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Wine has been a thing in the culinary world since ancient times. The prospect of pairing food with wine has promoted creativity among chefs, who then created many delicious recipes just so they can savor it with alcohol. However, wine drinking can be a pretty intimidating activity for many people, especially those who are not used to Western cuisine. The long list of unfamiliar names on the wine menu, the snobby impression of the drink, the lingering fear of ordering an expensive bottle, and not liking the flavor in the end – these are the many problems that people can face when choosing their wine.
That’s where the sommelier comes in, a wine expert who can recommend to diners what kind of wine to drink based on their meal, while still making sure that everything stays within the diners’ budget. Sommeliers worked tirelessly behind the scene to help in curating that list of wines in many high-end restaurants, and most of them would be very glad to help restaurant patrons with what to choose for their meals.
What is a sommelier?
A sommelier is an expert who has a wide knowledge of wine all around the world and has a seemingly uncanny ability to deduce the origin of a wine bottle just from a simple sip. While the word “sommelier” has existed since the 14th century, modern wine experts start to become a legitimate career around the 1950s. Today, sommeliers work in a wide variety of establishments, from wine shops, restaurants, and hotels, to managing wineries, and it’s not all about tasting and serving wine. A sommelier’s responsibility often includes:
- Sampling and evaluating wine
- Recommending wine to customers depending on their tastes and budget
- Managing inventory
- Coordinating with chefs to create wine menus that pair well with the food
- Training staff on wine and how to service wine
The complexity of wine means that there is no best wine, a sommelier doesn’t simply recommend the highest-quality wine that an establishment has to offer. A highly trained sommelier must be able to provide guests with a wide array of wine options that can pair well with their food while still being able to stay within an acceptable budget. Overall, the role of a sommelier today is almost on par with an executive chef or chef de cuisine.
However, knowledge and tasting skills aren’t exactly the most important aspect of being a good sommelier. In fact, personality and presentation skills can play an extremely large role in a sommelier’s job. Zack Charilaou – an award-winning sommelier, said that the ratio of importance between personality versus knowledge is 80/20. “If you’re a good talker and someone who can break down quite a difficult, pretentious subject into something a lot more accessible and easy to understand, you’d make a good sommelier,” Mr. Charilaou said in an interview with The Guardian.
Despite the glamorous title and job description, being a sommelier is an extremely stressful job. They have to work the long hour of a restaurant job, as well as keep their knowledge fresh by constantly updating themselves with the latest trend and development in the global wine culture – quite ironic for an industry that’s all about a drink that gets better the older it is. Despite these difficulties, the pay is very much worth it, as sommeliers are considered to be one of the highest paying jobs in the restaurant industry. According to Binwise, the lowest level sommelier can make about $55,000 a year, while advanced sommelier can make somewhere around $87,000 a year, which can take years to achieve. Master sommelier, the highest, most prestige certification in the industry, is in a league of its own, as they can potentially make about $164,000 a year.
How to become a sommelier
Becoming a sommelier is no easy task because they are required to have in-depth knowledge about wine, not just the drink itself, but the process of making and preserving wine, prominent wine regions around the world, the best weather condition, etc. You could consider sommelier as a multifaceted job, combining agricultural, culinary, chemistry, geography, and hospitality knowledge. Not just theories and facts, sommeliers must also hone their wine-tasting senses. With enough training, a sommelier can deduce a wine’s date of production, which region it came from, what kind of grape was used, etc. all from a mere sip.
There are wine schools all around the world that can provide training for aspiring sommeliers as well as official certification. Usually, there are three or four levels of certification and can take upward to one year for a person to become a certified sommelier. It is recommended for anyone interested in this field to have at least three years of experience in the beverage industry.
Sommelier in Vietnam
In Vietnam, sommeliers are still a rare sight to see. A reason for this is that Vietnam has a very limited wine culture. Up until 1999, there are no wine manufacturers in the country, and all bottles are imported, so wine is often associated as a high-class, expensive drink, reserved for special occasions. However, this view gradually changes with the invention of Vang Dalat – the first-ever Vietnamese wine that gave birth to the wine industry in Vietnam. This, in turn, create a demand for sommeliers, as more and more people got into wine drinking. However, until a few years ago, there was no wine school in Vietnam, so the only way for aspiring sommeliers to get themselves certified is to study oversea, which severely limited the industry’s growth.
Mr. To Viet, a member of Association de la Sommellerie Internationale and one of the few pioneers of the sommelier industry in Vietnam, said that people still see sommelier as “a lazy job with no value.” However, the industry is still young, so just like the drink itself, it will mature in time, as more and more young people become interested in learning about the rich history of wine.