There’s no single way for aspiring sommeliers to break into the industry. Despite that uncertainty, however, one thing is sure: landing that first sommelier gig represents a critical step forward for anyone looking to build an on-premise wine career.
Maybe you’ve been waiting tables or tending bar at a wine-focused restaurant and you’re ready to make the leap from server to somm. Or maybe you’ve been selling bottles at a local wine shop and you’re eager to explore another side of the trade. Maybe the memory of a fateful glass of Chianti enjoyed on a Tuscan vacation has brought you to the brink of a massive career change. Whatever the situation, the challenge remains the same: How do you turn that dream into a concrete reality?
To help answer that question, SevenFifty Daily spoke with some of the country’s top sommeliers and beverage directors. Synthesizing several decades of collective wisdom and experience, here’s everything you need to know to get a foot in the door and add the sommelier title to your resumé.
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1. Soak Up Knowledge—But Certification Isn’t Required
If you’re seriously considering a career as a sommelier, you already know that the world of wine is an endless and inexhaustible subject of study. According to Katja Scharnagl, the beverage director at Manhattan’s acclaimed Koloman, that’s exactly what makes the profession so rewarding. “Curiosity is the most important factor in becoming a sommelier,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s impossible to know everything about wine. So if you’re not constantly asking questions, trying to soak up as much information as possible, how are you ever going to learn?”
While no one in the industry would doubt the importance of acquiring a solid wine education—including a basic working knowledge of the world’s major grape varieties, growing regions, and wine styles—no universal consensus exists regarding how best to acquire it. Of course, one obvious approach is enrolling in a formal course of study, such as a certification program through the Court of Master Sommeliers or a similar organization. But is certification necessary? Not at all, according to many of the wine pros we polled, including Tiffany Tobey, a wine consultant and the former wine director at Tower Club in Dallas. “I’m still a fan of certification, and it definitely never hurts,” she says. “But at the end of the day service is everything, and certification isn’t necessarily required.”
2. Get Your Hands Dirty
So you’ve memorized the entire 1855 Bordeaux classification and you can cite chapter and verse on the finer points of carbonic maceration. But have you ever actually approached a table of hungry guests during the mad rush of a Saturday night dinner service? If not, you’d better prepare yourself for what Chris Struck, the beverage director for ilili restaurant in New York City, calls a “steep learning curve.”
Having cooked professionally for 10 years, “starting from the bottom in the kitchen, then transitioning to the front of house, where I started from the bottom again and worked my way up,” he stresses the importance of “getting there the hard way” with hands-on industry experience—the more diverse the better.
“Foundational and ongoing education is extremely important in the world of wine, but during service in most restaurants you typically use less than five percent of what you know about wine on a regular basis,” he says. “As an existing front-of-house restaurant employee, the best thing you can do is demonstrate your dependability, strength as a team player, and comfort level being guest facing. After that it’s a conversation about where you’re at with your food and beverage knowledge, and how far a gap there might be to get you where you need to be to step into the sommelier role.”
3. Understand the Importance of Hospitality
The point of all that rigorous study isn’t to show off or claim bragging rights. It’s all in the service of delivering the best possible experience to the guest, and the most successful sommeliers never lose sight of that basic fact. “To sum it up, without hospitality, one cannot be a sommelier, no matter the level of knowledge you might possess,” says Aviram Turgeman, the beverage director of Chef Driven Hospitality Group, whose restaurants include Manhattan’s Nice Matin and Monterey. “The foundation is always to please guests, make sure they leave happy regardless of the wine selection.”
According to Alex Chung, the sommelier at Brooklyn’s Restaurant Yuu, this “customer service” aspect of the job is key. That includes having the ability to read the room and immediately assess the level of detail in which a guest is interested in engaging. “Learning how to interact with every type of guest is important, and while not every guest will want to pick your brain, part of providing good service is being able to make a guest excited, even if they aren’t drinking wine,” he says.
4. Be Adaptable and Try New Things
As any experienced sommelier will tell you, the role actually comprises several jobs in one. In addition to displaying a thorough knowledge of wine, spirits, sake, and beer, as well as operating at the top of your game as a service professional, the gig is equal parts psychologist, performance artist, and, at times, even mind-reader. According to Tobey, the ability to think on your feet is therefore a must. “Adaptability is one of the most important qualities in our industry,” she says. “You literally never ever know what you’re going to get at a table, so you really have to learn to expect the unexpected.”
While that requires no shortage of scrappiness, optimism, and a specific sort of can-do spirit, she believes that a major component of learning the job is giving yourself the freedom to fail. “Whenever you try something new, you’re going to make mistakes,” she says. “The most important part is putting yourself out there, letting yourself be vulnerable, and learning something from every time you fail.”
5. Seek Out Mentorship
“The one thing about our community is that we’re open to helping one another, and I think that’s what pushes and propels things,” says Tonya Pitts, the wine director and sommelier at One Market Restaurant in San Francisco. Finding a mentor in the industry is invaluable, and aspiring sommeliers should be proactive in contacting industry leaders directly. Specifically, Pitts recommends reaching out for informational interviews, noting that those who are just starting out in the industry have nothing to lose by expressing their general curiosity and eagerness to learn more about the profession from seasoned pros.
“Find someone you admire in the field and simply send them an email to ask if they’re open to having a conversation with you,” she says. “People like to talk about themselves and what they’re passionate about. It’s an old-school approach, but it works.”
6. Do Your Research
If all goes according to plan, you’ll eventually find yourself face to face with a wine director or beverage manager interviewing for an actual sommelier position. Just as you would for any job, make sure you come to the appointment prepared.
“My biggest piece of advice to anyone who is interviewing for their first sommelier job is to research the establishment in advance,” says Scharnagl. “I’ve heard from multiple people who made it through the entire interview process, only to lose the job when they couldn’t answer basic questions about the restaurant, like the name of the chef.”
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Zachary Sussman is a Brooklyn-based wine writer whose work has appeared in Saveur, Wine & Spirits, The World of Fine Wine, Food & Wine, and The Wall Street Journal Magazine, among many others. A regular contributor to Punch, he was formerly selected as the Champagne Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year. He is the author of The Essential Wine Book (2020) and Sparkling Wine for Modern Times (November, 2021) from Ten Speed Press.