July 28, 2021

If your enthusiasm for wine goes beyond enjoying a glass with dinner or sharing a bottle with friends, it might be time to consider becoming a sommelier.

The food and beverage industry is full of opportunities for career wine aficionados and sommeliers. Read on to find out how to become a sommelier or wine professional for a restaurant, catering company, winery, and more.

Steps to Becoming a Sommelier

At the most basic level, a sommelier is a wine steward, while according to the Court of Master Sommeliers, a sommelier is a master of art, science, and history in all things wine.

There are a variety of ways to start a career in wine, but if you want to become a professional sommelier, you’ll need education, experience, and certification.

Three wine bottles outdoors on a ledge in France

Education

Sommeliers often self-direct their education, learning about wines in their own way and at their own pace. There is an endless amount of information to learn about the world of wine, from where grapes are grown and how wine is made to what produces different tasting notes. You may choose to study simply through experiencing as much wine as possible, visiting wineries and asking questions, attending seminars and tastings, or a different way altogether.

Chef Gregory Bonath, an instructor for Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts and certified sommelier, stresses the importance of going out and actually trying wines.

To start out, he recommends purchasing several wines of the same variety from different regions and trying them without reading the labels.

Gregory Bonath“Try [different wines] and don’t read the back of the label first. Just go and pick a Chardonnay, and then pick three different countries, but don’t read the back of the label. Go home and think, ‘This really does taste like butter. Why?’ And then read the back of the label and search [for why it tastes that way]. … That’s the best way to start to learn about [wine].”
Escoffier Chef Instructor and Certified Sommelier Gregory Bonath

Alternatively or in addition to your own learning, you may go after formal education. There are sommelier courses that are meant to help prepare you specifically for certification. You may desire a more well-rounded education, especially if you’re not sure you want to focus on wine just yet.

Some sommeliers and wine professionals get their start in culinary school because they can learn about fundamental culinary elements such as flavor profiles, and the ways in which culture influences food. Many topics covered in culinary school are important in the wine industry as well.

For example, a degree in Food & Beverage Operations can teach you about hospitality and management. Those who aspire to become sommeliers can learn useful skills such as professionalism and service standards, catering and event operations, cost control and purchasing, and beverage service operations.

As you study wine, you’ll get a better idea of what you’d like to do in the future, and what type of setting you see yourself in. Experience can also help you envision your ideal career.

barrels of wine

Experience

It’s a good idea to gain industry experience at the same time you’re pursuing education, whether formal or self-directed. This way, you can apply what you’re learning and grow your skills. Any entry level or higher job where you get to be around wine is a great place to begin.

Some sommeliers get their start as bartenders or bar managers in casual dining restaurants. Others shadow wine makers to learn all they can about wine. Working as a server in a restaurant that has a sommelier you can observe can also help you get your foot in the door.

Chef Gregory explains the importance of experience, whatever that looks like for you, when you set your sights on becoming a sommelier:

Gregory Bonath“A lot of it is just starting off in the industry. If you’re waiting tables and you’re serving wine, … you have to do your part to understand the wine menu. You’re already gaining that experience. You’re already, in a way, working around wine, even though your job isn’t specifically in that. But I would say that the education piece is huge. If somebody wanted to be a sommelier in a Michelin-star restaurant or anywhere else, you’d have to have the education piece, but a huge, huge amount of it is experience as well.”
Escoffier Chef Instructor and Certified Sommelier Gregory Bonath

Industry experience is important because it allows you to practice working with guests, making suggestions, and curating menus and pairings. Finding a mentor in the field who shares your passion for wine can be an excellent way to extend your education, whether your mentor is a chef or wine expert.

If you’re in culinary school, ask your Chef Instructors questions about wine—things like how to create wine pairings, curate menus, and cook with wine. At Escoffier, you’ll find Chef Instructors who are certified sommeliers. You can also choose industry externships according to which kitchens have wine experts on staff and robust wine operations.

young male and female worker in apron and female manager at a venue banquet

Certification

Finally, to become a licensed sommelier, you need to pass exams to demonstrate your expertise.

There are generally four levels to sommelier certification, with Level One providing an introductory set of skills. You become a Certified Sommelier after Level Two, and Level Three is more difficult. If you pass the Level Four exam, you are named a Master Sommelier.

Gregory Bonath“When you go up certain levels, it really increases the knowledge about the world, which is interesting in history, because it’s not just about the grapes and where it comes from. You also get into the climate, and the way the sun’s facing on the hill, the soil, the moisture, the humidity. You get into all the other aspects that make the wine taste like it does, not just specifically what the grape is. So, the higher that you build the levels, the more you understand about everything that goes into it from the winemaking to nature, human aspects, nature aspects.”
Escoffier Chef Instructor and Certified Sommelier Gregory Bonath

Some wine schools and boards may offer a Level Five certification as well. Select certifications are available online.

Court of Master Sommeliers, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, and the National Wine School are just a few boards that certify sommeliers.

Over time and with enough credentials and experience, you may choose to serve as the master sommelier in a fine dining or Michelin-starred restaurant, as many professionals strive to do.

Day-to-Day Life as a Sommelier

Just as having a culinary degree doesn’t automatically make you a chef, a sommelier certification doesn’t make you a sommelier. Most professionals agree that a sommelier is an expert in wine who works with wine on a day-to-day basis.

Sommeliers are resident experts on wine in a restaurant, deciding which wines to purchase and how to serve and pair them, playing a role in menu creation, and advising others. As a sommelier, you may manage a bar, recommend pairings to guests, store wine, and even train wait staff to serve wine and make suggestions.

You’ll work with chefs and other kitchen staff members a lot as a wine expert. In a restaurant setting, chefs, servers, managers, and sommeliers work together to create a complete dining experience that often starts with great wine and ends with great dessert.

Sommeliers get to educate people—guests, kitchen staff, and others—about all things wine. They’re not only knowledgeable about complementary pairings and tasting notes, but also about how wine is made and the cultural significance of every bottle.

You don’t have to choose between a career as a chef and a career as a sommelier. Many chefs work closely with wine, and some sommeliers lend a hand in the kitchen. When interviewing for positions, find out how sommeliers and the culinary team collaborate.

Couple with menu and two wine glasses in a restaurant making order

Alternative Careers in the Wine Industry

If you’re not quite sure you want to work as a wine expert in a formal setting or fine dining restaurant, consider an alternative career. You’re not limited to becoming a sommelier.

You may decide to work for tasting rooms or conferences, teaching guests about wine and making recommendations. Or you could work with caterers and event planners to curate wine menus for gatherings.

If you’re an entrepreneur, don’t let those skills go to waste. A career in sales, marketing, or research and design would serve you well, if you wanted to combine your wine background with your understanding of business operations.

Become a vintner or winemaker if you want to start your own business. If freelance work is more your style, you could become a wine influencer or wine reviewer, offering your opinions and honest assessments of wine to the world.

And if a career in Food and Beverage Operations or the Culinary Arts is calling your name, answer it! Contact us today to find out how to begin your journey.

To learn more about starting a career in food and beverage, read these articles: