Making a Sommelier

WRITER | MEGAN WESTERS

A 2012 Netflix documentary called “Somm” followed four wine lovers as they trained and studied for a demanding test that would grant them the title “Master Sommelier,” the most prestigious distinction in the world of wine, and the beverage industry in general. The documentary is said to have single-handedly brought the term “sommelier” back into common use and created a newfound respect, and demand, for sommeliers, despite their former high-brow, snobby stereotype.

Peter Marantette, general manager and certified sommelier at Reserve Wine & Food in Grand Rapids, agrees that pop culture has certainly impacted the industry’s popularity.

“Look at all the documentaries that have popped up in the past few years. More and more, though, I think society is starting to accept that the restaurant industry is a place to make a legitimate career. It’s no longer just thought of as a stop-gap to your “real” career,” he said.

Certified sommelier Gary Obligacion agreed, acknowledging the history that backs sommeliers’ pretentious stereotype.

“The job of a sommelier has changed a ton,” explained Obligacion.  “Fifty years ago, only fancy French restaurants employed a sommelier, and that was most often a snooty guy – never women at that time – wearing a tastevin (tasting cup) and almost talking down to the guest. Now, there are working sommeliers at neighborhood pizza joints and wine bars.”

Today’s diverse group of sommeliers are employed in various facets of the industry, but Marantette and Obligacion are both working directly in the restaurant setting.

“Education is one of my primary and more fulfilling duties as Reserve’s sommelier,” said Marantette.

“I need to continue to educate not only myself but also the staff. This is important, as we change our wine list pretty frequently and I want to ensure that our guests are getting not only an accurate experience but a wonderful experience. I spend a lot of time on the floor assisting staff in the sales and service of wine to our guests.”

Obligacion’s responsibilities as a sommelier are similar. Serving as the director of service operations at the Alinea Group in Chicago, he uses his sommelier skills in addition to overseeing all aspects of the guest experience, from reservations to glassware, and even valet.

But a sommelier’s responsibilities weren’t traditionally strictly wine- or service-related.  The Court of Sommeliers – the organization that created and still hosts these exams – was only established in 1969, but the idea stems as far back as the Middle Ages, according to Obligacion.

“In the Middle Ages, the sommelier position was in charge of the transportation, storage, and distribution of supplies,” Obligacion explained.  “It was further refined to be in charge of the pantry and cellar, and finally became just the cellar. The exam, until recently, still included testing on not just wine, but spirits and cigar knowledge and service as well.”

As the exam focused in on beverage and service, it proved to be quite difficult, so four distinct levels were developed:

Level one – the introductory level is open to anyone who has an interest in learning about wine. It covers winemaking procedures, wine regions, and grape varieties as well as some food pairing.

Level two – certified sommelier – is open only to those who have passed level one. This test is made up of a written exam, a blind tasting of four wines, and a service exam.

The third level – advanced sommelier – is open only to those who have passed the first two levels and is much more difficult. In this test, wine styles, regions, and producers are the focus. There is also a blind tasting of six wines and another service exam as well.

The fourth and final level – the master sommelier. The three-part exam covers not only wine, but beer, spirits, cocktails, and the hospitality industry in general. If all three parts are not passed within a three-year window, the candidate must retake all three tests.

While passing these tests is a major accomplishment for anyone, according to Obligacion, it isn’t required to become a sommelier.  “Some of the most accomplished sommeliers in the US today have not taken any of the set exams,” explained Obligacion.  “All that is really required is a love of wine and the ability to study and work hard. There is a lot more academic work to being a sommelier than anyone probably realizes.”

Marantette agreed, noting that his serious study time for the exams was about ten months, and that didn’t include his 15 years of restaurant/wine experience.

“[Being a sommelier] isn’t at all glam, like the shows make it out to be,” said Marantette.  “While I do get to do a lot of tasting and meet fun, interesting people, there’s also a lot of schlepping boxes and crates of wine. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by many like-minded and passionate people at Reserve – it makes my work super fulfilling.”