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Will Success Destroy The Sommelier Credential Programs?

By Stephen Eliot

The credentials and credibility of sommeliers have become new grist for the critical mill of late, and Adam Teeter offers a new twist on the topic in a lengthy blog last week on the Vinepair site.1 In a worth-reading piece entitled “Are Wine Enthusiasts Destroying The Sommelier?” he asks if the growing number of people who pursue sommelier certification with no intent whatsoever of ever working in a restaurant has, in the public eye, diminished the worth of the profession. His premise is simple and his questions worth asking, even if absolute answers are not always forthcoming.

He writes,

“…the attraction of wine enthusiasts to attain (sommelier) certification in order to prove their knowledge of wine to their peers is at an all-time high. Yet it seems to come with a fundamental misunderstanding of what it truly means to be a sommelier, and the reinforcement of this trend is slowly eroding the respect we should have for people that work in restaurants, while reinforcing an ever-growing rise in snob wine culture. The idea among the general public of what a sommelier is has been tainted by people with no interest in ever actually serving in the profession, causing the role to be seen as someone more concerned with tasting notes and being able to identify wines blind than facilitating a wonderful experience for the diner. This has ultimately led to a growing distrust for the sommelier — an unfortunate result.”

“Part of the issue can be attributed to the letters one is able to place after their name following passage of their certification exam. Americans are a competitive bunch. No matter what our passion, if we can become certified in said passion the appeal becomes that much more attractive. We have seen this phenomenon before where those passionate about something seek to become certified in the trade. A decade ago, at the onset of foodie culture, many people headed to culinary school, seeking the fame and fortune associated with their favorite celebrity chefs. Yet in the same way a host of people who desire to become certified sommeliers have no interest in actual service, many culinary school attendees had no clue what it meant to work the line, nor any interest.”

As Mr. Teeter points out, the number of would-be wine experts sitting for the introductory exam and first-level certification has risen rather dramatically over the last several years, and, though I may not have the numbers to prove the same, I can offer a nod of agreement given the scores of folks I run across in and out of this business who at least claim some sort of sommelier certification. There is a fair number of folks pursuing various wine “certificate” and “degrees” from a host of “professional” assessment programs, not just those offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers, and, while I would not question their motives, I have long wondered about what the proliferation of degree-wielding diplomates might ultimately mean to the certifying agencies themselves.

So, who is to blame for the supposed lessening luster of sommeliers? The Court of Master Sommeliers, sommeliers themselves, or the culture of wine in general? Mr. Teeter cites the latter as the brunt of the problem, but ultimately, and here I agree, he seems to find greatest fault not with the legions of certificate-bearing dilettantes but with working sommeliers that fail to understand what the job is really about. That of, course, is service to their customers first and last.

If surplus certification is a fact, the market will take care of itself. If the rush to be recognized as a “certified” sommelier is but a trend, it will pass. If Americans are a competitive bunch, they are also easily bored. It does not seem to me that “sommeliers without portfolio” pose a mortal threat to the profession nearly as much as those working the floor who are unresponsive, detached and a little too self aware. A good sommelier deserves respect and appreciation, but both must be earned by more than waving an ersatz degree.


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No Subject
by Jeffrey
Posted on:8/6/2014 10:43:27 AM

As a someone in the industry, I don't think the outsiders are going to ruin the reputation of sommelier certification; the insiders are accomplishing that quite well on their own.  In fact, I hope that the outsiders from other professional fields are the catalyst for introducing some basic tenets of professionalism and business etiquette to the "somm" community, and maybe a little bit of perspective.  


Ask anyone in the industry to comment off the record about many of these young somms, and you will undoubtedly get a litany of horror stories, stories of gross unprofessionalism and mind boggling senses of self-importance and entitlement.  I've watched one lecture a Spanish winemaker and attempt to play "gotcha" over Spanish wine law.  I watched another ask for and get a thirty minute lesson in traditional Italian barrels from a Tuscan winery owner and then boast that his Italian section is too eclectic to carry any sangiovese based wines.  E-mails go unanswered unless they want something from you.  Salespersons' time is wasted because they are expected to provide tasting training on their time and sample budgets.  Dinners and luncheons are gladly attended where the out of town guest is ignored while they talk "somm shop" with each other and then attempts at follow up communication are ignored.  I've watched many with a preening sense of self-importance that one would assume these people were pediatric cancer surgeons, diplomates or quantum dynamics theorists, yet they are somms who've spent their entire life in the restuarant industry perhaps with a UNLV degree thrown in at some point.


And I'm someone selling them wines that they are actually currently interested in, and these are my horror stories.  I can only imagine the frustrations felt by those currently attempting to offer them wines and regions that are no longer in vogue with the club.  Needless to say, the backlash and jokes have already started with entire twitter accounts (unicorn somm and life in wine sales to name two prominent examples) set up to document and mock the absurdity of it all.


While it's true that the MS program has never been more poplular, it should be noted that many an institution sowed the seeds of its own future irrelavence at the height of its influenec and popularity.

No Subject
by Kurt Burris
Posted on:8/6/2014 1:40:16 PM

Jeffery:  I could not agree more.  As a 20 plus year wine maker and salesman, with a degree from UC Davis in Enology I can't tell you the number of times I have had some little weasel tell me how UC Davis has ruined the wine industry and he does his best to not put any wines produced by UC grads on his list.  Of course he/she often doesn't realize how many international winemakers have attended UC Davis

No Subject
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:8/6/2014 2:22:31 PM

I certainly agree with many of the tenets in this post but I think there is also a more insidious undercurrant happening in the restaurant business and it comes from the owners themselves. Having a full-time wine buyer/sommelier is an expensive proposition and for many owners, it seems they are throwing money away when all they see is somms swirling glasses, sales reps hanging about and a bunch of chattering and gossip mongering (trust me, my boss in retail thought the same thing).

Consequently, in order to extract more value from them, somms and buyers are often tasked with other responsibilities, usually doing managerial tasks at the front of the house. This is frequently done at smaller places that don't need a full-time wine program, another reason many experienced somms are hitting the streets these days. Despite all the profits generated by a good wine program, owners just see dollars flittering away and in some cases they are right. But closing a restaurant at 1AM is often not what sommeliers envisioned when they signed up for the job.

By forging a more humble and closer working relationship with their owners/bosses, somms maybe be able to craft a job entirely focused on wine and less on zeroing out the credit card machine. But owners should also know that somms who can actually focus on the traditions of service and attention to the customer will reward them financially. Ultimately, its up to the sommelier to sell themselves and their service strengths to the boss. That's hard to do if they "are unresponsive, detached and a little too self aware."

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