You’ve probably heard the term sommelier at fancy restaurants or on the Food Channel, but what does it really mean? Mixologist Daniel Gonzales recently received his Level 1 certification and he gave us the inside track on what it really takes to earn this prestigious title.
Written by Daniel Gonzales
Photography by Dennis Muncrief
The word sommelier can conjure up many different reactions. Some laugh, some are intimidated, but most are interested in understanding exactly what it means to be a sommelier. So what exactly is a sommelier?
The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) was established in 1977 with a mission to educate and improve standards in the service industry. There are four defined landmarks on the road to becoming a Master Somm, all of which are meant to increase the level of enjoyment for both the sommelier and the consumer.
To equate the sommelier process to the driving experience, level one is like getting your driver’s license. Whether you’ve driven before or not, you learn the rules, terminology, standards, and expectations. The introductory level draws in interested wine connoisseurs, service industry workers, salespeople, and just plain curious wine sippers looking to enhance their experience tasting wines.
“I wanted to see how much I actually knew about wine, and how much I was just guessing,” says plastic manufacturer Andy Ricks, who took a two-day course in Tucson for personal reasons.
CMS offers courses all over the country throughout the year. At least four Master Somms teach the class, taking the class around the world of wines. “I studied for six months, and learned more in these two days than the past half year,” says bar manager Rachael Barkley who was sent to the class by her place of employment to increase her knowledge of wine.
The intense, two-day excursion takes students from France, to Germany, to Spain, to South America, to North America, to Italy—all the while explaining the different types of wines in each region, and what makes them different.
Four times throughout the textbook teachings, pupils are tasked to “blind taste” wine using the method established by CMS. The Deductive Tasting Method asks wine tasters to use three sensory evaluations: sight, nose, and palate. From these steps, they must deduce an initial conclusion, reevaluate, and make the final conclusion. All of these areas of study, while intense, truly just scratch the surface for what lies ahead along the path to becoming a Master Sommelier.
It’s pronounced “suh-mel-yah” (rhymes with “everyday”)
Level two of CMS could be likened to becoming a professional racecar driver. Your senses must be so in tune and developed that you are able to define wine regions and types while being judged.
The Certified Somm level requires the pupil to look even further into the countries where wine is being produced. Focus is placed on the dirt—referred to as terroir—and how it affects wine regions that are as close as the German and French borders. One region, Alsace, has changed citizenship more than five times between Germany and France due to different wars and claims, and while the dirt doesn’t change, the country of origin has. Knowing the difference between what lies 500 yards in either direction of Alsace is an example of what a Certified Somm is required to know.
Other increased levels of education required for this second tier of vinicultural valor include blind tasting and wine service. In level one, a student is merely instructed on how to use the Deductive Tasting Method. In level two, the ability to utilize it is the difference between passing and failing. Likewise, wine service is demonstrated at the introductory level, but students are required to put it into practice at the certified level. The level two certification separates the novice wine geek from those dedicated to their profession.
As the road winds further and further up the hill to becoming a Master Somm, the level of professionalism and service are farther reaching and have more emphasis than wine knowledge. Knowing every mile of Burgundy is great, but knowing how to convey that message is of the upmost importance to achieving the level of Master Sommelier. Just like having a billion dollars on a desert island, having all the wine knowledge in the world is useless without the consumer. It is the sommelier’s responsibility to advise their guest with confidence and accuracy.
The Advanced Sommelier is a very sought after level to reach in the field of wine expertise. Most that make it to this level do not make it further. Keeping with our metaphor, level three on the trek to Master Sommtown equates to becoming a fighter pilot. There is an intense skill and education required.
The Deductive Tasting Method is no longer just a method, it is a way of life. The ability and study that goes into this achievement is higher than most are willing to dedicate to any field. Advanced Sommeliers know approximately 90 to 95 percent of the entire world’s wine regions, grape varietals, wine history, wine laws, vintages, and weather like the back their hand—while still maintaining a disposition that is not snobbish and overbearing. (Sidenote: This is how I tell the difference between an Advanced Somm and just some jerk who thinks they know a lot about wine: The Advanced Somm doesn’t make me feel like an inferior wine drinker, instead they educate, to make me feel like an empowered wine drinker.)
“I never expected to take this journey this far,” says Advanced Sommelier Cole Sisson of Ontanon Wines, “but I just couldn’t stop once I started, and it has given me a great perspective on the world. Becoming an Advanced Somm is one of the hardest things I have ever done, but is a choice I am so glad I pursued.”
Becoming an Advanced Somm is dedicating yourself to the profession of wine and service, and will very well open up other avenues along the way. The pursuit is probably more enjoyable than most because of the subject matter, but the scrutiny is just as difficult as in other fields of expertise. Most sommeliers you encounter at fine dining restaurants are at this level. They are highly skilled and hold positions all over the world.
The astronaut! Along the sommelier timeline, these people are out of this world. Let’s be honest, did you ever think there were people in real life that could pick up a glass of wine and tell you what type of wine you were drinking, from what country, from what region, from what vintage, even as far to tell you what part of the vineyard that bottle came from?
There aren’t many of them—but yes, Master Sommeliers do exist and they are masters of their fields in the truest sense of the word. Educated and experienced to the fullest extent of their profession, these experts know the farms the grapes are from, and the farmers that grew them. They know the history of countries as well as some college professors, along with the chemistry and art that goes into a bottle of wine.
The path to becoming a Master Sommelier is not structured from day one, like becoming a doctor or lawyer. It can only be traveled through dedication and passion. “I was a geologist, working for an oil company, and took the Intro Somm class, just so I wouldn’t look like a jackass in front of my friends if ever asked to pick a bottle of wine at dinner,’” says Master Sommelier Wayne Belding, chuckling in nostalgia.
There are 147 Master Sommeliers in the United States currently, and 231 worldwide—it is a very rare accomplishment. These few experts work mainly in the wine and service industry, sharing with restaurants and collectors their stories, education, and skills to further enhance the true enjoyment of this liquid that has been a part of humanity longer than medicine or science.
The path to becoming any level of sommelier is fun and challenging, humbling and empowering. I can tell you this: If it is something you are interested in, this road does not look like what you imagine. Sometimes dirt is beautiful and sophistication is ugly, but I believe education lies somewhere in the sweet spot in between, and the sommelier falls within the toy department of education. Cheers my friends! m
Want to see Daniel in Action?
Turn to page 51 to see the Tuscan Wine Dinner he
co-hosted at Hotel Encanto.
Ft. Selden Winery
Fort Selden Winery is a family-owned winery that includes a vineyard and tasting room. The winery is located new Fort Selden State Museum and managed by the two owners, Desiree and Franklin. A variety of wines are available such as Gewurtraminer, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and our unique Madre D’Eira in the wine tasting flights on Fri/Sat/Sun from noon till 5:00pm. fortseldenwinery.com
Zin Valle Vineyards
Zin Valle Vineyards offers our guests a unique and fulfilling experience. From a relaxing stroll to a picnic you will enjoy the beautiful grounds, rustic, private barrel room, patio and picnic areas and of course our tasting room that looks out over our lush Zinfandel vines. Bring your family, friends and your dogs too! We are open Friday through Monday, noon till 5:00pm for free wine tasting. Visit us on facebook or zinvalle.com.
The oldest winery in NM, family operated La Viña produces estate-bottled wines from its 24-acre vineyard. Wine festivals are in April & October, and private events are scheduled throughout the year. Visitors are always welcome and may sample a variety of wines from the heart of the Mesilla Valley. Open Thursday through Tuesday from noon till 5:00pm. Tours are available by appointment. lavinawinery.com
Rio Grande Vineyards & Winery
Rio Grande Vineyards & Winery consists of a 10-acre vineyard and on-site winery. In the tasting room visitors can talk with the winemaker and enjoy an amazing mountain view. They offer both sweet and dry wines such as Gewürztraminer, Zinfandel, and Cabernet along with many others. Open on Fri/Sat/Sun from noon to 5:30pm or groups of 4 or more by appointment. Sundays feature live music. Follow us on facebook for upcoming events, or riograndewinery.com.
St. Clair Winery & Bistro
St. Clair Winery & Bistro boasts a full lunch and dinner menu alongside their award-winning New Mexico wines. Featuring wine varieties for every palate from the effervescent fun of Soleil Mimosa to the classic hardiness of Cabernet Sauvignon. The restaurant is open 7 days a week; live music on weekends; Sunday Brunch from 9am till 2pm, tastings offered daily. Visit New Mexico’s largest producing vineyard and winery, tours offered twice monthly and by appointment. stclairwinery.com
Map of the Mesilla Valley