So, you’re studying to become a sommelier?
Uh, no. Not exactly.
Since I started formal wine studies five years ago I’ve answered this question approximately seven gajillion times. At first it made me nuts, but I’ve gotten used to it. I know as well as most folks in the wine industry that the majority of people just don’t know that much about wine and the various roles that exist in the wine trade. The question, really, is an innocent one. And, with any open-minded inquiry there comes a chance to teach, to explain. Just last week I was asked again how I liked being a sommelier. Maybe I do need to explain myself.
So what am I doing with all these wine classes and examinations that I insist are so rigorous?
Well, when you change careers at 50 years of age, you need some credibility, something that tells your new colleagues that you actually know something, that you’ve earned your spot. When a prospective employer asks about your strengths, saying “I like to drink” isn’t going to carry the day. You have to have something more to offer. When I made the jump years ago from journalism and public relations to teaching high school English, I had a master’s degree in English, and many years of guiding other writers, editing articles, and overseeing complex productions. And if high school is anything, it’s a complex production. With wine, I needed at least a “degree,” if not some experience to offer.
Soon after I started taking classes through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), which is based in London, England (www.wsetglobal.com), I landed a job in a fine wine shop. Then it was off to the tasting room at a well-regarded winery in Napa. I started contributing articles to a number of newspapers, magazines, and online wine tourism sites. At the same time I was helping to host wine tastings, advising small collectors on their cellars, and answering a steady stream of questions from friends and relatives who had found themselves in a wine pickle at some restaurant or store. All of a sudden, after a few years, I realized I was building the credibility I thought I needed the wine classes to give me. So, I considered putting the books aside and diving whole-heartedly into the work. But I’m so close to the WSET Diploma that I realize I have to keep going, I have to see it through. Besides, to give up on something so challenging so close to completion is not the example I want to set for my children, even if they are young adults. So the work of learning continues.
But I’m still not studying to be a sommelier. Most folks have this image of sommeliers as snobby, self-serious intimidators who guard the wine vault at fancy restaurants, ready to beat back the rabble at every turn, who don’t miss a chance to turn up their nose or roll their eyes at any diner they consider their inferior. Which is to say everyone in the restaurant. Even though that character, for the most part, is disappearing from the American wine landscape, that’s the image many people still have. Friendly or fussy, the hard work of a sommelier, and running a busy restaurant’s wine program is absolutely hard work, holds little attraction for me. Giving up freelancing from home so I can work nights for someone else? I don’t think so.
Now, there are those in the wine world who see programs like the WSET as a waste of time, who deride the “alphabet soup” that clutters the business cards of people who have gone through this or any number of other, often less well known, programs. (If you want to learn more about these programs and their certifications, here’s a good place to start: http://winefolly.com/review/guide-to-wine-education-courses/) These are folks who think that the only wine education that matters comes from experience. To be honest, they have a point. One can learn an awful lot from books and classwork, but in the end those efforts can only reward you so much. If you really want to learn wine, you have to stick your nose in a glass. You have to taste. And taste. And taste. Then you need to read, you need to ask questions of the more experienced, and, if possible, you need to travel to as many places, near and far, that produce wine. There is no substitute for legwork, or “stem work,” when it comes to learning about wine.
So, no, I’m not a sommelier. I don’t import wine, nor do I sell wine. I certainly don’t make wine. After years in journalism, public relations, and teaching, I know that I’m at my best when I’m writing or talking about something. My list of skills thins out pretty quickly after that. These days, I’m committed to writing and talking about wine, and in doing so I hope to help others learn more, drink more, and enjoy wine as much as I do. (Yeah, like that’s possible.)
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go open up some learning. I suggest you do the same.