What does is a Sommelier and where can you find a great professional to hire?
I see many posts from people looking to hire a Sommelier. It seems like a simple enough request, right? Well…. It’s not quite as easy as you would expect. It’s important to think through how you want your evening to go and what you want your guests to experience. You may be hosting a formal fundraiser or just a fun night out with friends. Decide how you want your event to run, then talk with a few professionals to make sure there is a personality match. You want to be sure there is no language barrier or attitude that you cannot work with. Whomever you bring in, you want to be sure they can create the type of event you want for your guests.
What do you mean when you say, “I want to hire a Sommelier for an event”?
A Sommelier or “Somm” is a wine steward. Anyone working serving wine can call themselves a Sommelier. If you work in a restaurant and deal with their wine, you can call yourself a Sommelier and you may or may not have a formalized education. There are many TOP Sommeliers in the world who learned on the job and have no formal education.
There are many certifications and wine education classes offered and when someone offers to send you their resume, they assume you know what to look for. So let’s see if I can help.
There are many wine programs in the world, but there are some that carry the most international weight and are well known. The Court of Master Sommeliers, the Institute of the Masters of Wine, the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, are a few of the most popular. Each of these programs offer coursework that students or employers pay for, they take an exam, and upon passing, they earn a certification; some programs are more highly esteemed than others or require a mentor in the industry or an extensive research paper. (See below for an overview of the most well-known certifications and what they mean).
The guide below will help you determine the type of event you are planning and the type of professional you will need.
A. You are hosting a wine dinner, with food pairings and impeccable service; a professional and polished evening where you entertain and the expert you hire pours and serves. They speak knowledgeably on the wine and may assist in pairing the wine and food, but the entertaining and flow is left up to you and your guests.
If this is your event, hire a Master Sommelier or someone who has extensive experience working in a fine dining restaurant with an extensive wine list. If 1st class service is key for you, the restaurant experience is a must. The premier qualification would be a Master Sommelier. There are only 250 in the world and most are wine directors for top restaurants. You may also find some Masters of Wine who work in a restaurant. There are only 409 in the world. Both of these will be the most expensive to hire for an evening and hard to find. If you find someone who is WSET Advanced or Diploma certified, they also would be great, but the focus would be on the knowledge, not the impeccable service. If you find someone who is a “Certified Sommelier” they can have anywhere from limited wine knowledge from studying at home and taking an exam, however if they have extensive experience in a restaurant, they may be able to provide this service as well, at a much lesser expense than a MS or MW.
B. You are hosting a fun event centered around wine, but it is most important that your guests have a fun experience. You want someone who knows a great deal about wine but also how to throw a fun party.
The best folks for these types of events are professionals who entertain often; people who actively run events will likely be good at engaging others. Servers at fine dining restaurants are skilled at serving clients, but not necessarily at running events. Event planners or entertainers who can hold the attention of a group, are comfortable presenting and who carry a wine certification can be a great choice. Charismatic wine shop owners or employees may also have the personality type you enjoy; just be sure they know their wine.
The best Sommeliers will have a deep wine knowledge, but also know how to present in a group, how to read the room, how to keep the fun going while helping everyone to feel connected and engaged. We do contests and prizes at AWG to be sure we involve everyone. We use my VINO!™ card game to actively interact and engage with the information, at every level, playing individually and in teams. People LOVE prizes!!!!
There are definitely Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine who have experience running and directing large events and have traveled extensively. They can be excellent as well, but be sure you interview them for the personality match and price. In general, you want someone who is a wine expert, and who has stories and tales with wine from all over the world.
C. You want a party with a bartender or pourer who knows wine. Hire a bartender or Wine Consultant. You don’t need to pay Sommelier prices to have someone knowledgeable pour. If you hire someone to bring their own wine, they may not have much wine knowledge, but they should definitely know there own wines and should be able to tell you about them.
Another note on Master Sommeliers: they are taught about wine and service. That means they likely know almost every fact about wine. They should be able to smell or taste a wine and tell specifically where that wine is from. They may know how to serve the President of the US or any other important VIP clients; however, they are not necessarily taught how to teach, how to read a room or how to educate.
If you were to host a 40th birthday party, you likely would want to hire a DJ who will play great music and take requests. You may want them to have the flexibility to go an extra hour if your guests want to keep dancing. For a bar-mitzvah, you may want someone to engage all of the kids, make your child feel like the most important person in the room, and make sure things move along and everyone has fun. Hiring a wine professional is very similar. Find a personality and background that suits your needs.
Questions to ask a wine professional:
- How do you run a wine tasting?
- Where do you get the wine from? (some people are sponsored by a specific company or only bring their own wine, others may work with a wine shop)
- What is your experience with running a party?
- Give an example of a really fun event you have run that may have been similar to the one I am running.
- Do you do games / prizes?
- How much do you charge?
Where do you find these Sommeliers or wine professionals?
- You can research Master Sommeliers in your area. There are only a couple in Boston and one in Maine. You should be able to find them listed online.
- Research whether there is a local Sommeliers Society. You can share job openings with them, including event hosting.
- Reach out to your favorite fine dining establishment to see if their Wine Director or Sommelier hosts private tastings.
- Post on local facebook and other social media sites.
- Visit local wineries, and if you like their wine, the owners or consultants may be interested.
- Visit local wine shops to see if they host events and parties.
- During covid, reach out to your favorite wineries to see if they are hosting virtual events.
- Reach out to me at Alison@ArtisanWineTasting.com to check availability or ask any questions.
Summary of Sommelier Certifications to look for:
There are so many different certifications to be a Sommelier. How do you know what to look for? See (https://www.winespectator.com/articles/sommelier-roundtable-do-you-need-a-degree-certification-to-be-a-sommelier) to read further about certifications.
- Master Sommelier (internationally recognized): (Service oriented) This is the top certification in the world and is offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers. Rigorous study is necessary, and you must work under a Master Sommelier. Knowledge around service and wine is emphasized, practical application of wine, and takes years and years of study and work. There are only 250 in the world.
- Master of Wine (IMW – internationally recognized): The Masters of Wine certification is also an extensive wine certification. They need to have over 3 years of study and it is a knowledge-based certification. There are only 409 in the world.
- Wine and Spirits Education Trust (internationally recognized): Level III is an Advanced certification and recognized internationally as high-level knowledge base in wine. The 3rd takes minimum 84 hours of study and includes a written, multiple choice and a deductive tasting exam. It’s extensive and thorough. The 4th, Diploma, takes an additional 1.5 to 3 years of study and an extensive research project.
- Certified Sommelier: offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers, (simplified compared with WSET and other certifications). Level 1 takes one weekend and level 2 can follow right after. You take a deductive tasting exam, and you are certified.
- Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW, known more in US), is a study at home program with a multiple choice exam.
Examples of good vs bad wine tasting experiences:
I brought my local wine tasting group one year to a restaurant north of Boston. The restaurant was reputed for their extensive wine selection; their Sommelier was from France and their wine program was touted to be robust. I spoke with the Sommelier and the restaurant manager and was comfortable with what we were to achieve that night. When we gathered for this affair, the wine we had chosen together was fantastic and each wine was orchestrated to be poured with a matching dish. Wonderful, right? Well… no-one could hear the Sommelier, he poured delightfully, but when talking about the wine or his wine experience, people couldn’t understand his French accent, he didn’t circulate and he did not read the room. I tried to mediate, but he would only answer directly to me and he lost the rest of the guests. Needless to say, we never returned.
The following year, I booked a local restaurant. The Wine Director there was not a certified Sommelier, but he had an extensive knowledge of his wines and stories… so many stories. His personality was engaging and funny and entertaining and he brought everyone into his stories. Many of the spouses in the wine group went out often for business and were not easily surprised with new experiences in restaurants, but they absolutely loved the entire experience. Overall, the wines were okay, but the Wine Director’s personality made the night.
It wasn’t until I was talking with a winery owner out in Walla Walla, WA that I finally understood the challenge. He said very clearly, “I would much rather have you over to a dinner party with your personality and stories of wine travel than half of the Sommeliers that I know.” And it dawned on me, it is much more important to have a good personality match along with wine knowledge to run your party, than to have someone who has a tremendous amount of knowledge who is unable to engage your guests. There are so many tremendous people in the wine industry, just be sure you do your due diligence before hiring one.