How to Become a Sommelier

It’s harder and easier than you think.

It’s harder and easier than you think.

Organolepts are people who use their sense of taste and smell to help navigate an industry. Coffee uses them. Perfumiers hire them. The FDA uses them to assess the impact of oil spills on the taste of seafood. If you do it for ice cream, you have the lowest life expectancy of all organolept careers. Cicerones do it for beer, Sommeliers do it for wine.

David Litt of Berkeley Science Review lists a dozen careers in food sensory analysis, and none of those jobs involve thirsty guests, standards of affability, twitchy managers, alcohol consumption or arcane knowledge of Italian labeling laws. “Tasting Panel Associate” has training requirements that are nowhere near as arduous as a Sommelier certification.

But, in truth, there are 6 relatively simple steps to becoming a Sommelier:

  1. TASTE – spit. Taste again. Spit again. Professionals spit because it concentrates experience without the fog of alcohol. If a professional tasting only had 10 wines offering an ounce each, one might make it swallowing the alcohol. The last professional tasting I attended had 48 wines; one would have had the equivalent of a bottle by the 24th wine – and as for remembering the last 5, impossible. Professionals endearingly compare it to fishing; we practice catch-and-release. PRO HINT: practice attention on the first, second and final taste impressions each wine carries – and notice if these change over the space of time the wine is being tasted.
Taste often.

2. TAKE NOTES – Even if it is one line of 8-10 words for each wine, it sticks the impression in the memory far better than no written notation of the wine. “Sour black cherry jam on toast” will bring the experience of that wine back to you quickly. Will your words work for others? Not at first – and that’s ok. Will you look like a dork at the tasting bar? Maybe, but you will have a far better idea of the wines’ applications, nuances and value than those who do not. PRO HINT: step aside while note-taking so that others may taste also.

A structured system will be easier to compare wine to wine.

COMPARE NOTES – Tasting in a group is the most efficient way to learn insights into wine’s impressions. If you are sipping your bottle of Cheval Blanc 1961 out of a styrofoam cup alone in a greasy diner, you can take notes and compare them to any one of a number of publications, websites like or to triangulate a rounder, more complete “taste-picture” of the wine than any one taster could ever accomplish. There are more sublime ways to taste old Merlot-based wine than aside a cheeseburger and onion rings and your tasting companions can help find them. PRO HINT: when reading a publication’s reviews, keep in mind if the review is formed by one individual or a committee for calibrating your opinion in relation to theirs.

Miles’ despair. (Sideways – Fox/Searchlight)

4. TRAVEL – By now, there are favorite wines in your repertoire. Go to the vineyard. Shake the hand of the winegrower. Taste the wines again in situ. Are they the same? Discriminate your own perceptions of the differences. Stand in the vineyard and just soak it in, the views, the smells, the somewhereness of it all. Well-made wine will remind you of the place, bringing it full circle and leave you wondering why more wines don’t do that. PRO HINT: Every offer to taste an older wine from the winery’s cellar is a huge compliment. It will offer unparalleled perspective to how their wines develop in bouquet, intensity, complexity and general appeal.

Irrigation lines, pruning techniques and climate are hard to understand from a book.

5. SHARE/TEACH – Just like comparing notes, teaching makes you vulnerable to learning more by pointing out the “taste topography” of a wine or taste combination. Other people will taste differently and share with you. Get a job doing it; this is the ultimate way of sharing. A job in a restaurant, bottle shop or tasting room is the fastest way to curate your own experience and expertise. Further, local community colleges, libraries and restaurants welcome an organizer to lead a wine experience. Even if you just learned the material, you will be ahead of the class. PRO HINT: Be aware of alternate spellings and pronunciations of wine grapes or regions, i.e. – Piedmont is Piemonte as easily.

Coeur d’Alene Cellars teaches local restaurant staff the finer points of wine.

6. REPEAT – The cycle is repeated by Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine the world over. Taste, take notes, compare, travel and share. Each cycle has a broader reach than the last time around. PRO HINT: The secret 7th step is to ENJOY.

Taste, take notes, compare notes, travel, share, do it again and ENJOY!

Every cycle gets larger and more inclusive, able to talk to more people more easily about deeper segments of wine. The next best reward is to earn the confidence of a diner with enough speed to choose their dinner wine for them. The absolute best is when they return to have you do it again.

Do you have a story about becoming a Somm? Did I miss any steps?

Author: Eric Cook

In the space of a few decades, there has come a fascination with connecting people through taste, words and images. I like being in that movement. I look forward to connecting.

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