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A Sommelier By Any Other Name Would Smell The Same

By Stephen Eliot

The sommelier profession has taken its fair share of hits lately, and I confess to being among those who have been critical of many of those who would lay claim to the title. Now, make no mistake, I have a deep and abiding respect of those experienced wine hands who work the restaurant floor night after night and see their jobs as one of service to the customer. It is a job, and it is not an easy one to do right. The problem has been that there are simply too many sommeliers, or at least too many pretenders to the throne.

To say that “certified” sommeliers are a dime a dozen may not be too far from the truth. There is no shortage of certifying organizations ready to sign the wine tyro up and in short order bestow the title of sommelier to those willing to fork over a few hundred dollars and take a test after briefly studying under instructors who are trained to teach to that test. I have friends and acquaintances who teach for such organizations, and, while I can say that am impressed by the knowledge and commitment of some, I am afraid that I cannot say the same of them all. And, while I understand that it is in the interest of any organization, be it the Court of Master Sommeliers, the Wine and Spirit Education Trust or the Acme School of Wine, to build their bases with regard to income and influence, I have come to question just who this all really serves, their very noble claims of benefiting the wine industry through increased awareness notwithstanding.

Over the last several years, the word “sommelier” has lost considerable sheen as would-be wine experts with no restaurant experience and no intention of ever actually working in a restaurant have begun to pursue and proudly show off the name, and things may be getting worse rather than better. My unease at what has been happening was made more palpable by a front-page story in last Sunday’s edition of the San Francisco Chronicle wherein business writer Wendy Lee looked at the growing sommelier culture of the high tech elite. It seems that more and more young, tech-industry types are becoming certified sommeliers apparently because wearing a sommelier lapel pin on a special night out is viewed as bestowing a social “sense of gravitas” not otherwise accorded to “someone outside of the circle.” It is, as one said when discussing her resume, “if I just put ‘likes wine’, it’s not the same as saying I’m a certified sommelier.”

I wonder if it isn’t time to come up with a new word to describe those professionals who actually work with wine in restaurants. I have always liked the term “wine steward”. It is a little more populist and far less pretentious, and I suspect that fewer dilettantes would spend the money and time to earn a “wine steward” pin.


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New term for Sommelier
by Marc R Kauffman
Posted on:6/17/2015 11:31:14 AM

When I worked the floor my first course of study for wine granted me the title "Cellar Master". That term more clearly defines the actual job of supervising the wine purchases and aiding the customer in finding the best bottle for their evening's enjoyment.

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