How Wine Sommeliers Became An Essential Part Of Fine Dining

While there are countless wine lovers in the world, some take into to the next level and make a profession out of it. These are wine sommeliers.

They're trained and knowledgeable wine professionals who specialize in all aspects of wine service, including selecting, storing, serving and pairing wines. Sommeliers are also responsible for managing the wine cellar, curating the wine list, and training restaurant staff on proper wine service.

They must have extensive knowledge of wine regions, grape varieties and flavor profiles. Some sommeliers can even identify the vintage, region and varietal of a wine just by smelling and tasting it. Employing a sommelier is often considered a mark of distinction for upscale restaurants.

For this reason, almost every Michelin-starred restaurants employ a sommelier to help diners select wines to pair with their meal.

A good sommelier can enhance the dining experience by providing expert guidance on pairing wines with dishes and suggesting rare or unusual wines that diners may not be familiar with. Let's face it: that's kind of cool.

What's The Story Behind Sommeliers?

Where did the word come from? How did the position in fine dining establishment come to be? How did it all start?

Well, the word is very old, but the position in restaurants isn't as old as the word. Let me explain. It's believed that the word "sommelier" comes from a Middle French (14th to 16th century) word which meant "an official in charge of transporting supplies."

At that time, we were just coming out of the Middle Ages, and there were still lords and ladies and the feudal system. So this official was literally in charge of transporting supplies, either into the kingdom, out of the kingdom, to the court etc.

Now we say supplies, but if you go back even further to Old French the word "sommierier" was used for an official that specifically took care of, transported, and maintained pack of animals or livestock.

The bottom line is the word, "sommelier" meant someone who maintained an inventory. This was the accepted meaning of the word until the early to mid-1800s. That's because the first reference to a sommelier in a restaurant dates back to 1829 in Paris. So in a sense, we can't talk about sommelier without digging a little bit into the history of restaurants.

I don't want to go into the whole history of the restaurant here, but just give a brief overview.

The Emergence of The First Restaurants

Its hard to imagine a world without restaurants, but the concept of dining out hasn't always existed.

The word "restaurant" comes from the French word "restaurer," which means "to restore" The first modern restaurants as we know them today emerged in Paris in the late 18th century. These early restaurants were established to serve affordable and delicious food in a welcoming environment to the middle class, who until then had limited options for dining out.

Legend has it that after the French Revolution, there were a lot of unemployed chefs. They were previously employed by the aristocracy, which now no longer existed. Nobility and titles of nobility were abolished in 1848 during the French Revolution of 1848.


So these chefs would either look for work in Paris or opened their own restaurants.

In the early 19th century, the restaurant concept spread to other European countries, including England and Germany. In the mid-19th century, the restaurant concept reached the United States, where the first restaurant opened in New York City in 1837.

Early American restaurants resembled their European counterparts, offering affordable and uncomplicated meals. It's likely that chefs at the time also served wine with the food. Maybe there were sommeliers in these aristocratic homes? We don't know.

What is interesting, however, is that menus evolved as these chefs opened their restaurants. As the restaurant industry grew, so did the diversity of cuisines and styles of dining. It' is also important to note that wine cellars emerged around the same time: Many French restaurants had cellars, and that's where wine was usually stored. 

It' is safe to assume that most French chefs maintained relationships with some chateaux or domaines (vineyards), and obtained wine in this way.

But the real turning point was the invention of the glass bottle. In the 19th century, French chemist Antoine Béchamp developed a process for tempering glass by heating it to a high temperature and then cooling it rapidly.

This process made the glass much stronger and more resistant to breakage. It was quickly adopted in the production of wine bottles and other glassware.

With the invention of wine bottles, wine lists soon followed. These lists were probably developed as a way for restaurants and other establishments to offer a selection of wines to their customers.

The early wine lists were often handwritten and featured a limited selection of wines from the local region. As the wine trade grew and more varieties of wine became available, wine lists became more extensive and sophisticated, featuring wines from around the world.

The problem was the chef was busy in the kitchen, and the often 1-2 waiters were busy serving the customers. Who would run back and forth into a cold cellar to get wine bottles?

This is where the sommelier comes in. There had to be someone specifically to deal just with wine.

The 19th century saw the emergence of the sommelier profession, and wine lists became an important part of a sommelier's job. Sommeliers were responsible for selecting and serving wines to customers, and often created extensive wine lists with detailed descriptions of each wine, as well as information about the vineyard, region, and vintage.

In the 20th century, wine lists continued to evolve, with an emphasis on offering a diverse selection of wines for different tastes and budgets.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the emergence of more upscale and formal restaurants that catered to the wealthy elite. These establishments were known for their opulent décor, exquisite menus, and impeccable service.

The Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, which opened in 1893, was one of these establishments. It featured a grand dining room that could seat up to 1,300 guests and was known for its extravagant banquets.

*The hotel's wine cellar is one of the largest and most impressive in the world, with over 15,000 bottles from around the globe. The cellar includes rare and valuable wines, such as a 1945 Château Margaux and a 1947 Cheval Blanc One of the most famous bottles of wine in the Waldorf Astoria's collection is a 1934 Château d'Yquem, which was served at a dinner hosted by the hotel in 1943 to celebrate the end of World War II. The bottle is now on display at the hotel's Bull and Bear Steakhouse.

As haute cuisine became more popular, the position of sommelier became increasingly important.

Founding of Sommelier Organizations

This led to the creation of the first sommelier organization, the Union des Sommeliers de Paris, which was founded in 1907. The organization was formed to promote the profession of sommelier and to provide a forum for sommeliers to exchange ideas and knowledge.

The Union des Sommeliers de Paris quickly became a model for other sommelier organizations, and similar organizations were established in other cities and countries throughout Europe.

In 1969, the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) was founded in Reims, France, with the goal of promoting the profession of sommelier on a global scale. The ASI introduced a standardized system for wine tasting and evaluation and organized international competitions to recognize and celebrate the best sommeliers in the world.

In the decades that followed, other sommelier organizations were founded, including the Court of Master Sommeliers in the United Kingdom in 1977 and the Guild of Sommeliers in the United States in 2003.

Education for Sommeliers

By the mid-20th century, the rise of the global wine industry and the availability of wines from around the world made wine lists more extensive and varied than ever before. At this point, sommeliers needed some sort of curriculum to help them.

This task fell into the hands of the organizations mentioned above. The first sommelier certification was introduced in 1953 by the Union des Sommeliers de Paris. The certification was called Diplôme de Sommelier-Conseil (Diploma of Sommelier-Consultant. It was intended to recognize the knowledge and expertise of sommeliers who had completed a rigorous training program.

To earn the Diplôme de Sommelier-Conseil, candidates had to pass a series of exams that tested their knowledge of wine, spirits and other beverages, as well as their ability to serve and advise patrons in a professional manner.

The exams were administered by a panel of experts, and candidates had to demonstrate their ability to identify and describe wines, make recommendations for wine pairings, and provide other wine-related advice and guidance.

The Diplôme de Sommelier-Conseil quickly became the standard for sommelier certification in France and throughout Europe, and formed the basis for the development of other sommelier certification programs around the world.

Today, there are numerous certification programs for sommeliers offered by a variety of organizations and institutions. Among the most well-known and respected sommelier certification programs are those offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers, the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET), and the International Sommelier Guild (ISG).

Each program has its own unique requirements and focus, but all are designed to recognize and certify the knowledge and expertise of sommeliers who have completed a rigorous training program.

To date, the sommelier profession continues to focus largely on fine dining.

The Traditional Role of a Sommelier?

A sommelier is usually located on the floor and have an extensive knowledge of the wines available in the establishment. Their main responsibility is to help customers choose the perfect wine to complement their meal, and to ensure that the wine is served correctly according to industry standards.

When a customer orders their food, the waiter will typically send over the sommelier to discuss the meal and make recommendations on the best wine to pair with it. The sommelier will then suggest a wine based on the customer's preferences and budget, as well as the style of the dish.

Once the customer has made their selection, it is the sommelier's responsibility to make sure that the wine is served correctly. This includes presenting the bottle to the guests for inspection before it is opened, and opening the bottle either at the table or within sight of the guests.

If the wine needs to be decanted, the sommelier will typically do this in public as well, and may also provide a brief explanation of why the wine is being decanted. Once the wine is ready, the sommelier will pour a small amount into the guest's glass for them to smell and taste, and if approved, the wine will then be poured for the rest of the table.

In addition to their service duties, sommeliers are also responsible for maintaining the restaurant's wine cellar and creating the wine list. This involves selecting wines that complement the cuisine, pricing them appropriately, and ensuring that they are stored and served correctly. Some restaurants may have multiple sommeliers, as well as a head sommelier who oversees the entire wine program.

Overall, the sommelier plays a critical role in ensuring that guests have a memorable dining experience. By providing knowledgeable and personalized service, they can help customers explore new and exciting wines, and create unique and unforgettable food and wine pairings.

 The Future of Sommeliers

Restaurants are constantly evolving, and with that evolution comes a shift in the role of the sommelier. Today's sommeliers come in all shapes and sizes, and their roles have expanded beyond simply selecting and serving wine.

One major trend in the restaurant industry is the rise of the casual dining experience. Many diners today are looking for a more relaxed and informal atmosphere, and this has led to the creation of more casual restaurants that offer a wide range of wines and other beverages. In these settings, the role of the sommelier has evolved to include not only selecting and serving wine, but also providing guidance and recommendations on beer, cocktails, and other drinks.

Another trend in the restaurant industry is the focus on sustainability and organic products. Many sommeliers today are knowledgeable about sustainable and biodynamic wines, and they are able to guide customers toward wines that are produced using environmentally-friendly methods. This reflects a broader shift in the restaurant industry toward more environmentally-conscious practices, and sommeliers are playing a key role in helping to promote these practices.

In addition, sommeliers today are often called upon to play a more active role in the dining experience. Many sommeliers now work closely with chefs to create wine and food pairings that enhance the overall dining experience. This may involve experimenting with different flavors and textures, and finding the perfect wine to complement a particular dish.

In summary, the role of the sommelier has evolved significantly over the past few decades, and this evolution shows no signs of slowing down. As restaurants continue to evolve and adapt to changing customer preferences and trends, sommeliers will undoubtedly continue to play a key role in providing guidance, expertise, and a memorable dining experience.

Leave a comment