A Modern-Day Sommelier
In the United States, the current role of sommelier has a very short history. Initially, the sommelier in the U.S. was simply the most skilled server who may also have had a passing interest in wine. Actually, most of the sommeliers who we look up to today as the pillars of the industry got their start that way. I know I did!
Until fairly recently, it was the sommelier’s role to manage what were very classic wine lists that included a good selection from a very few familiar regions. The list might feature wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, The Rhône Valley, Porto, California, and maybe a few from Germany and the Loire, but that’s about it. In addition to knowing something about these wines, the sommelier would do double duty by either taking a station in the dining room or playing the role of maître d’hôtel. In most cases, there simply wasn’t enough demand for a skilled wine professional to warrant the additional investment in staff for a small restaurant. There were a few exceptions, but this was the norm.
As more varieties of wine entered the marketplace from different regions of the world, the American people increased their interest and taste for it. The more they were educated about wine, the more they spent on it in restaurants. For the first time, restaurant owners realized they could dramatically increase wine sales with the addition of a floor sommelier.
These days sommeliers are expected to be well-versed on wine from every region of the world and be able to discuss multiple producers! This obviously requires a person who is fully committed to the wine program. The modern-day sommelier is not just responsible for his or her own knowledge, but that of the staff as well. At The Little Nell in Aspen, CO, where I am sommelier, we have a very regimented training program. Every Thursday we train on a different wine-producing region. I prepare a one-page write-up focused on wines to taste from a single region and then finish the training with an exam. Each member of the service staff must complete these wine exams and demonstrate a real understanding before they can even touch the service floor.
Beyond the academic understanding of wine, I believe that today’s sommelier must be more well traveled and more knowledgeable about the esoteric wine regions in the world. The modern-day sommelier must also play the role of accountant. With the amount of inventory usually held by good wine programs and the extremely important margins they represent, sommeliers must always have a complete grasp of cost of goods sold and inventory controls.
Members of the sommelier community are always thinking of interesting ways to engage and delight our guests. And beyond the study of wine, this is the part that is most exciting for me.
Master Sommelier Carlton McCoy is wine director at The Little Nell in Aspen, CO.