So You Want to Be a Sommelier?

sommelier 3There are job skills and then there are, well, Andrew Jefford calls them gladiator skills. In describing the demands of the recently held Best Sommelier of the World competition, organized by the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI), he writes:

… I need to stress how traumatically challenging this competition is. You must learn the entire drink lexicon (this year’s contenders had to blind-taste five non-alcoholic drinks, then suggest vegan dishes to pair them with). They also had to proof-read error-strewn wine lists, name the northernmost commercial vineyard in the world, and suggest how to make an Aviation and a Sazerac cocktail when one of the key ingredients for each had gone missing.

The blind tastings are cruel (including, at an earlier stage of the competition, an identical wine with three different wood finishes in three glasses to ‘identify’); you’ll have to pour glasses of Champagne from a magnum one-handed without trembling, dripping, or sending the wine foaming over the top and all over the tablecloth. The celebrity dinner guests seated on stage in the mock restaurant used for the competition final are there to be demanding (they included, in 2023, the UK’s Robert Joseph, a wine journalist known for turning devil’s advocacy into an art form).

Is that it? Sure isn’t. The final blow is that you aren’t allowed to compete in your native language. If you grew up in Harrogate, get ready to compete in French or Spanish.

The skills required to succeed in this competition are only distantly related to anything a sommelier would routinely have to do. The point is to create a spectacle—hence the term “gladiator” which seems appropriate. Especially in light of the fact that the most important skill a sommelier needs is not tested. That would be the ability to discern from very little evidence what the real needs of a customer are.

The ability to size up people and give them what they want marks the difference between a successful somm and one who is just going through the motions, regardless of how many tricks they can perform.


  1. This is so bizarre as to be comical. The role of a sommelier is a service position, and the primary function of any service position is to make the customer happy and comfortable. And yet these ridiculous programs continue to train their ever more trivial focus on obscure detail, and ever less emphasis on the well-being of the customer. Why is there segment of the competition that tests the abiliity of the server to successfully human warmth, empathy, and a dedication to the happiness of others? What a complete perversion of the service industry.

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