Those boasting the title Master Sommelier are part of an incredibly exclusive club – just 269 professionals around the world have earned accreditation since the first Master Sommelier Diploma exam took place in 1969. It is, according to the Court of Master Sommeliers, the “ultimate professional credential anyone can attain worldwide”, and – as evidenced by the small number of individuals that hold the title – it’s no easy achievement. Candidates sit the exam on average two to three times before passing – some will take it as many as six before passing, or accepting defeat.
And the exam can’t be taken by just anyone, either. It marks the culmination of years of study and in-the-field experience. Only after completing an introductory sommelier exam, certified sommelier exam and advanced sommelier exam – and by fulfilling a vast range of other criteria – will an individual be eligible for invitation to the exam by an already established Master Sommelier. It’s a long, often costly process which requires a huge amount of commitment and dedication.
But what does being a sommelier actually involve? For many, the romantic title conjures notions of days spent sipping wine and opining on the latest fine vintages. That is certainly part of the job, but at its very foundation the role of sommelier, or ‘wine waiter’, is predominantly service-orientated, which involves all the less glamorous duties you would associated with hospitality. Stock-taking, moving heavy boxes, glass cleaning, table service, cellar management and wine presentation are all par for the course, as are long hours spent on your feet.
“And in between all of this you need to be continually educating yourself,” says Jacob Rosey, a sommelier at a Michelin-starred restaurant in London. “This means keeping up to date with wine news, researching industry trends, attending events, travelling to popular and up-and-coming wine regions and, of course, tasting a lot of wine. It’s a full-on, demanding job and you have to be extremely passionate about both wine and good service to excel at it.”
Jacob is currently studying for his certified sommelier exam – the second stage of a long journey to Master Sommelier – but it’s not absolutely necessary to hold formal qualifications in order to be a sommelier. “Some of the fiercest somms I know have no certificates to their name, but are regarded as being the best in the business because of the huge wealth of knowledge they’ve accumulated over time,” he explains. “There’s no doubt that achieving Master Sommelier status is the absolute gold standard for professionals in the industry, but being good at this job is ultimately a pursuit of passion and you can’t just learn that.”
Being a sommelier is certainly something of a dream role for many, but no matter how enthusiastic you are about wine, don’t quit your day job just yet. “There are lots of folk out there that say they want to pursue a career as a sommelier, when actually what they mean is that they want to learn more about wine,” says Jacob. “Basically, all the best bits of the role without too much of the hard graft!” And fortunately, there are lots of ways to go about this.
Buy a case of wine a week
To learn about wine, you need to taste (and spit) a lot of it. Keep your choices varied – you might even visit a wine shop and explain your goals for increasing your understanding of wine. Most shops will be able to offer plenty of advice and recommendations.
Develop your palate
Proper wine-tasting is an acquired skill, but once you’re able to understand all the subtle nuances of a wine’s flavour and aroma you’ll have opened the door to a vibrant world of tasting experiences. Take a local class, or read our guide to developing your palate.
Hit the books
There’s a huge amount of theoretical knowledge involved in wine, from the way it acquires its unique qualities, to production methods, regional differences and investment potential. Before you commit to a course, spend time with a Wine 101-style book to give yourself a solid grounding in the basics. Wine Folly’s The Essential Guide to Wine or Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine are good places to start.
Follow the experts
Find the best wine bars and shops in your city and read the websites of people in the business that you respect. Sign up to their social media channels and newsletters, and make the time to read their updates. This is a great no-cost way of keeping up with industry trends, as well as wrangling good deals on wine and wine events that you might otherwise miss.
Visit vineyards and wine regions
Ditch the usual beachside vacation in favour of a holiday to a popular wine-producing region. Seeing the journey of wine from vine to bottle is fundamental to understanding winemaking, and with guides and experts on hand you’re free to ask questions you never would have thought of before. Can’t stretch to a trip away? There are plenty of vineyards in the UK that offer comprehensive tours and tastings, giving you the opportunity to witness winemaking in the field. Here are 10 English wine producers you should know about.