ICE Experts' Advice on Becoming a Sommelier
ICE Wine Experts Scott Carney and Paul Sherman
When asked how they would answer someone’s question of “how to become a sommelier,” both our Dean of Wine and Beverage Studies, Scott Carney (MS), and our LA Campus Lead Instructor of Wine Studies, Paul Sherman (MS Candidate), both went to the less obvious answer: “It’s hospitality, and it’s sales.”
While most people think the role of a sommelier is just about knowing the nuances of wine tasting and composition — and beyond that, food pairings — what often gets overlooked is the reality that being a sommelier is about selling wine.
“It’s not just mere appreciation of wine, there’s a financial context that can’t be left by the wayside just by being a good taster,” Scott says.
Though an insatiable curiosity for wine knowledge is vital to being successful in the professional beverage world, there is so much more to gaining the title of sommelier, either by profession and/or certification.
Paul harkens back to the origin of the role, reminding us “the definition of sommelier has broadened over time, but it was always a service-oriented role where you were presenting wines, as the keeper of a private cellar that you were maintaining for your lord or king, and then it expanded into restaurants to maintain the cellar and create profits, but the bottom line is you have to earn your keep.”
In the more modern world, there are a wide variety of career opportunities that fall under the purview of a sommelier role. From fine dining restaurants, to wine stores and wholesalers, the ultimate goal of sommelier training is being able to speak in the language of wine.
As Scott describes, acquiring a sommelier certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers indicates that “you've gotten up to a certain type of accreditation, which to potential employers basically acknowledges that you've put your head down, learned a certain vocabulary, a language to talk about wine and sell wine, you've done the work, become adept at listening to yourself and the wine and found words to describe it...You've recognized that [the job is] selling, it's not just mere appreciation of wine.“
How to become a sommelier
So how does one actually become a wine sommelier?
"You need to be trained in some way…I can't stress enough that you have to learn to taste and learn to trust yourself,” Scott says.
This is where ICE’s Intensive Sommelier Training course comes into play. Referred to by the instructors as a "box of information," the sommelier course is designed to help develop your palate by teaching you not just the structural dimensions of wine that are universal — like color, acidity, alcohol content and sweetness — but to hone in on what the deductive tasting method rubric refers to as “other.” These are the markers that are unique to the taster which come from personal experience and can only be learned, in Paul's words, “by the doing.
"You have to taste constantly to build that recognition," he says. "The more you smell and taste something, the more your body is able to retain that sense. Sense memory is invaluable and that’s not something you can learn by reading about it in a book.”
Possible sommelier career paths
Once that training is complete, the career trajectory of a sommelier, as with most careers, can take many different paths.
With decades of experience meeting with potential students and building relationships across the industry, Scott frequently reminds sommelier certification hopefuls that no work is wasted.
“People come to me saying, 'I’m in tech,' or 'I’m in baking,' or 'I’m in marketing, and I’ve always liked wine so I thought this might be a way to go'…and I say ‘absolutely,’" Scott says.
Scott believes that your past experiences can be incorporated with wine education. For example:
- Writers may be able to write for a wine periodical
- People with financial work experience may be able to work in wine selling on a micro or macro level
- Sales or marketing professionals can apply the same skills a role as a purveyor or wine store owner
Many students also come from within the business, such as bartenders who want to improve their wine knowledge in order to move to a beverage manager position, or waiters looking to take on the additional responsibilities of wine selection and service. For some, this means finding a company they align with and proving their work ethic while biding their time until a position opens on the sommelier team.
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In all of these circumstances what cannot be oversold is the value of a network. With instructors and guest lecturers coming into class regularly, students of the Intensive Sommelier Training course have access to building these relationships in their classroom. In addition, volunteering to pour for tasting events increases their exposure to potential employers.
“Sometimes, you’re one conversation away from a job,” he says.
Regardless of the path one takes within the beverage world, exposure to sommelier continuing education and the formal recognition of a Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas sommelier certification is a key stepping stone into the rewarding world of a career in wine and beverage.
"The most important thing is to enjoy the act of learning,” Paul says.