Ask the Bartender: The Sommelier in You

A plane trip may be more beneficial than a class.

I love wine and have been collecting it for a while. I recently saw a course for becoming a sommelier, and I have a little restaurant experience. I’ve got the bug. What should I do?


Certain programs exist to certify you as a sommelier, but be wary of these. Such a course can give you a basic framework, but the word “sommelier” is like the word “chef.” Nobody knights you with a corkscrew or spatula, and nothing will happen to you if you use either term. Just be able to back it up with knowledge and deed. Specifically:

Taste your ass off. No fluorescent-lit room two nights a week compares to hard-drunk experience. Save money and go work in a wine shop. The best way to sharpen your palate and develop your own vocabulary for what you taste in different wines is to taste as many as humanly possible. Wine-shop employees make peanuts, but the perk of tasting 20 or more wines per day will have you spouting adjectives and making flavor associations in no time. That is the sommelier’s essential task: to identify the flavors in a wine that will match the flavors in certain foods. Take six months, suck it up, and pack a lunch. Tasting wine all day breeds the munchies.

Wait tables. To serve wine, you must first know how to serve. Understanding the waiter, bartender, and busser is essential. A sommelier is part of a restaurant’s front-of-house operations, and must be able to perform all jobs, including coat check. It’s not all tasting, buying, schmoozing, and pouring, so explore the manual-labor aspect of the position fully.

Travel to at least one country where wine is part of everyday life. Americans are weird about wine because we have little history with it. Forget the romance of Tuscany or Paris, just get to a place where they have the juice for lunch and dinner. See how locals order, drink, and rarely comment upon the wines they sip. Get some perspective; wine is never the most important thing at a table.

Memorize your geography. Having a grasp of who grows what grapes where gives you a mental list much like a basic menu—like knowing your fingerlings from your russets. It also allows you to make connections among wines from different countries and regions, to better serve your customers and help them to try new things.

Buy a book. Expand your ability to describe wine more quickly with the ultimate crib sheet, where the word “earthy” breaks down into wet stones, dirt, sagebrush, and sometimes manure. Spend $50 for The Oxford Companion to Wine, the greatest reference guide for beginner and expert, with maps and overviews of an exhaustive list of wine styles and grapes in an easy-to-cross-reference layout.

Ignore everyone else’s palate, most of the time—including your own. You have to develop your own powers of reasoning—that’s the damn job. It’s as much forensics as it is taste. Accumulate the knowledge and learn to taste for quality across all types of wine, keeping your own prejudices at bay. Only then will you truly be a sommelier—because when someone wants white zinfandel, you must recommend the best possible drink to satisfy his tastes, not yours.

This column marks Maggie Savarino’s last for Seattle Weekly. She’s been an incredible asset to the paper over the years, and we wish her the best of luck in all future endeavors.