by Ron Washam

How to become a successful sommelier

Having the letters MS after your name doesn’t mean you’re a sommelier. A sommelier works in a restaurant. From the several dozen I’ve met, judging by their occupations, I was pretty sure MS stood for Master Shill. I, also, have letters after my name — letters I awarded myself for my particularly vast knowledge of wine, and who better to recognize that vast knowledge than me? — but the letters HMW are often misunderstood. Most people assume HMW stands for HoseMaster of Wine. I can understand the confusion. But, in fact, they stand for His Majesty of Wine. It’s only my humility that keeps me from pointing it out more often. Though I’ll thank you all to address me properly in the future. It’s a bit pretentious, but I don’t make the rules. So from now on it’s, His Royal Highness, Commander of Wine, HoseMaster of Wine the First. I love titles!

To claim that you are a Master Sommelier when you’ve never been employed as a sommelier is like claiming you’re a Master Carpenter because you know how to play Whack-A-Mole. It’s not just a mole you’re whackin’, it’s also yourself. There are so many things about being an employed sommelier that schools or study groups cannot teach you. I’m not contending that passing the MS exam is easy. It’s not easy. Neither is passing a gallstone, but people don’t put MG after their names when they do. No, I’m contending that the job of Sommelier is misunderstood. I am here to enlighten.

Most people think that a sommelier needs three things to be successful — wine knowledge, the ability to pair food and wine, and hospitality skills. OK, sure, those help, but those aren’t what count. Those are the three qualities that are the easiest to find. They don’t guarantee success as a sommelier. It’s like saying that anyone tall, fast and immature can make it in the NBA. Hell, if that were the case, I’m a third of the way to being a Laker.

If you’re seriously considering a career as a sommelier, stop wasting your time and money on certificates and degrees. No one who knows a lot about wine pays any attention to those letters after your name. You’re just a Girl Scout wearing a Merit Badge sash. Go sell cookies with your mom in front of the local market. If you really want to become a working, successful sommelier, here are some of the things you need to study and learn.

Pairing Food With the Wrong Wine

Most of the time when you recommend a nice white wine to accompany a main course, the customer will respond, “I only drink red.” A novice sommelier may try to use logic to convince the customer to order a white, but this is a waste of everyone’s time. Instead, learn how to pair the wrong wine with food — this is often the primary job of the sommelier. One basic rule of thumb: Silver Oak Cabernet pairs with everything. It’s as superb with oysters as it is with prime rib. Go with that. Once you’ve spent some time as a sommelier, you’ll learn that no one gives a crap what wine goes with their food, they only want to eat what they want with the wine that they want, and earn your official expert sommelier approval. Gratuities often follow. Remember, when it comes to food, people act like their nine-year-old selves. Bringing them the appropriate white wine will only result in a tantrum, holding of their breath until they turn blue, or anger-urinating. You don’t want a restaurant full of angry, wet, blue people like you’re in a James Cameron movie.

How to Choose the Appropriate Wines for a Wine Pairing Menu

Many restaurants that employ sommeliers offer prix fixe (which is not French for “vasectomy”) menus, and it is the sommelier’s job to assemble an accompanying list of wines. Many inexperienced sommeliers will attempt to sit and taste the courses with the chef and consult with him on which wines to serve with each course. Oh, man, BIG mistake. Chefs think only the finest, most expensive wines work best with their brilliant cuisine, and if you take their advice you’ll get your ass fired. No, this is your chance to finally sell those obscure wines you bought thinking the whole world is interested in your esoteric wine wisdom, and at the kind of inflated prices your manager appreciates! But first, always begin with a Riesling. It doesn’t matter what the food is, just pair it with Riesling. It proves you’re wine and food savvy. Everyone knows Riesling is the greatest, but least appreciated, wine — which is why no one ever orders it. Riesling is like James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” widely admired as the greatest novel no one has read. After the Riesling solidifies your wine and food pairing chops, you can unload that watery-as-the-Aegean Assyrtiko you bought to seem cool to the cute salesperson who showed it to you, as well as that weird red wine from the Jura that smells like your brother’s sock drawer. Remember, a sommelier’s job is to buy weird crap no one can complain is atypical because they have no idea what typical is, and then creatively sell it for huge profits. Glamour and money — you want them both.

Justifying Wine List Prices

It’s simple for a restaurant to find someone who knows about wine to work on the floor. The world is crawling with wine experts. They just have to find some creep on CellarTracker. In a restaurant, you only need to fool a couple of hundred people a night; on CellarTracker you have to fool thousands. For those of you who don’t know, CellarTracker is an online game for wine geeks. It’s like Dungeons and Dragons, only instead of pretending you’re a hero, you pretend you’re a wine expert. What’s hard for a restaurant to find is a sommelier who can justify the wine list markups. This is not an easy skill to acquire, and is much more difficult than identifying a bunch of wines blind, though both involve bluffing. When a guest cordially remarks, “fuck,” when reading your wine list, often a simple but heartfelt shrug is enough explanation. For more inquisitive types, you might explain the cost of buying and storing all those fabulous wines, the cost of the fine Riedel stemware you serve them in, and your own time and talent involved. That explains the first ten bucks. You’re on your own from there. But the successful sommelier is at his best explaining prices. Observing prostitutes can help make this easier for the beginning sommelier.

Oh, there are many more things more important than wine to learn before you can become a successful sommelier! I’ve only scratched the surface. So forget about earning your Master Shill, drop out of that WSET class, stop putting meaningless letters after your name. Want to be a bigtime sommelier? Learn to make shit up.

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