If you’ve ever gotten fed up with your job and thought, “I wish I could quit and just taste wine and tell people what to drink all day,” this one’s for you.
The idea of becoming a sommelier is romantic to many, even if you’ve watched the documentary Somm series and know how hard it is to become a certified master. But whether you want to make the leap to professional wine taster or just expand your knowledge, many of the same tricks and tips that pros use can help you on your journey, and not all involve expensive wine classes.
Before you immerse yourself in the world of wine, it’s important to know how the process works. The Court of Master Sommeliers, established as one of the foremost bodies for the profession, conducts four levels of tests: introductory sommelier, certified sommelier, advanced sommelier and master sommelier. Only 269 professionals have earned the Level Four distinction since the Court’s inception in 1969.
Some sommeliers pass the first level (a two-day process with required education, followed by the examination) and stop there. Tests become more intense as levels increase. The Level Two certified sommelier examination involves a blind tasting, a written theory test and a live service demonstration of knowledge and tasks for the judges like flawlessly opening and pouring a bottle of wine.
Levels Three and Four are amplified versions of that test. They go into far greater depth on grape varieties and overall wine knowledge, as well as other spirits and cigars.
Sounds a bit overwhelming, right? The good news is, there are many ways to learn about wine that don’t involve a huge financial investment. You can make progress before ever taking an introductory sommelier course and open yourself to a new world of wine appreciation (though maybe don’t quit your day job, just yet). Here’s how.
Get a job in the restaurant industry.
“The best way to learn about wine is from inside the industry,” says Dylan Melvin, a Level One sommelier and beverage director at Foxtrot Market, an all-day café company with eight locations between Chicago and Dallas.
If you have zero restaurant experience, don’t expect your first job to be a fancy one. Even working as a cellar rat, where duties might entail sweeping the floor and running food, can pay off. You might get the chance to assist the restaurant sommelier on the floor, for example. “If you work hard and make your intentions known, things can certainly happen,” says Melvin.
Malek Amrani, a New York City-based advanced sommelier and founder/CEO of The Vice Wine, echoes that sentiment. He started in restaurants at age 17 and worked his way up to beverage director, where he would eventually taste 30 to 40 wines a day.
“Most restaurants want their staff to know what the wine tastes like,” says Amrani. “The more knowledge they have, the easier they will sell, so traditionally, restaurants will have you taste wine.”
Buy a case of wine a week.
To learn about wine, you need to buy, taste and be willing to spit a lot of it, says Amrani. He recommends finding a local wine shop and tell the owner your goals.
“You might say, ‘Hey, for the next three months, I’m picking up this hobby and I’m really serious about it. I really want to learn about wine, would you be able to suggest what to buy, and why?’ ” he says. Most wine shops will help, and you can provide a price cap to stay within your budget while tasting a wide variety of wines.
Hit the books.
The Court of Master Sommeliers offers courses throughout the country, but you don’t need to spend hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars on these experiences as a newbie.
Amrani says to start at the beginning with a Wine 101-type book that covers its history and why we taste what we taste in wine, like Wine Folly’s The Essential Guide to Wine ($25). When you’re ready to move on to the next level, graduate to Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine ($30).
Rachel Candelaria, an certified sommelier at the Michelin-starred The Village Pub in Woodside, California, recommends a subscription to the online learning tool, GuildSomm. For $100 a year, it grants you access to the information you need to study for the tests.
You can also start your education for free with Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Basics section, which features new wine lessons every Tuesday.
Form local study groups.
If you know of other people interested to learn about wine, form a weekly study group, says Candelaria, who started her own group in the San Francisco area.
“We choose a [wine] region and each come up with a set of questions so we can see how others word them,” she says. “It also ends up being a good way to ask peers questions. They end up being friends you’ll stay with for a lifetime in the industry.”
If your network doesn’t live in the same city, Candelaria suggests trying a Skype study group.
Make friends at a wine bar.
Wine bars are great spots to taste a wide variety of offerings, as they typically have more by-the-glass options than a traditional bar. Tell the bartender you’re trying to learn about wine by tasting it, not just drinking it. See if they’d be open to letting you taste a certain number of wines per week for a pre-arranged flight fee.
“I think most [wine bars] would welcome this because for people who sell wine, that’s their passion,” says Amrani. “We go to sleep thinking of wine and wake up thinking of wine.”
Follow wine vendors in your city.
Once you find some good wine shops, wine bars, vendors and/or people in the industry that you respect, do a little detective work on their websites and social media channels, says Melvin. Sign up for their newsletters and subscribe to their updates. From there, you can find ways to participate in wine tastings that could otherwise cost a lot of money, get invited to wine dinners with suppliers or producers, and investigate wine events in your area that could be learning opportunities.
“Getting face time with experts in the field is second to none,” adds Melvin.
Travel to wine regions.
This may not be for beginners, as it can be harder on the wallet than other options. However, if you’re serious about becoming a sommelier, a trip to wine-producing regions in California, France, Spain, Chile and Argentina can be a huge eye-opener, says Amrani.
“When you see the grapes and see the vines, your knowledge starts increasing very quickly,” he says. “You start asking questions you never thought to ask before.” A visit to France before the first two sommelier exam levels isn’t necessary, says Melvin, but it’s fundamental to understanding winemaking. From a practical standpoint, France makes up about half of the Court of Master Sommelier’s written test, he says.
Volunteer at a conference.
One of the best learning experiences can be as a volunteer at a major wine conference like TEXSOM, one of the largest such events in the country, says Candelaria.
“It’s not glamorous at all,” she says. “You’re polishing more glassware than you ever thought possible, setting up classrooms and hauling bottles around to seminars, but you get to talk with wine professionals and taste wines from around the world.”
A week or so in the trenches, covered in wine stains, can also help you build up your network and maybe even some lifelong friends.
No matter how far you progress in your wine knowledge or what level of certification you reach, remember that the wine business is all about hospitality. “[We] want to take care of our guests and find them a wine at any price point that they will enjoy,” says Candelaria.
As you build your network in the wine community, mentor others as you’ve been mentored. “When you remember how hard it was, you do it for other people,” says Candelaria.