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Sommeliers: Training and Results

By Harry Haff, , CEC, CCA, WSET Advanced Certificate, Chef Instructor, Le Cordon Bleu, Atlanta

Is there any word bandied about more cavalierly in our industry than the word sommelier? There are not many. Sometimes I think that restaurant-goers and foodies have the idea that whoever read the back label of a wine bottle and has the ability to spell gewürtztraminer is a sommelier.

While at a professional level we know this is not so, when someone of casual acquaintance announces that she or he is a sommelier, we are too polite or non-confrontational to ask what has made her or him a sommelier? Can they really spell gewürtztraminer? How many years of service and study has it taken them to be able to have others call them a sommelier?

This word that is so easily decanted is so difficult to come by, but there are options for sommelier training, and they can be an extraordinary addition to any good restaurant’s staff—and the bottom line.

From Driving Animals to Driving Wine
In modern times, the sommelier title is for someone who specializes in the service, storing and purchasing of wine as well as being responsible for training others in the dining room on the service of wines. Often the same person will create the wine list.

One of the most important responsibilities is the ability based on knowledge and experience to recommend an appropriate wine to accompany an item the guest ordered.

The term, according to Merriam-Webster, dates back originally to Roman times and is based on the word sagma, meaning a packsaddle. From there it evolved into Provençal as saumailer, or one who drives pack animals. Retaining this general job description, it entered into Middle French where the name was associated with someone who was responsible for supplies and transportation of supplies, like a quartermaster. Somewhere along the way, it became associated with a specialty in wine service, knowledge and supply.

What Makes a True Sommelier
Although anyone can call him or her self a sommelier, that does not make it so. The Court of Master Sommeliers was founded in 1977 under the direction of several professional beverage and hospitality organizations in Great Britain, including the Masters of Wine. For someone interested in actually being a sommelier, the program is in four levels:
1.    Introductory Level, which introduces the student to a worldwide basic understanding of wine regions, style and taste. The students are expected to do much background reading on their own before sitting for the two-day intensive instruction, written test and tasting test.
2.    Level II, the Certified Sommelier, which is composed of theory and tasting exams. Adding a service component, the candidate must perform decanting, sparkling wine service or standard wine service.
3.    Level III is the Advanced Sommelier level. It is a three-day intensive course, followed by a two-day exam of restaurant service and sales, written theory and a six-wine blind tasting. As is stated on the website, the “Advanced Examination is exponentially more challenging than the Certified Sommelier Exam.”
4.    The Master Sommelier Exam, Level IV, is an oral exam, a blind tasting and a practical service examination. All judges are Master Sommeliers, and the candidate has three years to pass all parts of the Level IV. The past rate for this level is about 10%.

The other main sommelier-training program is the International Sommelier Guild, based in Denver. It is recognized by the American Culinary Federation and also includes a three-tier approach as well as a wine educator component.
1.    This level is an introductory one that also has a component on the early stages of learning to pair food and wine.
2.    The Level II component is 48 hours of classroom instruction with emphases on blind tasting, sparkling wines, fortified wines, beers and ales, food and wine pairing techniques, dining room service as well as an essay on a given topic.
3.    The third level is known as the Diploma Program. Over a six-month time span, the candidate attends one eight-hour session per week. Contents are on viticulture, viniculture, service refinement, cellaring, tasting techniques, menu design and an essay.
4.    The ability to become a certified wine educator is in addition to the other three courses and is a unit unto itself.

As you can see, each of these programs is intensive, rigorous and not for the faint of heart or thin-skinned individuals. But what emerges is an industry professional trained to work in a rapidly expanding segment of the restaurant/hospitality industry.

The United States is now the largest wine market in the world in terms of volume and monetary volume. But our per capita consumption is still low when compared to other industrialized countries.

You may be surprised that the leading per capita wine-consuming country is the Vatican with 70.22 liters per person. According to the Wine Institute, Luxembourg is second with 54.29; France fourth at 42.49; Italy sixth at 38.14; Germany is 21st with 24.44; and the U.S. is 57th with 8.96. But while Germany, Italy and France all showed year-to-year declines in per capita consumption, the U.S. increased by 4.5%, with the Vatican increasing by 18.2%.

Now if this sounds unimpressive, consider that the Vatican has a population of 932, and the U.S. population is more than 307 million. And while Lewis Purdue, editor of Wine Industry Insight, forecasted on-premise sales in 2010 would decline, and they did. Year-to year due to the recession, off-premise increased by a dollar volume of more than 8%. This decline will reverse itself as the economy improves and as more Americans become familiar with wines in general.

How Sommeliers Help Restaurants
When one considers that wine sales across the board are increasing from almost all wine-producing countries — Australia being the striking exception —a knowledgeable person selling your wines and beverages and training your staff to sell as well becomes virtually a necessity in a good restaurant.

It is not enough for restaurant personnel to know the Napa Valley wines produced by a few big-name or trendy/cult producers when the single largest increase in wine sales by country in 2010 came from Argentina.

The wine news report notes that for the first quarter of 2011, imported wines outpaced domestic wines in dollar increase of sales in the $11-$14.99 ranges as well as the $15 to $19.99 range by 13% to 6% in the lower price segment, and by 27% (!) to 8% in the higher-priced segment. These are prime segments for many restaurants wanting a wine list with a sales sweet spot of $30-$60 per bottle. To be able to consistently sell a wide variety of wine, training is essential — sommelier training.

People who do not order wine for dinner in a restaurant are fearful of making mistakes and are looking for strong recommendations from a sommelier or a server. A highly trained sommelier that can also train the staff will remove this looming barrier to increased wine sales.

This is the most effective way to increase check averages overall. Selling a dessert split by two or three people will not increase a check average by more than $3 or $4 per person. But with an entrée price of $25 and two people splitting a $40 bottle of wine, that is a different story. A five-ounce pour will give each guest two and one half glasses. Add to that maybe a cocktail or a glass of bubbles before the meal, and an everyday experience for the guest as well as the operator just became something special.

Remember that well-recommended wines will make your chef’s food actually taste better; ditto for the wine. Poor match-ups will have exactly the opposite effect and are likely to leave your guests, if not downright unhappy, certainly not as pleased as they could and should be.

For those of you with active wine-by-the glass programs, confident servers will sell lots more if they do not have to worry about making a bad recommendation. People sell what they know, and a good sommelier will train the servers to a high level of confidence. When sales by the glass are well tracked, the sommelier will find how to select new additions to the wine list in much the same fashion as a chef tracks daily specials with a nod to some of them becoming new menu items.

There is no substitute for knowledge. We have a huge number of people in the U.S. becoming more interested in wines all the time, and we have a gigantic population base. People used to drinking wine at home will be more likely to order on-premise wines with dinner. But even knowledgeable guests want good recommendations from a trained person, just as they want a well-trained chef in the kitchen.

A good sommelier will cover their salary many times over in sales, provide a better-trained staff and help build a knowledgeable following for your restaurant. Go for it!

Harry Haff teaches Wines and Beverages, Cost Control and a variety of hot foods and baking and pastry classes at Le Cordon Bleu, Atlanta. A hospitality professional for more than 25 years, he has an intense interest in and knowledge of wines and beverages.

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