Columnist, Food

Are we seeing a backlash against sommeliers? The past few years have seen a buzz of publicity for the Court of Master Sommeliers and the professionals who attain its highest ranking. The 2012 documentary “Somm” chronicled the furious regimen of tasting and study that’s required to achieve the master sommelier title. The nation’s flourishing restaurant scene has focused attention on sommeliers as the trendy discoverers of trendy wines.

Now a counter voice has emerged, criticizing sommelier certifications and the nerdy (some might say snobby) aspects of the blind-tasting of exclusive wines that the average restaurant diner will never be able to afford or taste. 

“ ‘Sommelier’ isn’t an abstract title or a generic yet highbrow name for ‘wine expert.’ It’s a job. A restaurant job,” wrote Carson Demmond this year on Punch, a Web publication about alcoholic beverages. “And certification is by no means prerequisite to being a good one.”

Blogger Adam Teeter took the argument further on VinePair.com, noting the increasing number of people who are not in the restaurant trade attaining the first two of four certification levels in the Court of Master Sommeliers program. Such certification, he wrote, “seems to come with a fundamental misunderstanding of what it truly means to be a sommelier, and the reinforcement of this trend is slowly eroding the respect we should have for people that work in restaurants, while reinforcing an ever-growing rise in snob wine culture.”

Too many people strutting around calling themselves “sommelier” degrades the profession, Teeter wrote. “The idea among the general public of what a sommelier is has been tainted by people with no interest in ever actually serving in the profession, causing the role to be seen as someone more concerned with tasting notes and being able to identify wines blind than facilitating a wonderful experience for the diner.”

Jordan Mackay, a San Francisco writer and co-author of the James Beard Award-winning book “Secrets of the Sommeliers,” agrees that the sommelier culture is threatened by people who claim the title although they’ve never worked in a restaurant.

“The word ‘sommelier’ is almost becoming meaningless because so many people call themselves sommelier after taking some course,” he said last month at TexSom, an annual sommelier conference in Dallas, while moderating a session on restaurant trends. “We are in danger of losing the code of sommelier as someone who works the floor in a restaurant.”

The critics are making three main points: People who never worked in restaurants (and never intend to) become sommeliers merely by taking a test; some sommeliers working toward master sommelier certification are interested more in proving their wine-snob bona fides than in waiting on customers; and (implied in the latter) once they achieve the title, they are less likely to work as sommeliers.

“We are aware of the criticisms and are considering ways to address them,” says Shayn Bjornholm, a master sommelier who is the examination director for the Court of Master Sommeliers. Last year the court saw a 20 percent increase in applications for its four levels of certifications: intro, certified, advanced and master. The first two levels are open to anyone, while the last two are by invitation only, reserved for people with strong restaurant experience. 

Bjornholm emphasized that there is no official definition of “sommelier.” In many restaurants, waiters, managers or others serve as wine stewards in addition to their other duties. While the court’s advanced and master levels are for dedicated professionals, the intro and certified programs give restaurant workers and those considering such a career a perspective on the sommelier trade, he said.

I am one of those pretenders. Having never worked in a restaurant (nor intended to), I took and passed the first two levels of the Court of Master Sommelier examinations, earning the purple lapel pin of a certified sommelier. I did it to improve my own wine knowledge and to better appreciate the effort and professionalism of Washington-area somms who are pursuing the master sommelier pin.

I almost never wear the pin in public, out of respect for people who do actually work a restaurant floor. The 15 minutes I spent taking the service examination — with my master sommelier inquisitor grilling me on wine-food pairings or cocktails, and listening to see whether the champagne flutes on my tray clinked in tune while I paraded around the table — convinced me that I would never want to do that 20 or 30 times per work shift. My fellow students included one other person who was not in the trade; the rest were bartenders, servers and line cooks eager to gain additional restaurant expertise. I was impressed with their dedication to the service aspect of their work.

If people like me want to learn more about wine and gain deeper respect for those who serve it in restaurants, so what if we earn a lapel pin in the process?

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.