The harsh reality of sommeliers

20 December, 2018

What does the sommelier stand for today?

It doesn’t seem so long ago that the word conjured up a last-century French world of hospitality. Starchy, snooty bordering on arrogant, full of impenetrable rituals and rules, the stereotype was that the sommelier was employed to exploit the general populace’s fear of the vinous faux pas, shaming customers into spending much more than they wanted. But today, the popular image of the sommelier is of an altogether hipper sort of figure. The subject of glossy magazine profiles and a series of well-received documentaries (Somm), and more likely to be found with tattoos and denim than a suit and bow tie, the modern somm is a figure to aspire to, with online influence and three-figure salaries – in the US at least – to match.

Of course, the reality is somewhat different. Not every sommelier is earning what are, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the average annual salaries of $87,000 for an advanced sommelier, or $164,000 for a master sommelier. Far from it. Indeed, according to job-hunting website Adzuna, the average wage for a sommelier in London is £24,371, and on the day I checked, there were several vacancies with annual salaries in the mid-teens.

In my experience, few go into the job for the money, or even because they are attracted to the work. The hours are too brutal, the pay too meagre, to hang around for long. Almost all the sommeliers I got to know when I was reporting on the London restaurant world in the 2000s are no longer working the floor. They’ve moved upstairs into management and senior buying roles, got jobs with suppliers or producers, or begun making wine. In this light, the job is more of a stepping stone: a foot in the wine trade door with the one main perk being the opportunity to try many of the world’s best wines in the course of their day-to-day work.

Still, there’s no doubt the sommelier profession is far more respected these days. And much of the credit for that has to go to an organisation that has its roots in that Old World hospitality – its first exam was held in the UK in 1969 and the modern association formed in 1977: The Court of Master Sommeliers. The Court’s famously high standards – so far only 274 people have passed the legendarily difficult exams to be inducted into one of its worldwide chapters – have set a bar of high professionalism that has had a trickle-down effect, influencing how the rest of the sommelier scene is regarded within the hospitality sector and the wider world.

With greater exposure comes greater scrutiny, however. And this year the Court has been tested severely after a scandal blew up over the exams. After finding out that one of its members had leaked details of the tasting paper to an unknown number of students, the Court was forced to disqualify 23 of 24 of its successful candidates (the 24th had already taken and passed the tasting paper last year), and expel the member from any Court-related activities.

A draconian measure? Collective punishment? Possibly. And it’s hard not to feel sympathy for the honest candidates who will have to go through the exams again. But you can understand why the Court acted so harshly. It wasn’t only protecting its own integrity. It was trying to protect the reputation – and the hard-earned and recently acquired respect – of a whole profession.

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La'Mel Clarke

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