Be a Sommelier: Your love of wine adds value to diners' experiences
There’s a mystery and fascination to wine that becomes a passion for those genuinely interested in viniculture. Many of these wine lovers, especially working in the restaurant industry, take the next step to turn their passion into a career as a sommelier.
That’s what happened to Dan Volway, who’s worked at white tablecloth restaurants for the past 15 years, 11 of them as a sommelier. He fell in love with the restaurant business when working part-time in a restaurant during university. His love of wine culture grew to the point he decided to become a professional.
“The majority of people in it have a passion for wine,” says Volway. “It drives a lot of people, even those who aren’t in the business but are just passionate about wine. The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. As a sommelier, you’re always discovering new things.” Today he consults to the upscale Rain restaurant and also teaches sommelier courses at George Brown College and Niagara College.
Roger Vieira, food and beverage manager with Liberty Entertainment Group, became a sommelier in 1990. His passion for wine was ignited 18 years ago as GM at Centro restaurant. “I was very involved in managing and scheduling, and I was very interested in food. I increased our wine list and had a basic knowledge of wine, but not detailed. I thought I should learn more about it. Not too many in the restaurant business at the time understood wine. People were just looking at the price to determine whether the wine was any good. I felt I wanted staff to be able to answer questions from diners.”
A desire to find out more turned into a lifelong love affair with wine for both Volway and Vieira.
Who’s a sommelier?
According to Joseph Miller, president of the International Sommelier Guild (ISG), the profile of sommelier is evolving. It used to be mainly males over 45. Now it’s 50/50 men and women, half under age 40. The profession traditionally appealed to more mature workers, but say both Volway and Vieira, that’s changing as the general population’s interest in wine grows, thanks to gourmet magazines, the internet and TV food shows.
In the past, sommeliers hailed mainly from the hospitality industry, but that, too, is changing, and today’s grads of certification courses also come from retail and production backgrounds.
What skills do you need?
Wine knowledge is a given. But the presentation of that knowledge is even more important. There can be an intimidation factor when the server asks whether diners want to speak to the sommelier. “What’s made me successful is being able to be approachable and to share that knowledge with staff and guests in a way that’s not intimidating,” says Volway. “There are a lot wine snobs out there, and that’s not good for the image of wine. My approach is that I want people to drink and enjoy wine.”
What does a sommelier do?
Like so many other careers in the hospitality industry, a sommelier’s hours can be long. Your day might not start until 2 p.m., when you review your inventory, meet with suppliers and arrange to taste wines. Before the dinner crowd begins to arrive, you get ready for seatings and go over the wine list with your staff. Then you work the floor, seeing to diners’ needs and romancing the wine menu. Your day might not end until 1 or 2 a.m.
Much of the sommelier’s work is back of the house. You:
- Purchase the wine and create the wine list, working closely with the chef to ensure the wines coordinate with the food.
- Suggest to the restaurant owner what to buy, based on menu, price and value.
- Take care of inventory management.
- Handle staff training and management. Since the sommelier is only one person, staff must also be knowledgeable about the wine list. That means holding daily or weekly staff briefings before the shift to discuss how to incorporate wines into the meal. Trained staff can increase wine sales 20-30%.
- Educate staff. If there’s a wine producer in town with new products, the sommelier will often bring that person to brief employees.
- Organize staff to visit wineries. You’ll want to refresh your own knowledge through special winery tours in Europe and North America.
- Attend tastings and encourage your staff to attend, too.
Where to find out more
Court of Master Sommeliers
The Court of Master Sommeliers was established to encourage improved standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants. The first successful Master Sommelier examination was held in the United Kingdom in 1969. An American chapter was founded 10 years later. By April 1977, the Court of Master Sommeliers was established as the premier international examining body. There are three stages to attain the top qualifications of Master Sommelier:
International Sommelier Guild
The ISG is a licensed vocational school which currently provides sommelier training in more than 20 U.S. states and six Canadian provinces.