More and more sommeliers know nothing about wine.
Begging the question: are they? As the public becomes more aware of the term “sommelier,” its meaning is becoming watered down, leading to the birth of things like, well, water sommeliers. Tea and coffee, too. It’s a trend not confined to beverages … now there are mustard and hot sauce sommeliers. For that matter, it’s not even confined to liquids. Witness the advent of the “bread sommelier,” which, like the water sommelier, is a certification developed in Germany.
Many of these sommeliers are self-appointed, and not certified at all. “No one can police the word ‘sommelier,’” says Andy McNamara MS, Chairman of the Court of Master Sommeliers-Americas. “It is just a job title, like ‘accountant’ or ‘lawyer.’ Its meaning has evolved, and will likely continue evolving. And that’s fine. We don’t have a comment on other uses of the word ‘sommelier.’ We’re concerned with the definition of the sommelier as it pertains to our use of it, as Master Sommeliers and what it means to be a Master Sommelier.”
Milk sommelier Bas de Groot anointed himself as such tongue-in-cheek, but it stuck, and he isn’t shy about adopting the trappings of the title. In a video on the website Great Big Story he tastes milk from Burgundy glasses at a Sonoma dairy farm, evaluating the color first, then the nose (complete with swirling), then tasting. For what it’s worth he doesn’t spit.
De Groot mainly works as a consultant, advising dairy farmers, but other sommeliers are more overtly involved in sales and service, if still far from the restaurant floor. The mustard shop Maille claims on their website that the mus- tard sommelier is a practitioner of, “…the profession which La Maison Maille has had in their boutiques since 1747.” Hmm…citation needed, as they say. I don’t doubt they’ve had trained salespeople for centuries, but were they really called sommeliers? Heatonist, a hot sauce shop in Brooklyn, at least makes no such historical claims when it calls their sales staff “hot sauce sommeliers.”
Water sommeliers may come closest to the meaning of the word as we in the wine world know it. Martin Riese works for the Patina Restaurant Group, having received his certification from the German Mineral Water Trade Association in 2010. His water list at Ray’s and Stark Bar at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art includes 20 brands, sourced from Europe, North America, and Fiji. In many ways Martin’s job does resemble that of the sommelier: caring for inventory, making suggestions, even pairing water and food. It’s not a full-time position; he also serves as the sommelier for other beverages (wine among them) and as the restaurant’s General Manager.
At least he’s working in a restaurant setting, a connection that many sommeliers consider an essential aspect of the title. “There are cannabis sommeliers, and milk, and so on,” says Ronan Sayburn, MS, Chief Operations Officer of the Court of Master Sommeliers-Europe, “and none of these people work in restaurants. I don’t think it’s a really good idea to be honest. You could call yourself a sommelier of anything. From my point of view, anybody called a sommelier should work in restaurants or at least be involved with the restaurant industry.”
To some extent this migration out of restaurants and into the broader world is a logical side effect of the spread of certification. “You have Master Sommeliers who have started wine brands,” says McNamara, “who work for wholesalers like myself, who work for distributors or importers or whoever it may be; people in all the different facets of this industry, including people that continue to work on the floor.” The same is true for the (much more numerous) Certified Sommeliers, a certification level introduced in 2006; some of these have never actually worked in restaurants or the wine trade at all. Properly speaking, people like myself, who didn’t pursue certification, cease to be sommeliers when we leave the restaurant industry. I’m no longer a sommelier just as I’m no longer a waiter, or an English teacher. But certification is forever once bestowed, regardless of wherever in the industry—or outside of it—one ends up.
In a sense, other industries are tipping their hats to the restaurant business when adopting the word, “sommelier.” A sophisticated palate is definitely a component of the term even as its usage is being broadened. We’ve yet to see a sommelier who wasn’t associated with matters of the palate in some way, be it the nuances of different teas or the Scoville units in a hot sauce.
Most “sommelier” upstarts also claim some capability for pairing their chosen specialty with other consumables. In Colorado, a company called Cultivating Spirits offers a buzz-word-heavy, “Gourmet 3-course fine dining experience, each course paired with its own small-batch crafted Cannabis” by their Cannabis Sommelier. You’ll also receive, “…a cannabis pairing demo on the importance of becoming a Cannabis Aficionado,” and “…learn how to consciously consume Cannabis.” Sommeliers help you enjoy even more the things you already enjoy.
To do all that, a sommelier needs to be an expert, deeply, even obsessively familiar with the object of expertise. “The term sommelier is so widely used,” says Kyle Stewart, co-owner of the Cultured Cup, a tea destination in Dallas. “I think it incorporates incredible knowledge about the beverage that’s being served and also about the service.”
Stewart is a Certified Tea Specialist. He acknowledges that tea sommeliers exist, but isn’t sure the term rings true in his ears. “I haven’t used it because I’m trying to think of another term that might be more appropriate. Still, I see a lot of parallels between tea and wine that it’s almost unavoidable.”
In the beer world, Ray Daniels created the Cicerone Program to address service and handling problems. “I saw bad beer and bad things happening to beer, but I didn’t think, ‘oh right; the sommelier is the way to solve to the problem.’ In fact, one of the first things I got as feedback when I started talking about this was, ‘whatever you do, don’t use the term beer sommelier.’ Beer has always had a sort of younger brother, shorter sibling sort of complex when it comes to wine, so one of the things I got as clear input early on was: we don’t want anything in the program to look like, sound like, or in any way be derivative of a wine-based program.”
“Another issue,” continues Daniels, “was a very common sense business consideration, namely, the ability to protect the title to prevent just anybody from assuming that mantle. But with that said, I still use the phrase, ‘beer sommelier ‘as a shorthand description of what we do to someone who’s completely clueless and has never heard of cicerone.”
Cicerone comes from Latin, meaning, “guide.” The Tri-chome Institute was less classical when it created a trade- marked name for its cannabis certification; “Interpener” is a portmanteau of “interpreter” and “terpene,” the latter contributing the dominant aromatic components in the drug. But an Interpener by any other name would surely smell as skunky…even under the name Cannabis Sommelier…which the Trichome Institute uses liberally on their website in any case.
Cicerones, Interpeners, Sommeliers…all are intermediaries, mediators between producers and consumers. They take on a role beyond that of a salesperson, but they aren’t producers. Hence the hypothetical need for a bread sommelier, connecting the master bakers of the world—or their breads, at least—with their buyers.
The subtext of a sommelier’s existence is that the product in question is complex, diverse, and worthy of thoughtful consideration. The product, whatever it is, has been elevated from a commodity to an artisanal item. The Trichome Institute is telling us that cannabis is not just about getting stoned. Water is not just H2O, nor is mustard just a yellow substance to be squirted on a hot dog.
Guests don’t always buy into that subtext, even in the world of restaurants or wine. Fine dining is no stranger to guests who simply order, “the Sancerre,” any Sancerre, without ever looking up from their cellphones. And do I need a sommelier to guide me through a list of twenty different waters? You can’t be serious. With the Internet’s equivalent of an eye roll, Grub Street recently sug- gested that Bas de Groot and Martin Riese, “…duke it out” for the title of “…easiest-to-make-fun-of food job.” But whether the connotation is acknowledged, ridiculed, or ignored, a sommelier’s existence plants a flag, demanding attention for the product at hand.
In this respect, “sommelier” goes beyond what the word “expert” would convey. Were we to encounter a “water expert,” we could easily imagine they work in for the city government, developing filtration systems and so forth. We don’t jump to the conclusion that drinking water is an act of connoisseurship, and that the expert’s role is to advise us regarding the choice of, “Spring, tap, or sparkling?”
Expertise is not having the best time of it recently. As social scientist Tom Nichols describes in his 2017 book, The Death of Expertise, the Internet and other factors have exacerbated Americans’ anti-intellectual tendencies into an all-encompassing distrust of experts and authorities. “Today,” Nichols writes, “any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious ‘appeals to authority,’ sure signs of dreadful ‘elitism,’ and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a ‘real’ democracy.”
It is remarkable that sommeliers have escaped this fate, and to a degree that evidently makes those in other fields think it better to call themselves “sommeliers” than “experts” in their own domains. This is especially striking when we consider the elitist image from which the sommelier suffered for much of the 20th Century: a fat, pretentious, self-glorified waiter looking down his nose at guests.
The Court of Master Sommeliers deserves credit here. The attention generated by the well-publicized rigors of the Master Sommelier exam has validated their credentials. This has produced a spillover effect, encouraging the unconsidered assumption that “sommeliers” in all lines of work must be held to high standards. The aura envelops the certified and the self-appointed alike, indiscriminately and regardless of the field.
Returning to the wine world and the widespread skepticism of expertise observed by Nichols, it seems that sommeliers are relatively immune. Most of them, at all levels of qualification, go about their business while showing an evident love of wine and enthusiasm for the job. This helps to immunize sommeliers from public mistrust, at least to a notable degree, and rightly so: very few take on the job with cynical motives. Nichols’ book focuses on the political world, where the public might well look askance at expertise as a mere tool to help climb the greasy pole to power. Of course, we know of the occasional restaurant patron who regards a sommelier with suspicion, but most guests find it easier to connect sommeliers’ motivations with genuine enthusiasm than some sort of power play.
Passion must be tempered, though, and one encounters sommeliers who let their fervor run amok. If there is a negative connotation to the word today, it might owe its existence to sommeliers who are so in love with wine that they lose track of the guests’ needs. Their zeal leads them to push their latest personal darlings rather than listening to the guest, and as in any field, there are some who become prideful about their job title and their expanding knowledge. This may have been exacerbated by notions of a lifestyle more imagined than real: “Oh, to be a sommelier—sabering Champagnes and cracking wise at Aspen.” Such dreams don’t lend themselves to service and humility. As McNamara notes, teaching sommeliers to keep their ego in check is a vital part of their training.
When well directed, a sommelier’s energy and expertise are placed in the service of hospitality. That’s an aspect of the occupation that’s been more and more overlooked, and it’s incumbent on the community to restore and maintain that focus. The proper function of the sommelier’s expertise is not the passive knowledge of wine, but rather the active knowledge of wine service, engaged in practice. We can only hope that those from other fields who borrow the title will adopt a similar mindset, to prevent the term from being hollowed out or even reviled. “Maybe the word ‘expert’ got bandied around so much that it lost its meaning,” says Ronan Sayburn. “It would be a shame if the same thing happened to the word sommelier.”
The subtext of a sommelier’s existence is that the product in question is complex, diverse, and worthy of thoughtful consideration.
The proper function of the sommelier’s expertise is not the passive knowledge of wine, but rather the active knowledge of wine service, engaged in practice.
Reprint from TEXSOM presents SOMMELIER Volume 0, pages 9–11