1. Being a sommelier has to do with way more than memorizing facts about wine. First and foremost, you have to be a great server. You can’t just study wines and be a sommelier. You have to be comfortable on the restaurant floor. Start at the bottom and don’t be embarrassed about that. I’ve been a busboy, a lounge server, and more. That’s how you learn how to manage time, how you learn to read guests, and how you learn the flow and dynamic of a restaurant. A good sommelier understands every aspect of service.
2. You have to get really good at reading people. You learn to listen for cues: Does the customer want advice, or permission? If a guy is on a first date and he wants to impress his date, he’s asking for your advice but he’s not really asking for your advice. Your job is to make him feel great about being in your restaurant. You have to pay attention to the nuances. All that happens with practice, time, and experience.
3. You can’t be judgmental. There’s a snobbery associated with wine and I’ve always rejected that. Everyone’s tastes are not your tastes. No one’s preferences are the same and everyone’s preferences are correct. Your job is to listen to the table’s preferences, ask the right questions, and get to the bottom of what they’re looking for.
4. You need to know about food, not just wine. A sommelier’s job is to select wine that goes with the food, so you should know flavour profiles and have a sense of how a kitchen works. I went to culinary school and cooked in the kitchen at Daniel in New York City — that taught me a lot about cuisine. It’s essential to be able to have a conversation about food with the chefs, and getting trained in the cooking process helps with that.
5. Your palate is like a muscle; it takes time to develop. The more you taste, the sharper your palate gets. Everyone is different, of course, but it can and will take years to get to the point where you’re able to regularly identify grapes, vintages, and regions in a blind tasting, and have a thorough understanding of wines at various price points throughout the world.
6. Your palate is only as good as the effort you put in. You have to practice. How do you do that? There are tastings around the industry; go to as many as you can. I often set up one-on-one tastings with [other sommeliers.] Take advantage of every opportunity to speak with winemakers at every point in your career. For the first five years, I took notes on every wine that I tasted, making observations about structure, aroma, and flavor. The things that I always look for are fruit, earth, wood, flowers, herbs, and spices. Structure is really paramount, and that’s tannin, acid, alcohol, body, and length. That has nothing to do with flavor, but the makeup of a wine. That’s critical for pairing or when you’re recommending a bottle.
7. Work as many places as you can. Get experience working in different restaurants that have varied wine lists so you’re
working with different wines at different price points and building different relationships within the winemaking, sommelier, restaurant communities. I worked in a place that served a lot of Italian wines, then a place that had French wines from more classic regions, and then a place that had a lot of German, Austrian, and Alsatian wines. Where I work now, I deal with regions that are off the beaten path.
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8. It’s important to understand the whole process of winemaking. You have to taste grapes at all stages: unripe grapes, rotten grapes, imperfect grapes. This teaches you what kind of grapes go into making good wine. I’ve worked wine harvests in different places since 2006. I wanted to know what goes into the kinds of wines that I was being exposed to, because this gave me an even deeper understanding of the wine.
9. You’re not going to be drinking all that much. It’s about tasting, not drinking. When you taste, you spit out the wine. You’re looking for aroma and structure but you’re not actually consuming the wine most of the time. I drink less and less now because I’m tasting for quality. Drinking wine is absolutely not mandatory in order to do this job, which means I’ve been able to work even while pregnant.
10. Sommelier work is not glamorous. It involves a lot of unpacking boxes, filling out spreadsheets, maintaining spreadsheets, doing costing scenarios, and doing pairing grids. You work nights and weekends, and you have to work holidays too. Service is the fun part; that’s 40 percent of the job.
11. But, there are a lot of perks to working in the restaurant industry. You get the yummiest leftovers ever; you’re surrounded by people who love what they do; the people you talk to actually want to talk to you; you never have to wait for a reservation; and you get to travel to some of the most magical places in the world for work.
12. It’s going to become your life. Even when you’re not working, you’re working, but in a way that you love. A lot of our vacations are to wine regions. My very first vacation after I started working at Daniel was to go work harvest at a vineyard, and now it’s a thing that I do every year.
Every time I go out to dinner, for better or worse, you’re paying attention and you’re critiquing your experience. You are highly attuned to every service experience, which is educational. My vegetable drawers contain bottles of wine. There’s not enough wine storage.
13. You have to maintain friendships and relationships that are outside the restaurant industry. Having friends in the industry is wonderful, but my girlfriends outside the industry provide great perspective. Because the hours can be so long, it’s easy to let your job take over, but you need to nurture your soul with friends who have nothing to do with the industry. It’s important to see other people around you model balance.
14. You will never know everything, especially about wine. The way to demystify or destigmatize wine is to have a very pure sense of curiosity about new regions, new grapes, and new producers, but also when you’re speaking with tables. Work for the best people, learn from them, and have a sense of humility.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com