Passing the Bar

What it takes to be a certified beer or wine expert.

The snooty archetype of a traditional sommelier isn’t someone we see pulling corks in Edmonton restaurants. But lots of people around town are using the term to describe themselves — and many more are not. So what does it even mean to be a sommelier?

According to Samantha Wall, a sommelier understands what a customer needs and wants in regards to food and wine pairing, and is able to select and serve an appropriate wine for the customer’s palate. Yet despite her own extensive wine education, Wall doesn’t use the title  herself.

“Personally, I never tell people that I have my sommelier certificate,” she says. “If you are one, you know what it takes to get that certificate. But a lot of people look at us as just glorified wine servers. But you have to know a lot more than just how not to spill wine on a white tablecloth.”

Wall is a NAIT instructor in the Culinary Arts program and holds a diploma from both the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and the International Sommelier Guild (ISG). She teaches WSET levels one and two and is currently working towards her Master of Wine (MW) designation, which is the world’s most prestigious wine credential — there are only 370 MWs in the world.

Evan Watson, managing partner and sommelier at Bar Clementine, offers a similar definition. He has attained his WSET 3 as well as the Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS) credential, but he also points out the dilemma between education and experience.

“[Sommelier] is less of an acquired credential and more of a job description, in my opinion, but one couldn’t have that job unless they had a pretty detailed knowledge of wine — enter credential programs,” Watson explains. “I still use the term to denote the importance we place on the curation and correct service of wine. Wine, for most restaurants, is this ‘given’ thing; every place has wine, so many consumers in Edmonton don’t even realize that there can be a ‘wrong’ way to serve it (bad glassware, too cold or too warm, bad pairing
suggestions, unscrupulous wine choices based on brand kickbacks, etc.). I like using the title because it’s my way of showing that I really do care about wine and its relationship to food, and that people can rely on that when they need a hand with their selections in my restaurant.”

In the beer world, there’s no such thing as a sommelier — and if someone called him or herself a beer sommelier, people would laugh at them, says Owen Kirkaldy.

Kirkaldy is an Edmonton-based, master-ranked beer judge through the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). The BJCP designation evolved from the home brewing movement, whereas the increasingly common Cicerone designation focuses on industry. You’ll most likely find someone with Cicerone certification working in a brew pub.

“The Cicerone program is its own sort of trademarked process,” Kirkaldy says. “It’s not something that has grown up organically over time; it is a commercial product that is being sold to people. It’s a useful certification if you’re already a beer nerd and you’re starting to work in craft beer.”

Ultimately, calling oneself a sommelier is making a bold claim: You have the knowledge and know-how to deliver a seamless experience to restaurant and bar patrons. If you can’t do that, then you simply aren’t a sommelier — no matter what titles you’ve collected.

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This article appears in the February 2019 issue of Avenue Edmonton.

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