Role: The role of a sommelier is about more than just tasting wine, though that certainly is an element. Aside from helping restaurant patrons to select an appropriate wine to have with their meals, sommeliers work with management to help build wine lists that are consistent with the culinary style of the establishment, and are also responsible for the meticulous storage and care of wines.
More senior sommeliers also help restaurants, hotels, resorts and vineyards with financial management for their wine products, including pricing, purchasing and sales monitoring.
Junior sommeliers, however, rarely spend all their time on wines. Instead, their role is often paired with other restaurant responsibilities, ranging from waiting tables to general staffing and management.
Salary: At the entry level, sommeliers are often paid about $15 an hour, but also receive server wages and tips, for an overall annual salary of about $30,000 to $40,000.
A head sommelier working with a smaller organization often makes around $40,000 to $50,000, but is also provided some sort of bonus, often dependant on wine sales. Senior sommeliers working in larger establishments, however, typically make a base salary of between $50,000 and $70,000, with a sizable bonus of around $5,000 to $15,000, for an overall salary of about $80,000.
Education: Many sommeliers are able to work in the industry without certification, as long as they have had a significant amount of career experience, which is often the case for foreign sommeliers who move to Canada. Canadians, however, will require formal training in most cases.
"Like most employers in any profession, they're looking for accreditation of some sort to support them in their hiring decisions," said Michelle McCarthy, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers. "CAPS has a certification process, and that involves a six-module academic program, so we offer courses in conjunction with a number of community colleges in Ontario and other provinces."
The 240-hour program is typically held for one day a week for an entire year, providing students the opportunity to keep a full-time job and gain experience in the food and beverage industry while they study.
There is also a hands-on training element where students work with experienced professionals in the field for 60 hours, before taking a certification exam. In Quebec, the equivalent program runs for 400 hours, but government subsidies keep overall costs lower for individual students.
The Court of Master Sommeliers, the International Sommelier Guild and the Canadian Guild of Sommeliers offer similar training programs as well.
Job prospects: According to Ms. McCarthy, there is a lot of career mobility for sommeliers, but many begin their careers with other responsibilities.
"You may be a server and a sommelier, an assistant manager and a sommelier, a manager of a wine program and a sommelier," she said. "The farther up the ladder you get, there's fewer opportunities, but it is a highly mobile business."
Challenges: As with other restaurant staff, sommeliers have a physically demanding job. Aside from being on their feet all day and night, sommeliers are often responsible for stocking shelves, unpacking boxes and contributing to the manual labour required by the restaurant.
Sommeliers also need to balance the needs of the customer with the sales targets of their employer. "It's not all about making the big sales; it's about ensuring that your guests are satisfied," Ms. McCarthy said. Furthermore, since the world of wine is always evolving, sommeliers need to keep up to date with changes in the industry.
Why they do it: Sommelier is the perfect job title for anyone who enjoys working with wine and with people. They often find satisfaction in providing customers the opportunity to explore their own preferences and discover new tastes.
"The majority have a true passion for what they do, and it's just a wonderful opportunity to be able to work with like-minded professionals that share that passion for wine and food and the dining experience," Ms. McCarthy said.
Misconceptions: The biggest misconception that people have about sommeliers is that they drink a lot of wine on the job. Ms. McCarthy says that's not the case. "If you go to enough trade tastings, it's lovely to be able to taste them, but you do spit [out the wine] because otherwise it's not productive," she said. "It's gruelling to a certain extent. When you're tasting a large number of wines, you have to do your own assessment of the wine and consider whether or not it is suitable for your wine list, so it's not just fun and games."
Give us the Scoop: Are you a sommelier? Write a note in the comments area of this story or e-mail your comment to firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know what you would tell others who are interested in the profession.
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