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Wine is one of those subjects that often seem shrouded in exclusivity. Good bottles of wine can run into the hundreds of dollars. Wine lists in restaurants are sometimes very long and full of unfamiliar foreign words. And experts might refer knowingly to a wine's "tanens," "oaks" or "florals," leaving those of us unschooled in wine talk confused and intimidated. Sommeliers are ambassadors for wine and wine culture, making wine accessible to the uninitiated and showing off its finer points for aficionados.
They typically work in high-end restaurants, hotels, resorts, wine wholesalers or retailers -- establishments with interesting or extensive wine lists (sometimes thousands of bottles) that require professional management. Sommeliers not only oversee the purchasing, storage and sale of wine, they also guide customers who want to pair food and wine well: to find that perfect cabernet to match a boeuf bourgignon, for example. The sommelier may also be responsible for educating the rest of the staff about the wines in the restaurant's cellar.
Sommeliers have no formal educational requirements, but they need some way to learn the trade and show prospective employers that they have the depth of knowledge required for a job. Experience in the hospitality business is helpful, especially in hotels or restaurants specializing in wine. In addition, a number of organizations offer training programs. A few examples:
- The International Sommelier Guild teaches two courses in wine fundamentals, at the beginner and more advanced levels. It also offers a sommelier diploma program that includes classes that meet once a week for eight hours over a six-month span. Both the level two and the diploma programs include exams with essay questions. The classes take place around the world, from Beijing to Houston to Winnipeg to Redondo Beach.
- The Wine & Spirit Education Trust, based in London, is another international organization that offers classes, certificates and diplomas for wine professionals. Classes take place through program providers located around the globe.
- The Culinary Institute of America offers courses in professional wine studies and wine certification at its Greystone campus in Napa Valley, Calif.
- The grandly titled (and professionally well-regarded) Court of Master Sommeliers takes students through four levels of classwork and testing: an introductory course and exam, a certified sommelier exam, an advanced sommelier course and exam, and a master sommelier exam. Fewer than 200 people worldwide have achieved the distinction of master sommelier, according to the organization. It can take years to advance through all four levels, and the final exam is known for its exceptionally high failure rate.
These programs cover many subjects related to wine and wine culture, including grape varieties, blind tasting techniques and how wine is affected by climate and geography. Completing a certification or diploma program makes it more likely that a sommelier will land a job -- and one with a salary toward the high end of the spectrum.
According to CBSalary.com, the average salary for sommeliers nationwide is $37,691, with the 25th percentile at $31,432 and the 75th percentile at $47,452. And reports indicate that salaries can be much higher for the elite group of sommeliers with top qualifications who work in the most prestigious establishments.
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