Recently, a well-known sommelier posted an image of himself pouring wine for what looked like some kind of judging panel. It included a caption that referred to a sommelier’s “real work” as being on the floor, serving customers. There was an implied slight against those non-working-the-floor sommeliers. Many industry folks jumped in to defend the leaders, writers, teachers, and other influencers who bring wine joy and education to the world but who no longer work on a restaurant floor. It’s time to get over it–Somm is a role and a title.
It’s not a new argument. Still, his position makes me wonder what, exactly, he objects to. Is it the working somm who has aspired to a leadership position? Or is it the everyday person who passed an exam but doesn’t work in the industry? Either way, his exception takes a swipe at those who’ve earned their way to leadership or those who chose to participate in a system they didn’t invent.
Let’s tease this out.
Sommelier as role: the ballplayer
If you want to argue what a “real” sommelier is, by his own logic this person should be driving pack animals during a house move. It’s generally agreed that the term derives from Old and Middle French, and was about logistics. As language does, the word evolved in context and eventually came to refer to the person in charge of buying, selling, and serving wine in a restaurant.
At that point, sommelier was a role, the same way you’d refer to a ballplayer. Those who actively play ball professionally or are developing toward a career in ball are ballplayers. When they stop, they no longer qualify.
Sommelier as designation: the student
In the 1960s, a group of British organizations (representing the wine, hotel and restaurant, and tobacco industries) found it needed expertise in front-line wine sales and service. They had a good to offer. They had experts in that good. But they didn’t have people who could present that good to the buying public with any level of consistent skill. Ever walk into an Apple store? If it was full of computer engineers, Silicon Valley tycoons, and electronics journalists you’d get a lot of expertise, but uneven service.
So, as Nick Hines on vinepair.com explains, Bryan Julyan, head of the Court of Master Sommeliers, tells us that,
“To sell high-quality wine, the organizations wanted a highly educated service industry, and the country had lacked a large professional service class since the war. To solve this problem, the organizations gathered together in 1969 and created a test at the Vintner’s Hall in London that was designed ‘to encourage sommeliers to become professional, to study.'”
And voilà. Now the role had become a title, with the intention to improve and standardize the general expertise of those in the role. Like an electrician.
Sommelier as electrician–the double standard
Ever notice how no one gets their knickers in a knot when a non-practicing journeyman electrician does not generate their income by actively wiring buildings? It’s ok for them to teach, open their own business, or help their friends. But for some reason, when someone with a sommelier designation does the same thing, some people get upset.
The thing is, as soon as something becomes a title and we choose to pursue and earn it, we forfeit the right to complain about who gets that title and what they choose to do with it.
I get it. As a working professional, it could be irksome to have someone who never intends to step foot in a restaurant use the title to boost their ego. But that’s not the fault of the one who does that. They are operating within the rules of a system that created the opportunity. On top of that, being against it perpetuates the very problem sommellerie has been battling for years: the “you don’t belong in our club” attitude.
The solution: sommelier as… pilot?
The analogies are imperfect, I know. Ballplaying has a system of competition that harnesses the best talent in a high-demand and high-paying field. You can’t get a certificate based on your skill and knowledge. Electrical work is about the very objective standards of safety and pragmatism; it’s not about subjective, experience-based things like enjoyment and art.
But can sommellerie find a middle ground that pleases everyone? Maybe we can learn from pilots. Recreational flyers say “I have my pilot’s license”. People who get paid to fly commercially say “I am a pilot”. When we hear these two statements, we know both:
- have trained and studied and paid to do so
- had to pass a test
- have to maintain their knowledge and practical experience
On the other hand:
- one has enough money to do it for fun
- the other makes money doing it
- no one questions the motivations of either
While different levels of sommelier (Certified, Advanced, Maître) attempt to differentiate skill, they don’t address the issue of working versus not.
So, we could go two ways: the designating bodies could re-examine the titles and consider ideas like “working Somm”, “mentoring Somm”, “recreational Somm” and have different requirements to maintain (or not) these titles.
Or, we could all get over it.