What Is a Sommelier?
The running joke in my family is that I was studying to become a Somali pirate. Although I never found it all that funny and rather insulting, I can after all handle an AK-47 much more proficiently than any Somali would ever dream of, it did show a deficiency in my family’s relationship with wine. Growing up, beer and vodka were king. All I knew about wine was that it was sometimes red, sometimes white, and occasionally bubbly. In the odd once a year chance we were at a restaurant that actually had a wine list, it was never opened. I imagine my experience was similar to a lot of Polish families in America.
After graduating college, I was lucky enough to take a trip with my now-wife to Europe. Although I had been to the motherland many times, this was the first-time sans parents. After the obligatory stop in Poland, we traveled to Italy where we rented an early sixties Fiat Cinquecento and explored Tuscany. Although neither of us knew it at the time, a seed had been planted. I had no idea what I was drinking, or what kind of quality it was, but the culture is what attracted me. Vignerons would open their homes, scramble together charcuterie, and pour wines even though I very clearly did not have the ability to purchase, nor even appreciate, the wine. They spoke of their wines as a proud parent would speak of their offspring. The culture, that got me.
Now back to the question at hand – What is a sommelier exactly? Traditionally a sommelier is a person responsible for the wine service at a restaurant. From helping a guest select a wine, to curating the list, opening bottles, serving guests, there are a lot of responsibilities. The title however in recent years has become somewhat stretched to fit a lot of roles in a variety of industries surrounding wine. Retailers, wineries, wholesalers, and others have adopted the title. I am a glaring perpetrator of this dilution. Even though I have never worked a day inside a restaurant, I assume the title. Why? I passed a test. Well, that and I make wine, sell wine, and dream about wine.
Although there are a few venerated certification bodies in the world of wine the Court of Master Sommeliers stands out. The Court was highlighted in the Jason Wise film series “Somm.” Although it is going through a reformation due to allegations of misconduct from its former leadership, the Court is still the most recognized and respected body in the wine world. There are four levels of sommelier in the CMS program – Introductory, Certified, Advanced, and Master. The tests from Certified, my current level, through Master include blind tasting, theory, and service components. Even at the Certified level the depth of knowledge required is substantial. Questions on my test included things like “Name the two Grand Cru vineyards in Chambolle-Musigny” and “What is the only grape allowed on a wine labeled Bouzeron?” You must be a special kind of masochist to endure this.
If you find yourself being waited upon by a sommelier my advice would be to ask questions. Ask what they have been drinking lately. Sommeliers usually are not drinking the very expensive fancy stuff and pride themselves on finding great wines at great values. I know I do.
Pairing of the Month
Pierogi Ruskie i 2017 Muller-Catoir “MC” Riesling (about $20) This almost completely dry Riesling’s acid will be the perfect knife to cut through the richness of the cheese and bacon of the Pierogi.
About the Author
Michael Baryla is a CMS Certified Sommelier and owner of Tekstura Wine Co in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA of Oregon.