Why I became a Sommelier

Published in California Wine and Food, May 2004

Why I Became a Sommelier

By Mark Storer

It wasn’t easy. The whole transition into what I just became just wasn’t easy. But it was entirely necessary. I had to respond to this passion that drove me and I felt that there was no better way than to go to school, as it were—and get certified. In wine, that is.

*Most people have never even heard the word sommelier, let alone have the *ability to pronounce it. I may have first heard the word during our honeymoon on *an Alaskan cruise ship where our beverage steward, as she was called, was a *sommelier. She brought us Champagne and we sat and watched the midnight sun as we cruised through the Inside Passage.

*My interest in wine has grown over the last 10 years, and finally crossed paths with my freelance writing career.

*In between time, I got a teaching credential, a Master’s Degree and a post-graduate degree in teaching, all the while writing political and social features for *various newspapers and magazines. When I finally started doing food and wine reviews two years ago, I found my niche: wine, food and writing—and best of all, most people don’t write angry letters to the editor when you write about food and wine. My wife is a clinical dietitian whose own fascination for food puts mine to shame. We’ve made a vocation of sharing good food and wine. It’s as romantic and sensual as it sounds—and it continues to evolve, grow and become something more than what it was, sort of like wine itself.

*Then I met Adam Mahler, a Certified Sommelier himself, and in writing about him and the places he haunts, I decided that I too wanted to gain the certification and learn as much as I could about wine. For over a year, I bought books like Wine for Dummies, The Windows on the World Wine Course and The Oxford Companion to Wine. I read Wine Spectator and The Wine Enthusiast and I continued to taste, at least twice a week, and write about food and wine.

Finally, feeling that I was as ready as I could get, I contacted the Court of Master *Sommeliers, an international organization based in London. They have an *American chapter which offers the sommelier testing in the U.S..

*So, on April 27th, I kissed my wife and daughter goodbye and headed north to Paso Robles to spend the night with my father and get a jump-start on the drive to Monterey. I slept on his couch, or rather; I got horizontal on his couch, *because sleep wasn’t really possible with the three dogs and three cats, all fascinated by my presence. But hey, if it weren’t for bad sleep, I wouldn’t have gotten any at all.

*Waiting for the class to start, I sat gazing out a picture window on Monterey Bay. *As I finished my McDonald’s breakfast burrito, I became aware that such a heresy was being gawked at by the croissant and latte crowd. I was ashamed. But I ate it—and even enjoyed it.

Doug Frost was the main instructor for our session. Frost is both a Master Sommelier and a Master of Wine. There are only three such persons in the world and that makes him impressive. His pronunciation of words in Spanish, Italian, *French and German was flawless and he also did a fine impression of Mr. Burns *from The Simpson’s. I pride myself on a similar talent, so he impressed me further. He was down to earth and funny and at the same time he, along with Fred Dame, President of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Jay Fletcher, MS and a couple of others, put us through the most intense academic environment I’d seen since before grad school. Lecture, notes, memorization and learning the deductive tasting method over 21 wines were almost more than my little brain could handle.

We were introduced to a Pinotage wine from South Africa that for the entire world smelled like orange-pekoe tea. I was asked to give my impressions on the nose of a Burgundian Chardonnay that smelled like fresh ripe peaches and apricots. I was being tested on my ability to use the deductive tasting method. I smelled the fruit, but I missed the oak entirely and I crashed and burned—named the wine something it was not, and felt embarrassed. We tasted an Italian Nebbiolo and the first impression my mouth sent to my brain was that of mellow herbs and fruit.

*We learned about the steeply-pitched vineyards of Germany. They’re so steep *that in some cases the Eastern and Southern European harvesters–known for *their ability to navigate such slopes–fall down and don’t stop rolling until they hit the road at the bottom, dead.

We learned about the Napoleonic Code of France and how it drastically changed the way vineyard estates were inherited, allowing daughters to gain possession *of property previously obtained only by first-born sons.

We learned about South Africa and how its wines, while still in their infant stages *of popularity, are gaining market share and how the end of Apartheid signaled a change in the workers and the working conditions in the vineyards.

*We learned about Australia, whose capitalist approach to wine puts America’s to shame by simply being driven by consumer tastes and not a more ethereal approach to wine-making. The result is highly drinkable and fruit-driven wines that pair with foods so beautifully, it’s almost religious.

The deductive tasting method was fascinating and it involves looking at, sniffing and tasting the wine using different sensory abilities that, well…. that God gave you but that you may not know you have. This was the most interesting part of the entire two-day affair for me for a number of reasons. However, what I noticed *as I drove home, a newly minted sommelier, were the smells along the 101 that *frankly I never noticed before–the grasses, livestock, fruit and vegetable farms *and, even occasionally, the eucalyptus trees and other such stuff that my brain had not recalled. In two days, the course taught me to experience sensory delights, and not-so delights, that I never had before. That’s what wine does for me.

So, I let myself be driven by this passion and then I took it and formed it into something more tangible, something more formative and something that I can *share. That is, after all, the point. Wine is no good when you’re alone, at least not for long. It’s best shared in company and in friendship. The certificate I have says I passed the introductory level sommelier class—but when I read it, it says that I can share what I know about wine with people. And that’s why I became a sommelier.

14 thoughts on “Why I became a Sommelier

  1. Hi Mark,

    I enjoyed reading your experience very much. My question may have been answered by i ‘ll posed anyways for further insight.
    I’ve been trying to figure out which education route to take. There seems to be many schools for sommelier training out there and was wondering if The Court of Master Sommeliers was in your option the most reputable? There is the International sSommeliers school as well. Which one is best?

    Very curious,


  2. Hi Mark – I have the same question as Carmen. I am confused between the Court of Master Sommeliers and the international sommelier guild. The class structures are very different and length of time as well. In my brief web search, only Master Sommelier is noted; seems to be the industry standard. Your opinion is much appreciated.

  3. I beleive the ISG is currently the only Sommelier organization that is licensed by each state board of education where they
    teach and that is also why their requiremtns for a much lengthier class schedule and examinations is required.

  4. Hi Mark, I work part time in a local liquor store in New York. I have been in all aspects of sales and I am very good at sales and warm and friendly. I have an enormous love of learning more about wines. Not sure which courses i should rake. The American Sommelier Assoc in Manhattan is very costly. I would rather take courses that are in my own state or nearby New Jersey. Reading info they requirements are 3 to 5 years before possibly going for Master Sommelier. Is rhis accurate? and is it best to be at a liquor store or working at a high end restaurant /wine bar? I dabbled in cigars and attended a few Big Smoke offs in Manhattan that were fun. Is there good money in this new career as you go through your training?? And with the MS diploma the salary should reflect the estemmed title?? I’m so confused, please guide me????

  5. How long does it take to become a sommelier? And what type of salary for the position can one expect? Also, where can one attend a school in san Diego?

  6. I have the same question as #5 Deb, How long does it take to become a sommelier, and
    are there any schools in San Diego?

  7. Hi Mr.Mark. Just like everyone who left you responses, I am confused about how to become a sommelier, salaries of sommelier, just about every aspects of how to become one.

    three questions for you.
    1. what school is accredited and best in NY?
    2. How long does it take to become one?
    3. do you have a phone number that i can call to ask general questions about school and certificate?

  8. Hi Mark, your first paragraph made me feel a whole lot better. I can certainly relate.

    I know the ISG will not work for me and that I will have to attend the Court of Masters. Once I am certified, what kind of work can I expect to find? I do have some Food and Beverage experience. Thanks so much for your time.

  9. Hi Mark,
    I work at a high end steakhouse but will be moving to Floridia soon. I was wondering if you thought getting a certification would help me fi d a better job as a waiter and bartender. Also can I take the test there.

  10. Hi Mark… I asked a friend to come up
    with a new career path for me and he
    instantly responded “sommelier”. I had
    to look it up on google, and ever since
    then I am fascinated by the prospect.
    I love wine but I don’t know a lot “about”
    wines.Is it possible for the common “joe”
    to take on this challenge? I am a people
    person and that had to be in the job
    description !! Anxious to hear back from
    you… Thanks Donna

  11. I loved your article on Why I Became a Sommelier. I love wine and want to learn more about it and have it be more a part of my life. I have been searching for ways to do that and I figured that going to sommelier school would not only help me learn more, but would help me whatever area of wine that I chose to be in. I am a stay at home mom in California and currently need to do something from the home. I am reading Windows on the World and The Wine Bible to gain more knowledge. I am around wonderful friends who have marvelous wine collections and would love to be able to speak intelligently with them and maybe even help them in some way.

    What was the name of the sommelier school you attended? Do you recommend it even if I do not plan, at least not in the near future, to be an official sommelier at a restaurant?

    Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing back from you.


    Tara Brown

  12. Hi Mark!

    I enjoyed your story. I am a private chef and I have been searching for a school to learn a great deal more about wines and wine tasting. I know is not just about pairing and I wish to provide an unforgettable experience with food and wine. Where would you recommend I go for training and/or certification?

  13. Mark,

    Until you pass the certified exam level II through the court of master sommeliers you are not considered by the court nor should you consider or call yourself a sommelier. Pass the test then you can.

  14. I liked the story as I have been considering Sommelier schools and training too.

    There are a lot more training programs now then there were when this story was first published. There are even schools “authorized” by one certifying body or another. For example, the Court of The Master Sommeliers authorizing the new one at ICC in NYC (formerly French Culinary Institute).

    Not knowing which school or program really counts is another question and on top of the issue of real training or simply a piece of paper.


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