"For love of everything that is wine"

Saturday, April 4, 2009

~The Reality of being a Wine Sommelier~

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     Allow me to set the stage. Our character is an idealistic young man, who has recently become a wine sommelier. The future looks bright for our vinous hero, filled with innumerable opportunities for partaking of fine food and drink, as well as for enjoying unceasing adulation from grateful ‘wine civilians,’ eager to take full advantage of his knowledge of food-and-wine pairings, not to mention his advice on what wines to procure at local shops.

     Our sommelier soon acquires a position at a very fine restaurant. He is eager to impress his well-to-do clientele, as well as revel in the privileges he assumes from his esteemed post: the satisfaction of assisting grateful guests, tasting fine wine and marvelous cuisine, engaging in intellectually stimulating discussions with established representatives of the ‘wine world,’ and attending fine wine tastings. Indeed, these prove to be good times for our vinous hero.

     Or do they?

     Melodramatics aside, my largely astute readers have probably come to realize at this point the old adage, “Things seldom are what they seem.” Such turns out to be the case for our young sommelier. Contrary to popular belief among urban-savvy wine enthusiasts, the life of a sommelier can be an especially difficult one, largely devoid of the glamorization hinted at the outset of this article.

     At a typical restaurant that is financially fortunate enough to keep on a sommelier, the responsibilities of the latter are oftentimes greater than those of even the senior servers, and are seldom met with the same level of appreciation on the part of customers. On the second point, as the general public becomes increasingly informed about wine, sommeliers (from what I have observed and experienced) are evermore bearing the brunt of obnoxious guests’ abusive attitudes toward persons in servile professions. Just ask any sommelier, and they will be able to relate countless stories of having to contend with guests who think they know more about wine than them. This puts my fellow sommeliers in an impossible position. How are we to reconcile the fact that we are (almost always) more ‘wine knowledgeable’ than our confrontational guests, as well as exercise our responsibilities in a humble, servile manner?

     At this point, let me make it clear that I have yet to arrive at a solution to this quandary. Perhaps it is because I, in accordance with mine own personality, have an exceedingly difficult time grappling with people, strangers who think they know more about wine than me, but actually know so much less! And this is undoubtedly why I shall probably never become a world-famous sommelier. Modesty and wine does not come easily for individuals like me.

     And then, there is the matter of how a sommelier’s responsibilities tend to be so immense, that they are actually unable to find the time to enjoy the fine food and drink befitting their position. From attending to practically every aspect of the beverage inventory and stocking the wine cellar (immense grunt work at large establishments) to making sure that every single guest’s wine-related needs are attended to in the course of a meal service, there is actually very little time to taste fine food and drink, even after a typical evening has come to a conclusion. In fact, many employers will, out of cheapness, even deny their sommelier(s) the opportunity to sample the chef’s creations, thus preventing the latter from making the most suitable wine-and-food pairing suggestions.

     Moving on, while most sommeliers can expect to encounter plenty of established representatives of the ‘wine world’ – distinguished salespersons, famed winemakers, renowned estate directors, world-famous columnists, and so on – in the course of their careers, it seldom happens that any meaningful discussion is likely to take place. Admittedly, this runs contrary to many of the articles found in such publications as Decanter or The Wine Spectator, in which sommeliers are routinely glamorized out of proportion to the day-to-day activities of the establishments in which they (at least hopefully) are made to exercise their craft. Indeed, I am positive my fellow wine enthusiasts have read such articles more than once, in which sommeliers (among other restaurant figures) are shown exchanging clever witticisms with esteemed vinous personalities. Believe me, taking into account even my own exaggerated gift of the gab (both literarily and verbally), such conversations tend to be as dull, uncomfortable, and face-saving as there ever were!

     Of course, it goes without saying that most sommeliers, regardless of the establishment at which they work, are often privy to attending scores of fine wine tastings in the course of their careers. But regrettably, as most young sommeliers eventually come to realize, such tastings – which, by the way, are most often confined to members of the ‘wine trade’ – tend to be far more trouble than they are worth.

     Take, for example, the California Wine Fair, which occurs every spring in downtown Toronto, usually at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel. Though I am assured of drawing criticism from my peers, I can honestly state that I find this particular event to be one of the most wretched fine wine tastings known to our city. From arrogant, penny-pinching Golden State presenters to pushy, obnoxious restaurant buyers and their friends, not to mention over-ambitious wine agents (with exception), it is next to impossible for a sommelier or even a genuine wine enthusiast to: (1) approach a table without feeling obliged to sample the oftentimes-uninteresting ‘entry range’ wines before tasting the more premium items; and (2) receive a decent helping of wine for the purpose of analysis. This, however, is not to suggest entirely that a sommelier cannot find enjoyment at fine wine tastings. For my part, I am always more comfortable at such events when my closest sommelier-friends are also in the room. I suppose this relates not only to my personal affection for such persons (they know who they are); it is always comforting to have certain persons near you that are of a similar mindset when it comes to properly tasting and enjoying wine. Even so, have I ever come to dread these ‘trade’ tastings!

     Thus, like our vinous hero – along with the help of a certain wine essayist – we come to the realization that the life of a wine sommelier is hardly as glamorous as it might initially appear. Granted, there are times when a guest might actually be grateful, a conversation with a famous ‘wine personality’ might actually be wittily enlightening, and a ‘trade tasting’ might be worth the hassle of having to contend with irritating persons. Ultimately, however, rest assured that, for most wine sommeliers, such incidences seem to be ever fewer and further between.



During my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto, I had the opportunity to write four papers on various subjects pertaining to wine and its history. I have decided to make them available on my website.

Wine during the Early Middle Ages
(2) Wine and the Protestant Reformation
(3) Wine and the French Revolution
(4) Wine and local European Identity


Email me at julianhitner@hitnerwine.com


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