Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Most Master Sommeliers are somms in name only

Not gonna deal with pesky customers no more
If you want to have a conversation with a Master Sommelier in a restaurant, the only sure way is to invite one for dinner. You most likely won't find one working the floor.

This is something the Court of Master Sommeliers would rather not admit. I've asked the Court repeatedly for stats on how many MSs actually work on the floor in restaurants, and they've never responded.

Fortunately, I recently discovered a page on the Nation's Restaurant News website that lists 55 MSs, and their jobs at the time the page was written.

Of the 55, I can see only 8 who regularly worked the floor when the article was written. Another six might have been on the floor sometimes. That's just 25% combined. And at least 3 of those 14 MSs have moved away from those on-the-floor jobs since the article was written.

It seems like the great majority of Master Sommeliers aren't in restaurants at all anymore, except to eat or, in many cases, peddle wine for the distributor or importer who now signs their checks.

I'm sorry to say this, because I have enjoyed the company and expertise of every Master Sommelier I've met.

But this situation is at best a waste of much of their training.

Master Sommeliers are supposed to have encyclopedic knowledge of both wine and service. They're supposed to help every guest feel comfortable and find a great wine that fits what that guest needs.

Instead, a lot of them, maybe even the majority, are using their prestige to sell wines without any connection with the end-user who will actually drink them.

It's easy to see how these decisions are made. One of the best bartenders I've ever sat across the mahogany from, Scott Beattie, works for Meadowood resort now as beverage director for events, coming up with cocktail menus for wedding parties. He was a genius behind the bar at Cyrus, and now no customers will ever see him prepare an original drink. But he told me that after many years of standing up all night, he wanted ordinary hours and a job where he could sit down now and then.

Master Sommeliers can't be much different. It has to be more pleasant, not having to wait for the last diner to order wine every night at 11 p.m. Perhaps more lucrative too.

But still. What is the point of being a master at something when you're not actually doing it anymore?

With apologies to all the great people on the list, here's a breakdown of the jobs:

On the floor, at least sometimes
Sommelier at restaurant 8 (yay!)
Beverage director at restaurant or country club 3
Head sommelier at restaurant 2
Sommelier at multi-restaurant hotel

Probably not on the floor
Director of wine and/or beverages at multi-restaurant hotel/facility 4
Restaurant co-owner 2
Sommelier at restaurant chain

Definitely not on the floor
Independent wine consultant 12
Works for wine distributor 8
Winery sales 5
Importer sales 2
Wine store owner 2
Works for Court of Master Sommeliers 2
Grocery store specialty product coordinator
Runs wine school
Chef !

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Joe Roberts said...

Nothing against working the floor, which I know is difficult, but I'm not sure this is something *not* to admit. If you look at it from a corporate perspective, people work their way up the ladder to higher-level positions that aren't in the trenches, so-to-speak. So achieving an MS would presumably help open similar higher-level opportunities to somms, still linked to beverage service but not on the floor (beverage director positions, etc.). If anything, I think they'd be touting it as an effective way to continually advance different and potentially more lucrative career opportunities for somms, with a potentially better work/life balance as a benefit, etc.

mgraves said...

I wonder how this compares to Master Chefs? Do they typically leave the kitchen entirely? What portion of M.D.s never see patients?

Robert said...

I would imagine that at some point in your career as a somm you don't want to have to bust your ass on the floor of as restuarant doing service. As a comparison, you should see how many MW's actually make wine at a winery. I am sure it is a small percentage of the whole.

Justin McInerny said...

Interesting subject which I never would have considered.Thank you for bringing up this issue. I some observations similar to the questions raised by mgraves. For example the CPA's I know who enjoy their jobs don't do nuts and bolts accounting. Instead they are involved in business operations which includes working with accountants but not doing the heavy lifting. In my anecdotal (and autobiographical) experience, most happy lawyers are the same way - they don't practice law but interact with practitioners who do the actual "lawyering".

Unknown said...

Thanks for the article Blake and all of the others I have enjoyed reading over the years. As a Master Sommelier and the Director of Wine at Bellagio, I work with a team of 15 sommeliers. In this way I feel I am able to positively effect the dining experience of far more guests than if I was working in a restaurant myself. I would look at my role as the conductor of the orchestra vs. playing 1st violin. The goal of the Court of Master Sommeliers is to "improve the standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants." This result can be reached from many directions, not solely from being a sommelier working dinner service.

Unknown said...

A classic and hilarious self parody from a MS on just this topic...

Unknown said...

Thanks for the piece. I am a Master Sommelier and have been for over a decade. I actually still spend a majority of my work week on the floor with my staff. I still love being on the floor and hopefully always will. You are always invited to come spend time with us at Frasca in Boulder Colorado.

D-Luv said...

The National Restaurant News website excludes many Master Sommeliers who work in dining rooms across the country.

Unknown said...

Unknown said...

It is a fact but it's important to note that there are a lot of very talented level II and Advanced Sommeliers in restaurants throughout the country.

Unknown said...

Dan Fishman said...

Robert: An MW doesn't offer anything close to training in actual winemaking, so if a winemaker has one it is purely coincidence.

To the more general point though, it is definitely the case that a lot of more experienced winemakers do very little "hands on" work in the cellar, which is analogous to the beverage director position it seems to me.

Unknown said...

i can attest. he's ALWAYS there.

Sean Mitchell said...

My take is a slightly different one. I would view this outcome as something of a credit to the very exacting MS qualification, in that it would seem to open doors to a number of different wine related career options for those dedicated enough to undertake it.

Dominick Purnomo said...

It's the natural progression of most careers. The skill or task that defined you, becomes the thing that you no longer do as you ascend in your career. Maybe it's a physician who moves to a hospital administrator role. Perhaps it's an attorney who becomes the firm's CEO. Maybe a mason or carpenter who transitions to a general contractor. A teacher who becomes a principal or superintendent. A journalist who becomes an editor. A chef who becomes a restaurateur. It you look around, you can apply it to just about any career.

Bob Henry said...

Blake, et. al.:

Here in Los Angeles County, I am aware of only two Master Sommeliers who "work the floor." (One is at Spago restaurant.)

To the south of us in Orange County, Michael Jordan [no, not THAT M.J.] ran the wine program at Disneyland's Napa Rose restaurant, and later The Ranch Restaurant and Saloon.

No longer.

It has been suggested that M.S.-es consistently find work in five towns: Las Vegas (casino restaurants), Disney World (restaurants), New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

Here in Los Angeles, fine dining restaurant patrons have become accustomed to bringing their own wines into restaurants and paying a corkage fee -- which precludes the need of the services of a sommelier or even Master Sommelier to advise on one's selection.

And it has been suggested that many experienced wine drinkers likewise don't require the services of a sommelier or Master Sommelier to chose a wine off the wine list. They know what they like, and order off the wine list accordingly.

So if the owners of fine dining restaurants conclude that few patrons are using the services of a Master Sommelier, then such high salaried positions get eliminated over time.

(Or never get hired at all at newly-opened establishments.)

Such bleak employment prospects drive Master Sommeliers into other allied fields in the wine industry.

So, too, does the lifestyle. It has been suggested that the post-midnight hours kept by sommeliers is a "young person's game." If you've been at it for awhile and have a spouse and kids, then coming home at 2 in morning means you rarely see either except on your days off.

Such "work-life balance issues" likewise drive Master Sommeliers into allied fields.

Unknown said...

This is a main problem of the whole Sommelier profession, even for World Champions - you try to be a succesful sommelier, just to make sure that you are able to go off teh floor. Working on the floor is for sure a very tough job. So, being a succesful sommelier has an element of self destruction to it.

The Sommeliere said...

When I was a working somm (however, not a master somm), I spent most of my time on the floor.

It can be an exhausting undertaking for anyone. It is challenging and sometimes contentious.

I will never forgot the oaf who ordered a very expensive bottle of
(name omitted) took a huge slug and told me it was off. Of course, I tasted the wine and it was marvelous.
However, the management took it back and the oaf ordered a cheapie.

There are many frustrations being a "floor somm" and after a couple of years, I retired from the job. I wanted my evenings with my family.

Bella Vino said...

As with most situations, there are many sides to a story. As a Certified Somm since 1989, I agree with just about every response to the article. One could argue that there is a difference between a Somm who has worked the floor for decades, and steps up/down to guide the younger generation. As opposed to the young Somm who receives support from his bosses to study for the exam(s), a very expensive endeavor, and quits the minute they pass, to take a huge paycheck working for a
distributor. Yet, that Somm who does work for a distributor, certainly has the opportunity to instruct servers in restaurants that don't have Somms, and encourage restaurant owners/managers to be more proactive in stepping up their wine service game. And the industry, as a whole, benefits from that, yes? Additionally, many Somms are not interested in being "Sommagers". Scheduling bussers, and dropping the nights receipts is not very glamorous, but with the economic free fall in '08, many restaurants had no choice but to double up on a Somms duties to justify even keeping them on the payroll. Somms get into the business for many reasons. First, there's all that "free" wine. It can be an intensive lifestyle that is attractive to some, and some, like me, just fell into it and excelled at it. I sincerely enjoy waiting on the kinds of customers many Somms whine about. Give me a dining room full of Seniors & Novices and I'll have 'em smiling and enjoying a bottle in their price range in a heartbeat. I'm almost 60 & I'm lucky...tho I no longer work the grueling 60+ hr/wk I did back in the day, I am still poppin' corks on the floor 5 nites a week, and I couldn't be happier. I have no interest in travling the country and/or working 60+ hours/wk. It's all good Blake,'s all good. Come see me at the Joel Palmer House up here in'll have over 500 Oregon Pinots to choose from!

Bob Henry said...

Dear "Bella Vino":

Have any La BĂȘte-produced Aligote or Pinot Noir aging gracefully at the Joel Palmer House?

~~ Bob

Bella Vino said...

Unfortunately not Bob...I'm not the buyer, (the cellar is the owners favorite "toy"), but I will seek them out and try to bring them in. I Love the Croft Vineyard! Kandarian makes a beautiful Bordeaux stlye Sauv. Bl. from that Vineyard that is worth seeking out. Reach out to me at the JPH if you get up this way.

Unknown said...

Hi Blake! In resonse to the comment asking if the same things happen to chefs, I sent the question to our Provost, Mark Erickson who is a Certified Master Chef, one of many who we have on our faculty and staff here at the Culinary Institute of America. His response, "Frankly we see the same phenomena in the culinary world. The opportunities that open up with that credential are just too compelling." As long as the person is furthering the cause of the organization who bestowed the credential upon them, why can't they make their impact from another, possibly wider reaching, position?