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11.22.2006

First it Was The Nurses...

They say that good help is hard to find. We've had a critical shortage of nurses here in California and in several states around the country. Then there was the announcement of the pending shortage of science and math help_wanted.jpgteachers. And now we are feeling the pinch in the restaurants, hotels, and wine bars of America. According to an article in the New York Times today, there's a pretty critical shortage of sommeliers in the country.

Of course this won't come as news to any of us who have recently asked a waiter at a restaurant about a specific Pinot Noir and had them suggest that we have a Zinfandel instead, as "it's just like the wine you asked about." Seriously. This just happened to me in a decent restaurant last week. And there was no one to rescue the situation. That waiter was the best that restaurant had to offer me in the way of wine knowledge.

Of course, not every restaurant can afford to have someone on staff to deal with customers who want to do more than just point to a line on the wine list and say "one of them red wines please." But apparently even if they had the money and the interest, they can't find folks to do the job.

Or, as Eric Asimov points out in the article, it's actually more like they can't find people to do the job that actually know anything.

In every major metropolitan area fine dining establishments are hungry for folks who can quench the growing thirst of the wine drinking public by dispensing knowledge, advice, and that level of smoothness that distinguishes the really great restaurant staff from the merely good.

So all you young folks out there that are looking for careers, you might think about this one. Good sommeliers can make $60,000 - $80,000 a year, and if this shortage continues, those salaries will continue to rise for qualified individuals.

So what is qualified? Well there are a lot of standards out there, but judging by the quality of applicants highlighted in the article, the bar may be a lot lower than you (or I) might think. Of course, every restaurant has different standards, but lots of people have the title Sommelier on their business card, without having any formal training.

The education options for those interested in a professional career in wine continue to expand beyond the (in)famous Institute of Masters of Wine or the Court of Master Sommeliers. Most culinary schools offer professional wine education programs, as do some public universities.

So if you're stuck in a dead-end job and all you do is sit around and read Vinography all day long, I want you to stop. I want you to go out there and heed the call. Become a sommelier, and make the world better for wine lovers everywhere.

Read the full article.

Comments (8)

Marty wrote:
11.24.06 at 5:37 PM

I'm about to graduate with a Bachelor's in English, and would love to stay in the wine service industry (where I work now), but move somewhere outside of Indiana, where I'm from, and would love to beverage manage a restaurant or sommelier, because helping people find great wine is loads of fun, and quite rewarding. Eric's article gets me pumped for the job market (but I still have a lot to learn). So anyone needing a young sommelier-in-training? Look no further!

carlos Serafim wrote:
11.26.06 at 5:23 PM

The problem isn't that there aren't enough people who don't know enough about wine. There are plenty. The real problem are the people out there in the business who shouldn't be giving wine advice, since they not only know very little. Actually what they know is usually wrong. Better to have a waiter say they don't know the answer and maybe go get someone who does, than to try to flub their way through an incorrect and insincere answer. These people are in effect passing on their "knowledge" to others.
Another problem, are managers who won't hire people with wine knowledge because that will somehow diminish their importance. There are many weak-kneed mgrs out there. Luckily, those are the restaurants that usually won't succeed, but a few of them still make it.
A good wine person will usually give you an assurance that if the wine isn't to your satisfaction they will take it back. If you can't get that assurance then you are on your own.

Lindsay wrote:
11.27.06 at 10:31 AM

Alder,

How do you handle a situation like that? I have no problem being in a small family restaurant where no one knows anything about the wines they sell, but what about the high-end places? My first visit to Morton's in Chicago, they had mis-listed a wine with the wrong vineyard (the listed version is 30% more expensive than the version they had) and insisted they brought what was on the list. I've been to the winery, so I'm sure I was right. I ended up ordering something else. But it was pretty unpleasant.

Alder wrote:
11.27.06 at 2:44 PM

Lindsay,

It depends on the kind of restaurant. If it's a restaurant that aspires to be "something" where the prices are higher and the wine list is something other than the 24 or so bottles that their distributor recommended, I'd say something, and if it wasn't resolved in a way that made me feel good, I'd leave. But if it's just an ordinary restaurant my expectations are so low that I can just laugh this off.

The restaurant in question was in a grey area. I opted to not bother with saying anything, as I was dining with someone who I didn't know well.

Randy Sloan wrote:
11.27.06 at 9:06 PM

I just can't imagine that basic training for restaurant staff in their own wine list wouldn't pay off handsomely for the owners. But it seems like knowledgable sales staff is a rarity in many fields. I recently had to buy some computer equipment. I knew very little about the product I needed but knew about 1000% more than everyone else at the superstore.

Hayden wrote:
12.05.06 at 4:18 PM

Alder,
What is the course to go from a connoisseur with a good foundation to an accredited sommelier? About how long does it take to run the gauntlet?
Keep up the good blogging!

Alder wrote:
12.05.06 at 8:58 PM

Hayden,

I'm not a Sommelier, nor have I taken any of the courses or certifications you're asking about, but here's what I understand.

First, anyone can put Sommelier on their business card if they want. It's just a title like Vice President of Hoo Hah. It's not like "Doctor" or MBA" where you have to actually have the degree to get the title.

Of course, there are a lot of certifications out there that help lend credibility to that title, some of which actually have their own fancy abbreviations that you can use.

-- basic wine professional certifications are offered by many culinary schools and other foundations like the WSET (Wine and Spirits Educational Trust) that offer courses as short as 1-2 days or as long as a couple of months.

-- advanced wine professional certifications are offered by some of these organizations as well that are typically a series of several month long courses.

-- The Court of Master Sommeliers offers a multi-year set of courses that yield the title Master Sommelier (MS) at the end if the exam is passed.

-- The Institute of the Masters of Wine offers a multi-year set of courses that yield the title of Master of Wine (MW) at the end if the exam is passed


So depending on your interest level you can dip your toe in a few weekends or dive in to several years of advanced training.

Have fun!

jade wrote:
12.06.06 at 9:32 PM

Hayden, the Court of Master Sommeliers and the Institute of the Masters of Wine are the only organizations that I have encountered that are nationally recognized throughout the industry. As far as how long it can take — to earn the Master Sommelier title could take years. It is the equivalent of a PhD in wine. Put it this way, if you cannot name every gran cru of Burgundy while equally non-stop pouring a magnum of Champagne amongst 20 people, ladies first, that are moving around, keep studying.

Let me also say that I'm not a Master Sommelier. I have passed the first of four levels of the MS program. Bona-fide Master Sommeliers are in very short supply right now, and can pretty much name their price. Good luck!

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