Why Is the Word “Sommelier” Being Co-opted?

Recently, a spate of so-called sommeliers have cropped up in fields other than wine service. Jennifer Fiedler on how water sommeliers and mustard sommeliers are changing the definition of the word, and what it means for wine.

In 2013, a trio of well-used dictionaries—Merriam Webster, Google and Macmillan Dictionary—expanded the definition of “literally” (formerly, “actually”) to include the more colloquial usage of the term (“figuratively”). Grammarians, predictably perhaps, took to the internet en masse to mourn the loss of a perch on which to scold those who used the word incorrectly.

That same year, the echo chamber of the internet also lit up with news that Los Angeles restaurant Ray’s and Stark Bar had hired a water “sommelier” for its 45-page water menu. And then, a cascade of sommeliers followed in 2014: a whiskey sommelier, a mustard sommelier, a stateside course for becoming an olive oil sommelier.

What had been a title formerly reserved for “a waiter in a restaurant who has charge of wines and their service,” (Merriam-Webster, 2015) seemingly had slipped in popular usage to come to mean “expert” or “connoisseur.” Add in a debate over the efficacy of the sommelier certification programs, which some argue have been co-opted by wine hobbyists looking to learn more about the topic, and the definition of the word has become anything but clear.

All of which is to say, language evolves. But in the case of the sommelier, what does this adaptation by non-wine fields mean? It proves especially curious at a time when a new generation of restaurant professionals seem to be distancing themselves from the stereotypical suited-up, overly formal sommelier archetype.

The claim that the term should only belong to wine servers is in itself, a fairly modern conception. The word “sommelier” has etymological roots in either middle French, where “soumelier” was an official who transported supplies, or further back, from Latin’s “sagma,” meaning “packsaddle.”

Walking back from the snooty sommelier image, the new cool is swapping suits for T-shirts and Chuck Taylors, or choosing a “wine director” title rather than the Frenchified “sommelier.” In this world, fancy has less currency. Which is why, perhaps, these adopted sommelier titles feel so conspicuous and used-car salesman-y—dog whistles to a time (not too long ago) when we expected distance and smarm with our wine service.

Whatever duties a sommelier might actually perform in a restaurant in addition to wine service—making a tea list, choosing the water or helping with cigars, which is apparently still a thing—the title is still primarily linked to the wine world. We don’t need to say, “wine sommelier”; it is understood. So when other sectors of the food and beverage industry start adopting the word, and adopting it to mean “expert” rather than “server,” it’s worth asking: What is meant to be achieved?

At its most innocent, borrowing the sommelier term might be a nod to the way that the wine world has provided the map for the gourmetification of American food stuffs. Think farm-specific labeling, specialty shops and dense wordy descriptions of ingredients—all things that are commonplace for high-end food today, but maybe not so 15 years ago. While the French have cheese (fromagiers) and meat (charcutiers) professionals, the United States has not had a tradition of its own professional guilds for the making and selling of edible things. To use “sommelier,” in non-wine fields is to provide a shortcut in explanation for a relationship between consumer and seller.

A more cynical take would allow that choosing “sommelier” for a person knowledgeable in whiskey or mustard, these sectors are invoking an air of pretention commonly associated with the wine world in order to make their own products seem more rarified and valuable. In the mid-2000s, for example, when beer programs in restaurants really began to take off, some craft beer lovers chaffed at the combo term “beer sommelier.” One blog entry describes the “winofication of beer” as a world “in which ale and lager becomes what the Brits call poncey, or in other words, upper-class, pinky-in-the-air pretentious.”

For another example, check fastfood chain Sonic’s new Superbowl commercial, in which two everyman-ish characters both solicit and reject the advice of a (humorless) sommelier in picking one of the restaurant’s new slushy beverages. Sonic hedges by implying its drinks are both worthy of sommelier-like discourse and that sommelier talk is silly (Sommelier: “Is it sweet, sour, umami?” Everyman: “Ooh, Mommy, this is good.”)

The reality of the word’s adoption as signifier of expertise is likely somewhere in between these poles. Mitchell Davis, the Executive Vice President of the James Beard Foundation, says that the definition drift is likely tied to “the professionalization of the field and the shift that would engender in the class distinction between servant and expert.” In other words, as we place more cultural value on knowledge about food and beverages, the title begins to carry more social currency.

Ironically, then, as these new iterations of sommeliers are popping up, the word is becoming less commonplace among a new generation of wine professionals. Walking back from the snooty sommelier image, the new cool is swapping suits for T-shirts and Chuck Taylors, or choosing a “wine director” title rather than the Frenchified “sommelier.” In this world, where Duralex tumblers trump Riedel stemware and reclaimed wood is chosen over white tablecloths, fancy has less currency. Which is why, perhaps, these adopted sommelier titles feel so conspicuous and used-car salesman-y—dog whistles to a time (not too long ago) when we expected distance and smarm with our wine service.

But as the wine world goes—promoting the sommelier from wine waiter to professor and then ditching the term for a more familiar relationship—can we expect the rest of the food world to follow suit? Let’s check the dictionary again in five years.

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