Do Sommeliers Have to Drink Themselves to Debt?

Friday, 18 August, 2017
VinePair - Courtney Schiessl
When your friends are professional drinkers, Sunday Funday can be oddly stressful.

A few months back, I was thrilled to be able to join a group of other sommeliers for a casual afternoon hang. I had a rare weekend day off from work and was looking forward to an afternoon of lounging in sweatpants and watching sports with friends. But I knew that, even though we’d be eating from paper plates balanced in our laps, our glasses would almost certainly be filled with delicious, nerdy, old, and expensive wine. And I had no idea what I could afford to bring.

By definition, wine professionals love and appreciate good wine. When socializing with other somms, what you pour matters. For a twentysomething living in an uncommonly expensive city like New York, this presents a challenge. Despite being among friends, I couldn’t shake the vague pressure to drink (very!) well among industry peers. Turns out, I’m not the only one.

Punching Above Your Weight

“A lot has changed with regards to the image of a sommelier since I started in this business 15 years ago,” Eduardo Porto Carreiro, beverage manager for Atlanta’s Ford Fry restaurants, tells me. “But one thing that hasn’t changed is the adage of a typical somm’s behavior and habits: Live like a pauper, drink like a king.”

Luckily, these days most somms are not paupers. According to the annual Guild of Sommeliers salary survey, the median income for U.S. sommeliers in 2016 was $60,000 ($70,000 in major markets like New York and San Francisco). That is well above the country’s overall median individual income and even surpasses other hospitality positions such as bartenders ($20,800 overall, $31,510 in New York) and waiters ($19,990 overall, $31,620 in New York).

While sommeliers do make above-average salaries, they generally don’t meet the required income to be considered upper class. However, that’s not what their wine purchasing habits would suggest.

The nine sommeliers I surveyed estimated their personal wine budgets run from $200 to $350 per month. (Several acknowledged that they occasionally exceed that figure.) When buyin.g retail, they spend a median of $40 to $50 per bottle. By means of comparison, a 2015 Wine Market Council survey found that only 10 percent of all wine drinkers have spent more than $20 on a bottle of wine in the last month.

This divide is dramatic but logical. Sommeliers’ daily responsibilities include studying, opening, and tasting some of the world’s finest wines. Given the intimacy with which somms are expected to understand high-end bottles, they have to prioritize personal wine spending.

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Thomas Davidson

Thomas joined 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.