So You Want to be a Sommelier?

Books and classes are fascinating, but they can’t help you learn the ropes or figure out whether a career fits your temperament. The hospitality side of the wine business is a trade, more than a profession. In the same way that I would recommend that any aspiring chef work in a kitchen first before deciding to go to culinary school, I also recommend that aspiring sommeliers work in the front of the house first before committing to a wine service career. Bottom line is, if you don’t love being a server or bartender, chances are you won’t love being a sommelier either.

The sommelier role is glamorous and appealing, and every year I get more inquiries from young people who’ve set their sights on the job. I am thrilled to have an inspired new generation joining the ranks.  But, I do need to caution anyone who’s determined to become a sommelier to ask themselves a few questions first:

  • Do you truly enjoy giving service?
    Making people happy for a living is delightful for some, but many chafe at subsuming their egos to pleasing an audience that may or may not be appreciative. If being extra-super-nice to mean or arrogant people doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, this is the wrong job for you.
  • Are you energized by the restaurant pace?
    On average, less than 20% of the population finds the frenetic pace and constant variation of restaurant life invigorating (heavily weighted to the ADD crowd).  For the rest, the chaotic environment and constantly shifting priorities induce stress and even panic.  It’s best to figure out where you fit before you get started.
  • Are you a night owl who can handle long shifts?
    Working nights is a given in fine dining, where dinner shifts can easily hit 10 hours. Sommeliers are management, whose shifts typically run even longer. While it’s nice to sleep in and have your days free, you will likely work into the wee hours on a regular basis
  • Are you ready to give up weekends and holidays?
    By definition, restaurant professionals work when everyone else is at play. You’d better be down with working while your friends and family are off having fun – you’re going to miss a lot of weddings and birthday parties.
  • Are you up for hard work and low pay?
    While the industry is showing signs of long term improvement, the reality is that most sommeliers and beverage managers make less than the top servers in their restaurants, despite working more shifts and longer hours. High turnover and thin profit margins lead many operations to keep a tight lid on management salaries. Contrary to popular belief, sommeliers rarely benefit from tips. 
  • Are you willing to go without long term stability for a while?
    The odds of finding a position with a retirement plan or health benefits are slim. Even the most successful sommeliers tend to burn out after 5 or 10 years on the floor. They end up either moving into wine sales positions or opening their own restaurants.
  • If you’ve answered an enthusiastic yes to all of the above, then you’re just the kind of lovable lunatic who will adore being a sommelier! Best of luck! If not, you may want to look elsewhere.