The question that I am most frequently asked is, “how do I become a sommelier?” or “how do I become a wine expert and get a wine job?” Although there is no silver bullet answer that I can give, there are three elements that anyone can work towards that will make entering the wine industry more successful and enjoyable: confidence, knowledge, and tasting for quality.
Confidence is something anyone can achieve by building a knowledge base and developing a key set of skills. The more you study wine the more you realize there is more to learn. However, by building a foundation of information on wine production, you gain confidence. That confidence helps you express yourself and react to others’ ideas with conviction. It also provides a solid base on which to continue to learn – be it in a classroom, during winery visits and on the job. Confidence will help you appear stronger to potential employers by being able to understand, answer and build off their questions.
So how do you get that confidence or the knowledge base from which confidence comes? There are two skills that are critical: explanation and discussion of winemaking concepts and learning how to taste wine for quality.
Many people want to be in the wine industry because they like the pleasure and taste of wine. They find theory interesting to a point but then lose interest. The truth is that most of wine work does not involve tasting but rather focuses on theory. If you work in wine retail or distribution it is unlikely that you will taste all of wines in your portfolio or inventory. Even sommeliers who, at lease initially, taste most of the wines on their list, may not have tried everything or the latest vintage that has been produced. The way to fill that gap is to understand the theory behind that wine.
Confidence comes from looking at any major wine label and, without having tasted the contents of the bottle, be able to convey what that wine should taste like and why. The best way to achieve this is to take a comprehensive wine survey course. There are several classes that may fit the bill, but we recommend the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 course. This program has been taught around the world for over 50 years and is specifically designed to build expertise and confidence. You can find out more at: Wine Courses for Beginners
Tasting is the element that most people both look forward to and at the same time dread! First, let’s define tasting at the professional level. This type of tasting is not about “do I like this wine” or “do I want to purchase a bottle.” Rather, it is about is this a good wine for the purpose for which it was made and is it representative of its region and style type. There are several wines that are made for mass market retailers or restaurants that are not meant to be complex or age worthy. It is just as important to distinguish quality here as it is when looking at premium wines.
Why do people dread tasting? The answer is lack of confidence. Most people doubt their ability to taste accurately thinking “what if I mistake a Grand Cru Burgundy for a Napa Cab?” The issue isn’t tasting blind but rather understanding the key components that make up a wine: appearance (color), Nose (aroma), Palate (acid, tannin, body, finish, etc.). All of this can be learned and the way to make it easier is to have a specific system and process to do so. WSET’s Systematic Approach to Tasting does just that. Other courses should do so as well, or they are not worth taking.
By building confidence through theory and tasting skills you will not only enjoy wine more and make yourself more suitable for a wine job, but you will also be better informed as to what part of the industry – if any – you would like to join.