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What Is a Sommelier: A Definition | Intro Guide to Sommeliers

February 7, 2020
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Scott
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A sommelier, or somm for short, is one of the last few romantic job titles around. But it’s not only a job. It’s a description, a certification, and, of course, a passion. A passion that is easy to follow given a sommelier salary. It's no surprise even Hollywood is obsessed with sommelier movies.

A Master Sommelier, the highest level sommelier, is part of an exclusive club. Very few people have earnted the title Master Sommelier, as any recent Master Sommelier list indicates. people in the U.S. have earned the title in the past 40-plus years. At the other end of the spectrum, one can earn an introductory sommelier certificate over the course of a weekend.

This article will walk you through everything you need to know about sommeliers. Including a resource to check out if you're thinking about becoming a sommelier. First thing’s first, we’ll cover sommelier pronunciation. Then we’ll give a sommelier definition and go over a sommelier’s primary responsibilities. Finally, we'll take a look at some of the other names and titles sommeliers hold or are often called.

What Is a Sommelier: The Word Itself

How to Pronounce Sommelier

Sommelier is pronounced suh·muhl·yei.

Where Does the Word Sommelier Come From?

The English word sommelier has a Latin etymology and comes to us through French. The Latin word sagma means packsaddle, or a bag that was strapped to oxen, horses, and other beasts of burden to carry things. In French, the word became somme. The people who supervised these animals were known as sommeliers. And often the cargo the animals carried was wine.

Sommelier Definition

The basic definition of sommelier is a wine steward. Which means someone who looks after wine. The more commonly used sommelier definition, however, is a trained knowledgeable wine professional, often working in restaurants, with expertise in wine theory, wine service, and wine tasting.

This second definition is more commonly used because the Court of Master Sommeliers, a wine educational and certification body, uses the word sommelier in its very rigorous certification programs for wine professionals. In this article, we’re mostly concerned with the second definition. But to truly define sommelier, one must consider both sommelier definitions.

So Sommelier Is the Name for a Wine Expert?

Effectively, yes. A sommelier is the name for a wine expert. That is how the word has been historically used. More often than not, though, the word sommelier is used to describe those certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers and some other wine educational organizations. But the Court of Master Sommeliers didn’t invent the word nor do they own its rights.

What Does a Sommelier Do?

To understand what a sommelier does, it’s helpful to look at what the Court of Master Sommeliers tests for certification. Each of the four sommelier levels of certification cover the following three topics in increasing detail: wine theory, wine tasting, and wine service. Let’s look at each to deduce exactly what sommeliers do.

Wine Theory Expertise

The theoretical part of the sommelier examination covers grapes types, wine history, and classic wine regions and geography. Sommeliers are able to speak at length, expertly, about these subjects.

But they’re not professional wine historians or oenologists (scientists who study wine and winemaking). They study wine in the service of, well, service. Wine service. Being a sommelier is more practice than theory. While historically the word sommelier meant wine steward, today’s meaning more accurately means the steward of the wine experience.

That’s why the next two responsibilities of a sommelier focus around the experience of wine, not the study of it: wine tasting and wine service.

Wine Tasting

At the later levels of the sommelier exam, there are blind taste tests. The expectation is that certified sommeliers have world-class knowledge on the way wine interacts with our senses: taste, mouthfeel, sight, and smell. And there is an abundance of wine tasting terms dedicated to communicating that expertise.

Because wine is meant to be experienced, the ability to characterize wines through the senses and communicate that is crucial to elevating that experience. Being a talented wine communicator helps sommeliers navigate the wine list with guests. By making the wine list more accessible, sommeliers can recommend wines a guests love. It also helps them suggest a wine pairing (and potentially upsell cocktails!) and generally gives people the context and tools to fully appreciate their wine.

Wine Service

But there’s one last piece of the puzzle. After choosing the right vintage of the right wine from the right region and finding the right food to pair it with, it’s time to serve it. Right? Right.

A sommelier is fundamentally a service position. They’re not paid for their academic contributions to wine theory or their evolved pallets. They’re paid to enhance the experience of wine for guests. Mastery of theory and tasting are leveraged to that end.

After settling on a bottle, the sommelier will return with it tableside. There, they’ll present the label so the guest can verify the vintage, vineyard, and style. The sommelier will pour a tasting, and upon approval, pour a standard 5-ounce wine pour for every guest at the table enjoying wine. That’s the basic level of wine service. In addition wine may need to be chilled, decanted, or aerated. And all of those actions have a set place within a full wine service, and require the knowledge to do so (e.g. how to decant wine). This is in addition to making sure the wines are prepared to be served, having been stored at the optimal wine storage temperature with the correct wine cellar lighting in ideal wine storage furniture. We've got a wine storage guide that covers it all.

Wine service, then, is a delicate dance of presentations and approvals. And sometimes explanations, like explaining what is a corkage fee and why it's being charged. Good wine service is ever-present but almost imperceptible. Mastering this is the last responsibility of the sommelier.

What Is That … Wine Expert Name?

As we’ve learned, sommelier simply means someone who’s an expert in wine. It’s not always used to refer to someone who has been certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers, though it usually is.

Sometimes the word sommelier is used interchangeably with other words that describe working wine professionals. Let’s take a look at some of the more common ones.

  • Wine expert
  • Wine specialist
  • Professional wine taster
  • Wine server
  • Wine steward
  • Wine connoisseur
  • Wine professional

How to Become a Sommelier: Next Steps

Check out our article on the four levels of sommelier for the Court of Master Sommeliers. Getting certified at the introductory level is easier than you might think. We also go over some other wine education and certification bodies that exist as alternatives to the Court of Master Sommeliers.

What Is a Sommelier, You Ask? Now You Know.

Hopefully this article has given you a more nuanced understanding of the definition of the word sommelier. It’s not as clear cut as you’d expect. Words are living things that change over time. Today, when we say sommelier, we mostly mean those who have been certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers. But the origin of the word is simpler than that: one who oversees the wine.

Becoming a bartender is a great stepping stone to a career in the wine industry. If you’ve got the spare cash floating around, start at the introductory level and see if it’s for you. Wouldn’t that be romantic?