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How hiring a Master Sommelier can help your business

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16/12/2020 With their palate, salesmanship and proven work ethic, master sommeliers have a lot to offer any wine-focused business.

These are strange and difficult times for sommeliers. The impact of Covid-19 has made their work environment a lot more challenging, with restaurants across the world looking to cut costs and - in many cases - deciding that sommeliers are amongst the most expendable elements of their offering. There’s no guarantee that when recovery begins in earnest, hopefully early in 2021, that they’ll be rushing to rehire sommeliers, either.

If that wasn’t enough, the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas has been embroiled in a scandal around allegations of sexual harassment within the organization. An investigation is ongoing, but it’s pretty clear that the CMS-A is set for some fairly seismic changes, changes that look likely to make the organization more inclusive and reflective of modern society.

Given that, it’s very possible that a bad situation will have a good ending - and the lustre of Master Sommelier might be restored. That would be a good thing because as qualifications go, it’s a strong one. In an era when customers have never been more interested in wine, master sommeliers add heft to any restaurant, bar or bottle shop’s wine chops. They really know their stuff.

And that’s increasingly well understood around the world. There are now Master Sommeliers around the globe, from Europe to the USA, China, Australasia, and beyond. When the pandemic finally grinds to a halt in 2021, a lot of operators are going to be wondering if they should invest in a master sommelier. Is it worth it? Here’s all you need to know about Master Sommeliers. 

What is a Master Sommelier?

The Court of Master Sommeliers was established in the UK by 1977, with the first examinations having taken place in London in 1969. The intention was to drive quality in beverage service; since then, 269 sommeliers have achieved Master status, which requires the candidate to have passed four certifications, each of which is significantly harder than the previous.

Are there any other equivalent qualifications?

Not quite, although the ‘Master Of Wine’ qualification (run by the Institute of Masters of Wine in the UK) is as well-respected, even if it tests slightly different skills. It’s generally accepted that ‘Master of Wine’ is more appropriate for those aiming to work in the wine trade or as a wine journalist. There are 409 Masters of Wine around the world, with the qualification having come into being in 1953.

How do you become a Master Sommelier?

The first course, the Introductory Sommelier Course, provides an important grounding in theory, service and tasting; next is the Certified Sommelier Examination, introduced in 2006, which requires a candidate to demonstrate, as the Court puts it, “proficiency in deductive tasting, wine & beverage theory, and both technical as well as salesmanship skills in table-side service.”

Then come the two big qualifications - Advanced Sommelier and Master Sommelier. Both require a huge amount of knowledge and experience, plus, it must be said, a decent financial outlay. A place on an advanced sommelier course in Irving, Texas next year costs $1499, for example. Theory, tasting and service are all part of the qualification; successful candidates will display skill, knowledge, charm and salespersonship in equal quantity.

How hard is it to pass?

For this, it might be best to hear from someone who has passed - such as Brahm Callahan (in the picture above) who spoke to Sommelier Choice Awards about becoming a Master Sommelier two years ago. He’s the beverage director for the Himmel Hospitality Group in Boston.

“I started working with wine, I guess it's 16 years ago, something like that, 17 years ago,” he says. “I put myself through under-grad and grad school selling wine. Since finishing grad school I was selling wine so before I went on to my doctorate I decided to take wine more seriously and pursue it more professionally. [At that stage] I didn't really have any aspirations of becoming a Master Sommelier until later.

“And because it looked like such a hard thing and this industry, it's pretty charitable. It's a wonderful process because you can make a lot of friends, but it's an absolute grind. It's probably the worst thing you can do to your life. Socially, all your personal time is just consumed, you know, tasting and meeting, and it makes wine almost not fun, right?

“It's just really a hard thing to think about until you get into it and then you love it but then it's this thing that's just killing you. And then you pass and it's awesome and it's amazing and totally worthwhile, but for me it was three years, so three attempts to pass and I was studying 40-60 hours a week trying to pass. In addition to trying to work and have some semblance of life which didn't really exist but it's great that it's over.”

What are the benefits of hiring a Master Sommelier?

A Master Sommelier brings, of course, huge amounts of knowledge. She or he will add gravitas to the establishment where they work; they are supreme servers, polite and helpful. They can drive wine sales, making more confident customers comfortable with trading up while helping newcomers to navigate what can be a very intimidating experience. If you want customers to think you’re serious about wine, there’s no better way of doing it than hiring a Master Sommelier.

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