The role of the Sommelier in modern day dining

Perhaps you’ve heard the term ’speak to our Sommelier’ before? Or you’ve secretly wondered what on earth a Sommelier is or does and why not every dining establishment has one and why some do? Maybe you’ve taken bets with your friends that you can guess a certain type of wine, its vintage; origins and so on, and lost the bet dismally because it’s harder than it looks? Well, perhaps you should become a Sommelier and enjoy fame, criticism, an inflated ego (as is often reported) but above all, a passion for wine and wine service.

What is a Sommelier?

A Sommelier has over the years been recorded as a number of different things, however in modern day dining, a Sommelier is known to be someone who is highly trained and knowledgeable in wine, wine service, wine pairing, wine storage and procurement, wine lists and an all round ‘expert’ in wine. Sounds simple and easy enough, right? Wrong! But we’ll go into becoming a Sommelier later on in this blog, and you can decide for yourself how ‘simple’ this job role is. In fact, so pretentious prestigious is the role of the Sommelier in modern day dining, it has been compared to the role of the Executive Chef or Chef de Cuisine.

What exactly is the role of the Sommelier?

The word Sommelier comes from French origins and has come to mean one that carries supplies. So the first role of the Sommelier is to transport/carry the wine.  In modern day dining, the Sommelier needs to have a system in the cellar in which he knows and understands exactly where each wine is kept, rotated, stored and when it will be available….and he needs to be able to access it quickly and present it to a table at lightning speed because wine as many well know, is a conversation starter.

Another important role of the Sommelier is to pair the fine wines with the foods listed on the menu.  A Sommelier works with the senior kitchen staff to find suitable wines to pair with various menu items. The Sommelier’s role is not always to educate the guest (most guests don’t want to be educated) but to guide the guest on their wine selection. Part of this is done when the Sommelier creates an outstanding wine list, and the other part is created when the guest is present and available to discuss wine choices with. The wine list must offer something for everyone to enjoy, and pair with ingredients and dishes on the menu in a creative and cost effective way. The wine list should bring in between 16-20% of the restaurant’s revenues, so the costsings should be done with this in mind.

How easy is it to become a Sommelier?

In South Africa (and founded in 1979), the Cape Wine Academy introduced the Cape Sommelier™ programme, leading to certification as a Cape Wine Master. There was a huge demand and support from the hospitality industry for a suitable professional qualification, and to ensure that South Africa’s service levels competed globally, the Cape Wine Academy ensured that this demand was met. However, there is one giant step further which you can take. There’s the Court of Master Sommeliers, which is one of the world’s most prestigious, secretive, and exclusive organizations. It offers the massively intimidating Master Sommelier Exam.

In fact, in the hilarious movie called SOMM, you can catch a glimpse of the emotional and mysterious world of this Master Sommelier exam, and the organisation behind it. Apparently it’s so tough to complete that since its inception almost 40 years ago, less than 200 candidates have ever reached the exalted Master level. Students are expected to know every single detail of the world of wine, spirits and cigars. In this movie, you get to take the journey with these students into what exactly it takes to achieve this success – the sacrifices and risks students take in their personal lives and well-being, and the lengths they will go to in order to pull it off. Take a look: