What the hell is a Somm?
(Industry people love shortening everything. Pinot, Cab, Zin etc.)
Webster defines a Sommelier as "a waiter in a restaurant who has charge of wine and their service: a wine steward".
To be a Sommelier, an individual (usually with a shit ton of previous restaurant experience) must pass a series of increasingly more difficult exams, four in total. The last two exams are "invite only"! Talk about SOMM exclusive shit! These exams test on everything from, but not limited to: the winemaking process, grape varieties, wine regions across the world, service practices and blind tasting.
Let's put it in perspective on how freaking hard these tests are. There are only 249 people world-wide who have earned top dog status of Master Sommelier. Most Masters did not pass on their first try and many have tested a dozen times. The passing rate for this highest rank is only 3%-8%. There is a fun documentary on Netflix called SOMM that follows four candidates as they prepare to take the Master Sommelier exam. Yes, picking up the smell/taste of garden hoses in wine is a real thing. Just watch it, you'll understand.
These exams are administered by The Court of Master Sommeliers, a organization that was set up under the supervision of The Vintner's Company, The Institute of Masters of Wine, The British Hotels and Restaurant Association, The Wine and Spirit Association of Great Britain and The Wholesale Tobacco Trade Association. Many of these organizations have an extremely rich history. For instance, The Vintners Company, with the first charter established in 1363, is one of the Twelve Livery companies of the city of London. The history nerd in me could go on and on, I'll spare you.
A Somm will be tested on soil compositions, different methods of fermentation, chemical structures of wine (well, alcohol in general), vineyard management, and the storage of wine. Plus, every little detail involved and a whole lot more than I mentioned.
A testing Somm should know a great deal of grape varieties, characteristics of them and what wine regions use them. To give a good idea, there are more than ten thousand grapes used to make wine. Granted, they aren't required to know them all, but these guys need to know a hell of a lot of them.
Most vine growing occurs between the 30* and 50* latitudes in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. There are a shit ton of counties with wine regions (and sub-regions) sprinkled across those latitudes. A wine steward should be familiar with these regions, what grapes are used in them and their specific laws. Wine laws are very specific to each country, region and sub-region. It's confusing shit!
This section is a performed exam, meaning physical work is involved. Proper service isn't exactly practical, but rather…. Uh, proper? Again, it gets a bit confusing. Ever wonder why they hand you the cork? Why did they only pour me a taste? Why did they serve that person first? Why the hell did he just circle my table four times to pour a whole round? It takes a Somm a good long time to figure this all out as well. Short version: The host (person who ordered the wine/one forking out the money for the bill) gets the initial taste. Upon approval of the wine by the host, moving clockwise, the woman to the right of the host get the first full glass. Sorry fellas, you're served last. The following woman in the rotation is served next. Yes, that means a Somm may have to make several rounds around the table to complete a proper service as you ALWAYS move clockwise. ALWAYS! Why? It's proper as fuck!!! Moving on to the men, the same process is repeated until everyone has a is full glass, with the host being topped off last. There is a lot more details involved, but you get the idea.
Holy hell! Just writing about this gives me a damn anxiety attack! Depending on the level of the exam (again, each exam gets increasingly more difficult) applicants will receive a series of red and white wines. With a limited amount of time, a
limited amount of "sniffs" and a very limited amount of samples, an applicant should be able to tell what grape the wine is made from and the region it comes from.
All of this may not seem like a lot but the reality of these subjects go much more in depth. The Master Sommelier Exam is regarded as one of the toughest tests in the world. Yes, they're basically boozy rocket scientists. It takes an insanely dedicated, studious wino with a particularly sensitive palette to succeed in the ever growing wine world.
Cheers to you my fellow wine lover.. At all wine loving levels!