Are Wine Enthusiasts Destroying The Sommelier?

Thursday, 24 August, 2017
vinepair.com, Adam Teeter
“You work in wine, have you seen the movie Somm? What level of certification do you hold?” This question has become ubiquitous for almost anyone who works in wine, whether on the floor of a restaurant, with a distributor, at a wine shop, or even as a lowly writer.

There is no question that the attainment of the sommelier certification is on the rise. Current figures supplied by the Court of Master Sommeliers show that people sitting for the introductory exam has almost doubled over the past five years and people sitting for the first level of certification has risen by 20 percent. But there aren’t that many restaurant jobs in America requiring someone to attain this sort of certification, so what gives?

Much like art in the ’80s where enthusiasts took classes, majored in the medium and yet never held a job in the actual profession, the attraction of wine enthusiasts to attain certification in order to prove their knowledge of wine to their peers is at an all-time high. Yet it seems to come with a fundamental misunderstanding of what it truly means to be a sommelier, and the reinforcement of this trend is slowly eroding the respect we should have for people that work in restaurants, while reinforcing an ever-growing rise in snob wine culture. The idea among the general public of what a sommelier is has been tainted by people with no interest in ever actually serving in the profession, causing the role to be seen as someone more concerned with tasting notes and being able to identify wines blind than facilitating a wonderful experience for the diner. This has ultimately led to a growing distrust for the sommelier - an unfortunate result.

Wine enthusiast culture is nothing new, this demographic of wine consumer has always been a part of American wine, with current data showing they represent about ten percent of all wine drinkers. But what they lack in numbers, since the majority of wine drinkers make up the remaining 90 percent, they make up for in volume. Enthusiasts have held a tight grip on the industry for quite some time, influencing how we buy and appreciate wine, and that enthusiasm, especially recently, is at a fever pitch. “The idea of becoming certified as a sommelier has become trendy, the movie Somm has a lot to do with it,” Seattle wine professional Zach Geballe recently told me.

“The idea that sommeliers just sit around rattling off tasting notes and blind tasting with their peers is misleading,” said Carson Demmond, who wrote an article about the myth of sommelier certification for the site Punch Drink a few months ago. Yet, for the most part, this is the aspect of being a sommelier that most enthusiasts romanticize.

At a gathering of wine enthusiasts I attended in New York the group blind tasted expensive bottles they had brought from their respective collections. The goal was to see who could identify what each guest had brought, naming not just the region it came from, but the specific bottle and vintage. A member of the group informed me that this event was a regular occurrence for his friends and him, who during the day worked in diverse trades around the city, from finance to law and advertising. It was the primary way they drank wine together. They enjoyed challenging themselves and one another to see who “knew” more about wine, whose palate reined supreme. When I asked him whether or not these blind tastings did anything to actually help his friends and him realize the types of wines they liked or disliked he simply shrugged. In this new era of wine passion among rabid enthusiasts, it was more important to determine who knew more. Getting certified as a sommelier is just the next step in that process.

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Thomas Davidson

Thomas joined wine.co.za in May 2019 after graduating from Stellenbosch University with a BA in History & Ancient Cultures and completing a certificate in Business Management and Entrepreneurship at the Graduate School in Stellenbosch. He moonlights as a radio presenter at MFM - and has an incredible passion for wine. 
We are delighted to have him on the team.