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   Share this article     Summary of Editorial column Wine Tasting 
  Editorial Issue 221, October 2022   
We Are All SommeliersWe Are All Sommeliers  Contents 
Issue 220, September 2022 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 222, November 2022

We Are All Sommeliers


 There was a time when finding someone having a sommelier qualification or title was quite rare. Today, on the contrary, finding someone who is not a sommelier is a very difficult event. No matter the reason, whoever you ask, wherever you go or regardless of who you hang out with, it is very likely to find at least one person who has a sommelier title. Moreover, today there are several dozen associations, schools and courses which can issue, in various ways and cases, the prestigious qualification of sommelier. In this regard, there are solutions for all tastes, possibilities and ambitions, you can become a sommelier even in a very short time, including achieving qualifications of increasing levels which can promise the knowledge of the most hidden and untold secrets about wine and more. It is not difficult, in fact, during a conversation about wine, at the apex of the discussion, to be told that your interlocutor holds the title of first, second, third, fourth or supreme level of absolute sommelier, sometimes also having a black belt in wine.


 

 A clarification that, in the intentions of the interlocutor, should silence any controversy because of the fact he – or she – knows everything for the fact of being a certified sommelier, therefore having a supreme and enlightened acquaintance of any topic related to wine. Moreover, even friends or relatives of sommeliers or presumed sommeliers boast the privilege of such influential relationships, convinced of possessing – who knows for what transitive property – the enological omniscience. In the midst of a conversation, they cut off the discussion and say “I have a friend who is a sommelier”, pronounced with pompous air and emphasis, trusting to stifle any and possible reply, as if to say “you don't know who I am”. Sommeliers are everywhere and we are all sommeliers in some way. Not to mention, because of the common habit of ridicule that many like, convinced that, as soon as they come to the knowledge of the fact “one plus one equals two”, they believe themselves to be math geniuses.

 The sad and disappointing thing is that, often, indeed, very often, these qualified figures, holders of various certificates, hardly know what a sommelier is, what are the skills and the knowledge a sommelier should possess, at least for a minimum. They introduce themselves as experts in the sommellerie – without even knowing exactly what it is – and they usually turn out to be even unable to correctly uncork a bottle of sparkling wine, not to mention a table wine, with desolating skills about sensorial tasting, in the best case of notional type because someone told them that “it is so”. If you then ask them why, for example, certain wines are served in a specific way, at a certain temperature, they have no idea of the reasons, neither technical nor practical. They have hardly tasted a few dozen wines, but for them, evidently, they represent all the wines of the world, a sum of past, present and future wine knowledge. After all, they are sommeliers, since someone made them believe it somehow.

 I need to make a necessary clarification: in every country in the world where there is an enological cultural tradition – and in particular in France and Italy, where the sommellerie undeniably has a solid and significant history – there are competent and serious associations capable of proficiently train a sommelier. It is also however true there is a high number of schools, courses and associations that use the term sommelier with embarrassing ease. They even boast of being “wine ambassadors”, when they obviously know very little about wine. This is undeniably the result of our times, in which we must give the illusion to anyone that achieving a result – whatever it is – it just takes a little effort, the little that must be within everyone's reach. Everything must be easy and fun, everything politically correct, everyone must be able to arrogate the right to be an expert simply because they exist or have the right to express their opinions. Unfortunately, this reflects what happens in our society in general: everything must be easy, everything must be achieved without the least effort, merit or commitment. Undeniably, it is also the result of the growing culture of the “smart” and superficiality which prevail over honesty and real merit.

 Sommelier is a French word of unequivocal Latin origin. The authoritative Académie Française defines sommelier as «one who in a community, in a house, takes care of linen, dishes, bread, wine and spirits», adding then, in a “modern meaning”, that «sommelier is said above all to the one who, in a restaurant, takes care of the cellar». The modern meaning of the term sommelier, in fact, is very far from its original meaning. According to the Larousse dictionary «in the Middle Ages [the sommelier was] the officer in charge of transporting, on pack animals or horses, the luggage of a prince or a gentleman» and «officer in charge of setting the table and preparing the wines». The Le Robert dictionary, as regards the origin of the term, reports that sommelier «derives from summularius, in turn derived from summula diminutive of summa». Sommelier therefore derives from old French and, more precisely, from Provençal saumalier, that is “conductor of pack animals”, in turn derived from “sauma”. This latter term is of Latin derivation, precisely sagma, that is, “pack”. Originally, therefore, the sommelier was the “conductor of pack animals”.

 The sommelier acquires its modern meaning – that is of cellar and wine manager – at the beginning of the 1800s, however it should be noted that a similar figure was already well known and common, especially in Italy, with the term cupbearer, a figure widely known in ancient times and who had the task of pouring wine into the cups of rich banqueters. The cupbearer is then followed by the bottigliere (Italian for “bottle manager”), who also had the task of managing the cellar and its supply, at the service of rich nobles. However, it is the term sommelier to become common all over Europe, and today this is how the professional figure in charge of the service of wine and spirits is defined, as well as the management of the cellar and the bottles stored inside. In short, the sommelier is also a manager and administrator of the cellar, especially in a restaurant. He or she also has skills in sensorial tasting of wine, its service and pairing with food, as well as having solid knowledge of ampelography and enography. To clarify further, a wine taster, with real or presumed skills in this non-trivial discipline, is not a sommelier.

 I often read about courses, associations and schools for sommeliers, where – after having closely look at their educational programs – they hardly deal with providing the basic rudiments of sensorial tasting. Lessons dedicated to the service of wine and to the management of the cellar, totally absent. In many cases, these are “courses” of a few lessons, each dedicated to a specific style of wine and its “tasting”, at the end of which the participants can triumphantly define themselves as sommelier to anyone. This would suggest, not least, the real sommelier is only the one who works in a restaurant with this qualification. My personal experience, unfortunately, makes me think this is not always the case. I can certainly tell there are restaurants – very few, in truth – in which work trained, competent and capable sommeliers, however in most cases, it is depressing to see how embarrassing their preparation is, including wine service. If we then look at the wine lists of many restaurants – whose composition and compilation is up to the sommelier – it is embarrassing to see their incompleteness and inaccuracy. Nevertheless, they put their sommellerie membership badge pinned on their jackets on display, not least, the presence of the sommelier is even announced at the entrance of the restaurant.

 As it commonly happens, the fact of having obtained a diploma or certificate does not give the actual capability or competence in a particular discipline or subject. Both are achieved much later in time – by choice, determination and will – through study, practice, perseverance, talent, attitude, tenacity and having proficiently used both time and resources. Having tasted a few glasses of wine in the confusion of the tables of a class or school, having clumsily uncorked – on the same occasion – a few bottles of wine, having basic notions on the subjects necessary for the knowledge of wine and spirits, are not enough to make a sommelier. Not to mention the “sommeliers” who obtain a certificate at the end of a course of a few lessons, all focused on the brief introduction to sensorial tasting. Because it must be said that today, very often, for sommelier it is usually intended someone who, after having put his or her nose in a glass of wine, tells, more or less, something that can impress the ignorance of the listener. The sommelier, however, is something else. And, please, learn how to correctly uncork bottles and serve wine. If this is not the case, introduce yourself as a “wine lover who perhaps knows something about sensorial tasting”. Being a sommelier and sommellerie are truly something else.

Antonello Biancalana



   Share this article     Summary of Editorial column Wine Tasting 
  Editorial Issue 221, October 2022   
We Are All SommeliersWe Are All Sommeliers  Contents 
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