Recently a diner, who was visiting from out of town, asked me if I was from South Africa . Stumped, I replied “Sorry Sir did you mean Saskatchewan?” “No” he answered, “I said South Africa. I spoke to a local Sooke woman who said that you were from some African country and that you knew all about wine.”
As I mulled our conversation over in my mind, I reflected on my Saskatchewan accent. I realize that I use “Saskatchewanisms” like bunny-hug for hoodie and thongs instead of flip-flops but I doubted that would pass as anything African! Then it dawned on me. The Sooke woman told him that I was a sommelier….not a Somalian!
After the guest and I had a good laugh over the misunderstanding I explained to him that not many people know what a sommelier is let alone what one does. Actually sometimes I am not too sure either so I thought I should shed some light on what we are. The Oxford Companion to Wine (1999, Robinson) explains the word sommelier in the following manner, it is a “widely used French term for a specialist wine waiter or wine steward. The sommelier’s job is to ensure that any wine ordered is served correctly and, ideally, to advise on the individual characteristics of every wine on the establishment’s wine and on food and wine matching.” Sounds pretty straight forward to me, except that there are thousands of wines to learn about and twice that in food and wine combinations. Plus the important factor of each customer’s individual palate and likes and dislikes…but I guess they forgot to mention that part in the wine encyclopedia!
Now obtain your citizenship in “sommelier-landia” one has to take a series of intense wine courses through a accredited wine school, such as the International Sommelier Guild (ISG) or the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET). Both ISG and WSET require that you proceed up through the levels of their program until you reach the last course which is the grueling sommelier diploma. I chose to pursue my studies via ISG and I received my “citizenship” in September 2006 after countless hours of mentally hiking through the wine regions of the world and tasting glass after glass of grape juice. The final diploma course was an extremely in-depth and consuming course that was held each week for a 9 hour class for approximately six to seven months long. The class ended with a bang over two days of intense examinations which included an 8 am, 20 glass wine tasting- which proved to be three of the longest hours of my life. The fact that I was getting a wee bit tipsy by 8:20 am did not help at all! (Yes we did spit the wine while tasting but some of it did infiltrate my system).
In the end it was definitely worth it as it is knowledge that will always be useful in many situations both inside my restaurant and in the outside world. Wines studies are also very interesting route in the world of academia as the student has to use the sense of smell and of taste to aid in learning just as much as his or her brainpower. It takes a while to trust your senses but in the end your senses are so sharp that everyday scents and tastes outside of class are heightened and more enjoyable.
In the years gone by, sommeliers where mostly older men who would normally open your wine for you and then taste before you did it in a little cup they had around their neck, in order to make sure the health and quality of the wine was intact. Sounds a bit stuffy to me. Today we sommeliers come in all ages and genders. Many servers on Vancouver Island are sommeliers or have done some levels of wine training, this is also true for many of the Island’s chefs and those who work in specialty wine stores. So next time you are out dining or wine shopping ask if there is someone with wine training or a sommelier on staff to aid you in your experience, we are an educated bunch on the Island and we are at your service!