What Are Sommeliers and Why Do We Need Them?

We love our ribbons, don’t we? Blue ones, yellow ones—we stick them on everything. Little league losers get ribbons; cheap beers get ribbons; hell, I think I even have one on my diploma. But what do all these accolades mean?

Chances are they don’t mean shit. Most are a byproduct of our American “snowflake mentality.” They tell us we’re each a precious little flower waiting to bloom. And we love to pay for them, just look at our growing sea of student loans.

The wine world is no different, but we have our own form of ribbon: the sommelier certificate. Just like a Bachelors degree, it proves you took some tests…and passed! But until you get to the upper levels (of which there are many, many different accrediting bodies), it just doesn’t prove all that much.

But let’s step away from the certificates for a second and talk a bit about what a sommelier is. A somm, as they’ve been come to be called in our cult of abbreviation, is someone who is trained and knowledgeable in all things wine. They may work in restaurants, retail, or really awesome online wine retail shops like Wine Awesomeness. Their professional objective is to utilize their extensive wine knowledge to provide the customer/client with the best possible experience. Think of them like your tour guide in the land of mouth (and nose) pleasure. And just like any other tour guide, you want them to be knowledgeable.

It really doesn’t matter if they studied their ass off to pass an upper-level sommelier exam, or if they were raised by a pack of grapes, foraging on bits of terrior and tannins for sustenance. What does matter is that they know wine. ‘Cause just like you don’t want to be stuck in a boat in the Amazon with some bro from Wisconsin who took an online course on Amazonian whitewater rafting from the comfort of his Ikea couch, you don’t want just anyone advising you on which bottle of wine to go with your seared foie gras. Ok, so the analogy may be a bit overboard, but you get the point.

The important thing here is knowledge, regardless of how it was earned. The best somms won’t just rattle off a list of “acceptable” Oregon Pinots, they’ll actually talk to you and get a feel for what you like. They’ll use all their experience and training to guide you to a wine that they know you’ll like. Their job is to make you happy. So don’t get caught up in if they have on a silver pin or gold pin or pig pin; the important thing is that they listen to you and make you feel comfortable in your choice. A snooty, pretentious sommelier is about as useless as a square cork, no matter how he earned his stripes.

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