In the Spirit: Becoming a “Somm”

Over the past few decades, the restaurant industry has received increased attention; an industry once thought of as a part-time gig for college students or people that are between jobs has blossomed into a (for the most part) well-respected career.  Chefs’ got the first bit of attention with The Food Network’s glorification of celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain who penned the popular book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly in 2000. Since then more and more television programs came about, then more movies, and more books.  People began to see professional kitchens in a different light.  There were also books and shows about the “front of house,” or the team of servers, bartenders, and food runners that you see when you go out to eat, but these were less popular.  Even lesser known was the Sommelier, or the person responsible for all things wine related.  Finally, in 2013, Netflix released the documentary “Somm” which follows a group of Master Sommelier candidates as they prepare and take the rigorous fourth level exam with the prestigious Court of Master Sommeliers.  Still, there is confusion, what does it actually take to be a sommelier? What do you have to know?

There are three main organizations that oversee wine professionals in the United States:  The Court of Master Sommeliers, Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), and the Society of Wine Educators. All have different levels and certifications and all test on slightly different parts of the wine world.  Years ago, most people sought after certifications with only one organization and there was a friendly competition between people belonging to different organizations.  Some of that still exists, mostly as playful banter, but many wine professionals are doing several certifications with different organizations to broaden their horizons.


The Court of Master Sommeliers has four levels: one, or introductory, two, Certified Sommelier, three, Advanced Sommelier, and four, Master Sommelier.  Each level, with the exception of level one which is simply a written exam, has three parts to the test, theory, tasting, and service.  To someone who has never taken one of these exams, it is easy to imagine a mock restaurant service as something very simple but opening and serving wine in front of a Master Sommelier while simultaneously being questioned on not only wine, but beer and cocktails as well is incredibly intimidating.  The tasting portion involves tasting wines that have been poured “blind,” meaning the candidate does not know what the wine is.  The purpose is to follow a trained deductive method, identifying several characteristics leading the candidate to figure out what grape the wine is made from and where it originates.  The WSET program has a similar structure with four levels but they offer certifications in both wine and spirits.  The biggest difference between these two bodies is that the Court of Master Sommeliers has the service portion of the exam.  Finally, the Society of Wine Educators which also has certifications in both wine and spirits and offers the Certified Specialist of Wine and Certified Wine Educator programs.  The Certified Specialist of Wine exam involves only a written test while the Certified Wine Educator exam has a written portion, tasting and demonstration.

You still may be wondering, with all these different exams, when is someone considered a “Somm?”  Difficult question, as there are many opinions on the matter.  Many people believe that you have to work in a restaurant to be a true Sommelier.  Some think that you must achieve the level two Certified Sommelier certification with the Court of Master Sommeliers to use the title and some think that simply holding a job where your title is “Somm” is enough.  Either way, any Sommelier has spent an enormous amount of time memorizing and understanding all the complexities that is wine.  Devoting that much time to any topic means being truly passionate about it.  While Sommeliers may have a reputation of being snobs, the new generation of wine professionals is one full of quirky, interesting, and passionate people.  I encourage any wine drinker to seek out the “wine-o’s” working in restaurants to pick their brain about what is on the wine list.  A true sommelier is happy to help find and connect you to the perfect bottle for any occasion.

– Amanda M. Ligon Manager and Sommelier at Prime 44 West at the Greenbrier. HashtagWV #109. January 2019.

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