I recently completed the Sommelier program at Algonquin College. It was a long, slightly convoluted path (including a derailment to join the navy) and I am incredibly glad to be finished. I met some great friends at wine school, some of whom work in the industry and others who do not.
Having started the program in 2008, I should have graduated much earlier. I had signed up for the Sommelier Advanced course, the capstone of the program, in Fall 2010 but joined the military and was sent away on basic training in late October. Completing wine school while under a virtual lockdown at basic was an impossible proposition. When I returned to Ottawa in late 2012, the program coordinators were extremely flexible and allowed me to complete the program without taking the additional courses that had been added. Although I am interested in both whiskey and beer, I didn’t relish the idea of spending slightly over $500 for each course plus the Advanced course fees.
I do not consider myself a sommelier. I would describe myself as a wine nerd, a wine enthusiast or “someone who took a lot of wine school.” I do not work in a restaurant, I do not create wine lists, my only involvement in the industry is a part time gig offering samples at LCBO outlets throughout Ottawa. I firmly believe that this does not make a sommelier. I also believe that seven part time wine courses offered at a community college does not make a sommelier. I also think that using the term “accredited Sommelier” to describe myself is a form of false advertising.
So, what does make a sommelier? I know there are posts all over the Internet stating the term is derived from pack animals and the French and snooty restaurants full of rich people. The sheer number of sommelier related courses means that the number of people calling themselves “Sommelier” has grown exponentially. We were told that due solely to the number of Algonquin, Cité Collegiale and Vendange Institute (WSET) graduates that there would be more sommeliers per capita in Ottawa than anywhere else. Does becoming a sommelier, as is the case in Ottawa, simply mean taking a bunch of night school courses and deciding to adopt the title?
I believe a sommelier is a true wine professional. They should be able to name the 5 Premier Cru wines of Bordeaux. They should be able to identify an Ontario riesling from an Alsatian. They should be able to open a bottle of wine effortlessly, understanding formal service. They should be able to make some sense of Italian wine (which I believe is far more confusing than the French system). More importantly, they should be passionate wine lovers and professionals, constantly expanding their palates and increasing their knowledge. A good sommelier does not rest on their laurels, an excellent sommelier will live and breathe wine while an “accredited Sommelier” could easily view the completion of the program as the end of their formal wine education. Wine trends are constantly changing – note what happened to the popularity of both merlot and pinot noir after Sideways – and a true sommelier will stay up to date on changes in consumer preferences, seasonality and trends.
Will I ever call myself a “sommelier”? Perhaps. I don’t want to completely rule out the possibility – but it won’t be anytime soon. And it definitely won’t be because I graduated from a part-time college program.