What is a Sommelier anyway? And What Does It Take to Be One?

Originally published in Yakima Magazine
By Molly Allen

Often when people think of sommeliers, they think of high-end restaurants, suits and ties, superbly polished glasses and hours spent drinking wine. To some, it may also seem like there’s a hint of snobbery that goes along with the profession.

But what people don’t realize is that not all sommeliers are created equal. A sommelier may be brought on to manage the day-to-day aspects of a wine program for a restaurant, while others may be in charge of selecting wine for retail stores, working for a distributing company or a winery or serving as a consultant. The term “sommelier” is not a one-size-fits-all position, and there are a number of ways to achieve that status.

For Petar Marshall, becoming a sommelier has been all about the journey. Marshall previously managed Cascade Wine Shop in Yakima before taking on the sommelier position at Swiftwater Cellars in Roslyn. In late 2017, when Provisions Restaurant and Market opened in Terrace Heights, Marshall worked to develop the wine list that earned the restaurant its first Wine Spectator award. Since then, he’s gone on to help a number of restaurants in the Central Washington area with their wine programs, serving as “everybody’s sommelier,” as he likes to call it.

Marshall realized that he was able to better share his knowledge within the Central Washington region while helping more than one business, but that knowledge didn’t come overnight. (Full disclosure: Petar is also my fiancé.)

Marshall’s fascination with wine began at a young age, as he grew up with family influences from his Italian and Croatian heritage. “Every dinner was homemade, often pasta from scratch, paired with chianti or a nice grappa,” he said. “I grew up trying wine with my mom, discussing it, identifying it, smelling it. It was a part of everyday life.”

In 2006, Marshall began taking Wine Spectator courses and online classes with the Culinary Institute of America, and then moved on to studying wine at Yakima Valley College. He also completed the World Wine Program at Central Washington University, focusing on main wine terroirs. But none of the education Marshall completed was because of a desire to take a test for certification. It was all because of a passion to expand his knowledge of wine.

For Marshall, what really made the difference was years of on-the-job training with industry professionals in the area, such as Mark Rowan of Noble Wines, Lindsay Park from Provisions and John “Big John” Caudill of Sheridan Vineyards.

“In my opinion, you have to have on-the-job training. It makes all the difference,” he said. “And you need to realize you’re never going to know it all. You just keep learning and perfecting your craft.”

Sommeliers are trained and knowledgeable professionals, found most often in the restaurant industry, who specialize in all aspects of wine service. In a restaurant setting, a sommelier is available to assist guests with wine selections, food pairing suggestions and tableside service. The sommelier may also be in charge of creating the wine list, selecting options that offer value to restaurant customers and complement the restaurant’s aesthetics and cuisine, as well as training restaurant staff in the proper service and qualities of the selected wines on the list. In essence, the sommelier’s job is to direct each piece of the wine program offered at a restaurant, and those tasks may also be applied in a wine shop or tasting room.

“In a restaurant setting, it is so important to play with wine,” said Marshall. “Often people can find the wine world intimidating, but when you’re able to play with it, try it and share it with others, it makes all the difference.”

But it’s not all fun and drinking wine all day. Becoming a sommelier is a lot of reading, studying and practice.

One key element of learning to become a great sommelier is training your palate. You have to be able to recognize certain aspects of wine, particularly to be able to describe certain notes and characteristics to your customer. Another important aspect is studying key wine regions. From the Yakima Valley to the Bordeaux region in France to California’s Napa Valley, every wine is different and has its own unique attributes. It’s important to understand where each varietal is coming from to be able to describe its distinct qualities.

“There’s something about the story behind each wine,” said Marshall. “The wine isn’t just about the bottle. It’s about the family heritage, the history and the time and hard work that goes into making that wine.” Learning the importance of proper storage and temperature control are also key in a sommelier’s scope, as well as the ability to properly train staff on the service of wine, from selection to opening the bottle to pouring.

But for some, the certification is key. Though working as a sommelier is possible without the official certificate, many do choose to take the rigorous test to achieve that title. The Court of Master Sommeliers was established in 1969, with the first examination held in the United Kingdom. In 1977, it was established as the premier examining body in the industry. Those working toward certification test at different levels, starting with the level one introductory certification. The certification moves on to the level two certified sommelier, and then on to the level three advanced sommelier. The last stage of testing, the crème de la crème, is recognized as the master sommelier, and to gain this title is no small feat. In fact, there are only 255 master sommeliers with the title worldwide, with 164 of those residing in the United States.

The jury is still out as to whether there’s a right or wrong way to become a sommelier. Many of the world’s top sommeliers will admit they have no formal education or certification, while some certified sommeliers can say they have absolutely no on-the-job training. What it all boils down to is the passion one puts into it – the appreciation for the art of wine.