The Myth of Sommelier Certification, Debunked

Despite common belief, "sommelier" is not a certification. It's a job. Carson Demmond explores what it means to be a sommelier and why an exam has nothing to do with it.

somm certification illustration james carpenter

“Sommelier is a qualification, not a job position like receptionist,” wrote one commenter in a lengthy thread on an article on this website titled “The Rise of the American ‘Somm’.”

But why should “sommelier” be any different from “receptionist”? Both are jobs that require their own sets of skills. While a receptionist needs to be familiar with the schedules of staff members and know who to direct clients to based on their questions or needs, a sommelier needs to have intimate knowledge of his or her restaurant’s available wines, beers and spirits to guide the guest toward the beverage that best meets his or her desires. The position also requires people skills, a moderate level of bookkeeping and a ton of dirty work—from loading and unloading heavy cases of wine to clearing plates from tables. The larger the wine program, the more advanced the skill set required; but the same can be said of the receptionist at a United Nations duty station.

That comment struck right at the root of a major misconception regarding what it means to be a sommelier. Another commenter in the same thread even went so far as to liken dining in a restaurant with a sommelier that isn’t certified to flying in a plane with a pilot that isn’t licensed. Seriously?

No one can dispute the need for a certain amount of education and experience in order to proficiently work the floor as a sommelier, but there are many different routes to get there. “Sommelier” isn’t an abstract title or a generic, yet high-brow name for “wine expert”—it’s a job. A restaurant job. And certification is by no means prerequisite to being a good one.

In fact, I would wager that certification as the de facto method of assessing a candidate’s readiness for a job may be the very reason we’re finding many somms performing below industry standards, and several seasoned New York City wine directors I spoke to agreed. They may have a signed document or pin, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have any experience.

Another reason for the great misconception may be because we live in an era in which wine knowledge is seen as social badge of honor. For a diner confronted with a large wine list, the pin represents bona fide evidence that his somm knows more than he does, making him comfortable asking advice. Hardly any other occupation demands that sort of evidence. You wouldn’t ask your tax guy for proof of his degree in applied mathematics; if you get a big refund, you’re happy with the services rendered and that’s the end of the story.

Certification, which involves passing a test on regional wine laws, wine history and production methods, as well as, in some cases, blind tasting and a gauntlet of service technique—some of it painfully antiquated (cigar service, anyone?)—is a relatively new concept in this country. The most widely known certifying body, The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), administered its first Master Sommelier Exam in England in 1969, but its American chapter wasn’t founded until 1986.  And the majority of the other notable certification programs have only been established here within the last 15-20 years.

While dominant in Europe, the academic route has never been fully absorbed here, and I’d argue that this fact is part of what’s made America’s sommelier culture the trendsetting force that it is today. Rather than a slew of wine professionals who have gone through a vocational school, we have folks who drifted into the trade by way of their curiosity and passion for the subjects of both wine and service. With that as their driving force, they’ve thrown themselves into learning on their own terms and often through the experience of working in restaurants.

Unlike certification for doctors or pilots—or any profession where licensing is a legal or moral necessity—certification for sommeliers is not universally regulated. These certifying bodies are independent organizations that are businesses in their own right. And like any business, they need new enrollees to maintain an influx of cash and stay afloat.

So, if interested, anyone could sign up, pay the fees, take a course, pass a test and then—like a caterpillar into a butterfly—magically transform into a sommelier. Most programs, including the CMS, don’t require you to have any restaurant experience before enrolling in a “certifying” level course. And as much as they can be a useful source of education, they don’t determine whether or not you are a sommelier. The fact that you oversee the wine list and wine service in a restaurant alone determines that.

Further, some of the most important wine service skills—those that are based on understanding restaurant ethos, communicating with dining guests and taste memory—simply can’t be learned in a classroom or via exam. That education is cumulative and only grows with experience on the floor. But more than anything, freedom from traditional, homogenized wine education has made drinking out more fun. The more relaxed, freestyle nature of many of today’s most visible sommeliers is helping revolutionize the way we experience wine in restaurants.

Yet there continues to be a fair amount of confusion about what a sommelier is and how one becomes one. Part of it is rooted in the language of some of the certifying bodies, and I can understand how this could be misleading; “Certified Sommelier” is the title the CMS awards to those who pass their Level 2 exam, insinuating, in a way, that anyone who eschews their testing structure isn’t actually a somm.

When I worked on the floor at New York City’s The Modern, guests constantly asked me “What level are you?” assuming that I participated in the CMS program. Other sommeliers, like Matthew Kaner of Bar Covell in Los Angeles gets asked, “weekly, if not more,” where his “pin” is, referring to the little red and gold insignia awarded by the Court of Master Sommeliers.

In 2014, post-SOMM—the independent film that follows several Master Sommelier candidates on a soul-crushing journey to the pin—this misunderstood notion of “sommelier” seems to be proliferating. The movie, although highly entertaining as a voyeuristic look into a small corner of the profession, wasn’t about sommeliers per se, but about, specifically, the Court’s Master Sommelier exam.

It’s more important than ever now for people to know about the divide between the two camps,” says Patrick Cappiello the wine director at NYC’s Pearl & Ash, referring to those who seek to formalize their training (à la Court) and those who simply work their way up through the ranks. Working on the floor of a restaurant—opening and tasting countless bottles per day and logging cellar time under a wine director who can answer questions and help to formulate best practices: that’s a valuable education in its own right. But the divide is predicated on this means of education being seen as somehow inadequate.

An inventory of our great contemporary sommeliers that have foregone a formal certificate—Daniel Johnnes, who oversees the wine programs for the Daniel Boulud group, Rajat Parr (Michael Mina group, Sandhi Wines and co-author of Secrets of the Sommeliers), and Aldo Sohm of Le Bernardin, to name just a few—will tell you that it isn’t paramount to a successful career. Cappiello himself, who never subscribed to a certification program, has created what is arguably the most exciting wine list in New York right now.

Beyond both the confusing nomenclature and the movie SOMM, another reason for the great misconception may be because we live in an era in which wine knowledge is seen as social badge of honor. For a diner confronted with a large wine list, the pin represents bona fide evidence that his somm knows more than he does, making him comfortable asking advice. Hardly any other occupation demands that sort of evidence. You wouldn’t ask your tax guy for proof of his degree in applied mathematics; if you get a big refund, you’re happy with the services rendered and that’s the end of the story. If we can get past the view that the sommelier is a certified “wine expert” and, instead, work toward the reality that the sommelier is the person who compiles the wine list, knows the wines, and can attest to how they’re drinking and how they interact with the cuisine, then the somm-guest interaction would be exceedingly more pleasant. Chances are, this person has just as much expertise, if not more, than the one holding a certificate.

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Carson Demmond was born in Atlanta, Georgia, into a food-centric family. She graduated summa cum laude from Skidmore College with a degree in French literature, having spent half of her college career abroad at Sorbonne-Paris IV and Paris X Nanterre. She served as a sommelier on Belinda Chang's team at The Modern in New York City for three years before taking on the role of Associate Editor and Tastings Director at Wine & Spirits Magazine. She currently peddles Bordeaux, but can oft be found sipping chenin or champagne. She lives in New York City.

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