When tasting wine is your job

Updated: Jan 11

Most of us use our senses on a daily basis to perform our jobs--sight, sound, smell, touch. But how many of us taste? For some, it’s the #1 tool they bring to work every day. Meet the sommelier [sum-mel-yay], or wine specialist. It’s a role as old as the art of wine-making itself and it takes more than being a wino to become one.

Sommelier Mike Woeste is a certified wine expert.
Sommelier Mike Woeste is a certified wine expert.

Wine is a symbol of modern hospitality--present in some form at your last brunch, fundraiser, or other celebratory affair. Its place in history dates as far back as 8000 B.C., in culinary, leisure, and religious applications. But sommeliers have the special power of wine telepathy, as noted by Mike Woeste, who moonlights as a sommelier outside of his media job. “We taste so much wine and learn so much about the different areas where it’s made that we know what the wine is likely going to taste like just by looking at a label.”

Sommelier in hospitality job
A sommelier knows the wines a customer will like, based on their food and wine likes and dislikes.

In other words, a sommelier knows taste so well, that they’re able to make recommendations for wine pairings simply by listening to the customer’s likes and dislikes around food, wine, or both. That’s when a wine consultant can put their talents to good use. “When a customer tells me, they like full-bodied red wines, I’ll know to direct them towards Napa Cabernets, red Bordeaux, or a Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the southern Rhone.”

A vintner vs. a sommelier

A vintner and a sommelier are very different people, but both play a role in the story of how a wine gets from the vine to the table. Woeste’s take is:

“The vintner is essentially the winemaker who has a hand in every decision that turns the grapes into wine. It’s the sommelier’s job to then understand why that vintner made certain decisions in the wine-making process in order to produce the wine in the bottle, and why the wine is going to taste a certain way.”

Vinter vs. sommelier
A vintner is the decision-maker behind how a wine is made.

“One of the best parts of a sommelier’s education is when they have the opportunity to meet the vintner, and hear firsthand their process for making a great wine.”

Becoming a sommelier

Wine, like most traditional craft, is a highly specialized field. And yes, you have to go to school. “Certification in the wine industry goes through two schools,” says Mike Woeste, who moonlights as a sommelier outside of his media relations job. “I received my certification through the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS). Both are great programs for those who work in the wine industry, but the CMS is geared more toward those who work the floor in a restaurant, because there is a service aspect to the certification.”

This is no open-book exam. Both the WSET and the CMS involve rigorous theory and tasting, which means a lot of study time and a lot of drinking time. A work and study regimen was what worked for Woeste. “Achieving my Level 3 or advanced award in wines from the WSET took over 6 months of classes, tasting groups, and book studying. It also helped that I work in a wine shop to constantly apply what I was learning.”

Jobs in the wine industry run the gamut. From wine bars and shops, to country clubs, catering companies, beverage distributors, and hotels.

Are you in the wine business? Grit connects hospitality professionals (and certified wine experts) with employers looking to hire wine consultants and sommeliers. Uncork the possibilities and showcase your talent here on Grit.