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Supply and Demand … and Sommeliers

There are plenty of wine experts looking for work, but is there enough work to be had in casual seattle.

“Seattle has too many sommeliers.” I heard this recently at my tasting group (of somms, natch), and it got me thinking. I’m not sure I totally agree, but I do wonder if there’s some truth to the idea. And if there are in fact too many of us, what does it mean for wine drinking in Seattle?

First let’s consider the question, one of supply and demand. While the supply of somms might be increasing, I’m less certain that the demand has changed all that much of late. Just look at two recent high-profile restaurant-industry failures: Aragona and Circadia featured prominent sommeliers (or several), deep wine lists, and the costs that go with both.

The natural question, then: Is it worth it?

While a name-brand sommelier might drive attention to a restaurant, that prestige comes at a price—not just a salary, but deep investment in a wine program. We’ve seen this pattern before, first with chefs, then with bartenders: A restaurant opens with a local celebrity on the roster; media hype and fanfare follow; then six months later the star is out the door and someone with far less experience is making your cocktails or running the kitchen. At least in Seattle, local fame and prestige just don’t seem to drive business, especially in the long run.

There’s also the question of whether Seattle is a market well-suited to lots of sommeliers. I’m not talking about the folks who run wine programs—someone will always have to buy the wine—but about the kind of floor sommeliers who have become more prominent. Seattleites don’t particularly care about formal service; the display a team of sommeliers can create might work in New York and San Francisco, but feel out of place here.

Now none of this is to say that sommeliers are unneeded or unwanted (I like my job, for one thing)—it’s simply an opportunity to think about the role they can play in our city. Sommeliers can guide visitors who want to explore our region’s wine industry; being something of a champion for (or at least explainer of) Washington wine seems to be almost mandatory for a Seattle sommelier.

So do we have too many? Not to weasel out, but … kinda? Without changes in our wine scene, there’s probably less room for wine-focused service professionals than there are people who want that job, but I’d wager that’s true in almost every city. Being a sommelier has become glamorous, which of course pushes more people toward that career path. And whatever Instagram might lead you to believe, it’s not all about tasting amazing wines every day.

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