wine’. If someone they believe to be an expert recommends it, they might want to experience it for themselves, which is fair enough, however I just know that this differs from my ideal way of experiencing wine.
So, to summarise, I guess the point of this article was to address the fact that, in my opinion, the sommelier persona is in need of an update. From what I have noticed, the change seems to be slowly happening, but it isn’t a term that will appeal to me in the grand scheme of my career.
I was at a cocktail bar a few years ago (Kuckoo to be exact, read about what they’re up to here) and was having a conversation with the bartender. I referred to him as a mixologist to which he replied that he hated the term because, in his eyes, he was just a good bartender. I guess that’s how I like to define myself when it comes to wine. One day I will hopefully possess the same level of knowledge as a sommelier but I’ll just characterise myself as a knowledgeable wino.