A Sommelier by Any Other Name

A Sommelier by Any Other Name

published in the Chicago Sun-Times

It’s that funny French word, easily mispronounced. To up the intimidation factor, it involves wine. And it’s not exactly a part of everyday conversation.

So when Mike Baker, store manager and unofficial buyer for Wine Discount Center on Elston Avenue, runs into friends, it’s not surprising that they ask, “Now what’s that thing you’re doing?”

Baker is studying to be a Master Sommelier. Though, as he describes it, “I taste a lot of wine.” He’s tasting even more these days as he prepares to test for the top tier of the Court of Master Sommeliers. It’s the highest distinction one can achieve, awarded only after a series of seriously difficult exams on not just wine but also service, spirits and even cigars. Only 96 hold the title in the America Chapter; there are only 167 Master Sommeliers worldwide.

For Baker, seeking Master Sommelier status means an opportunity to geek out with colleagues also studying for the exam. Baker loves to taste and talk wine. And a subject that requires a knowledge of culture, politics, history, legislation, agriculture, economics, weather and countless variations in methods, styles, producers and vintages offers endless opportunities to discover something new.

The title also conveys expertise. “Finally, my mom will believe I know what I’m talking about,” Baker jokes.

But that funny French word can mean a lot of things. The Oxford Companion to Wine defines sommelier as a “specialist wine waiter or wine steward.” Some hold the title simply because they’re the ones who buy or serve wine in a restaurant. Their expertise might be as deep as someone with certification, or they might be schooled only in their restaurant’s list. You can be a sommelier by virtue of what you do; by achieving recognition from an organization such as the Court of Master Sommeliers or the Institute of Masters of Wine; or some combination of the two.

Steve Tindle, wine and spirits director at Shaw’s Crab House, didn’t put “sommelier” on his business cards until he was certified with the Court of Master Sommeliers. He’s now studying for the Advanced level. (The Court lists four stages: Introductory Course, Certified Exam, Advanced Course and Master Diploma. Other certifying bodies differ in their levels of study.)

So what do people think when it comes up that he’s a sommelier? “Sometimes the word can mean a little snobbiness in the social realm, but not always,” Tindle says. Some people will talk around it, afraid they’ll mispronounce the word. More often though, being introduced as a sommelier makes Tindle an instant personal consultant.

“Definitely, my friends like to ask lots of questions about wine,” Tindle says.

Adam Seger gets the same reaction. Even his dad shoots Seger an e-mail when he’s preparing a special dinner. Seger, sommelier at Nacional 27 and director of the wine program at Osteria Via Stato, is studying with Baker for the Master Sommelier exams next year.

He’s sensitive to wine anxiety, so when he’s on the floor at Nacional 27, he’ll try to read each table before approaching. To regulars, he’s the sommelier; to those who appear less comfortable, he’s just the wine guy.

“We want to take as much intimidation out of the process as possible,” Seger says.

Baker encounters people at all points on the spectrum in his store, so it may not come up that he’s a sommelier. “Within the trade, it’s pretty powerful,” Baker says. “Outside of that small circle, not too many people understand it. … They’ve heard that you might have had to do something to get the title, but they’re not sure what it is.”

And that’s OK, he says. If you want to know whether that pinot noir is going to taste good with the salmon you’re grilling tonight, he can tell you. If you want to know what type of soil that pinot was grown in and what terroir it will express as it unfolds, he can tell you that, too.

For the record (though variations abound), sommelier is widely pronounced sə-məl-yā or “some-all-yay,” which is how this writer explained it to friends when studying for the introductory Court of Master Sommelier course: taste some, taste allyay!

It’s that enthusiasm for wine that Baker, Tindle and Seger share. A sommelier by any other name would be as eager to recommend the next great undiscovered quaff for your black-tie dinner or your picnic table, no intimidation required.

Sommelier Man-on-the-Street Interviews

We left our rosé chilling at home and hit the hot city streets to ask a few random individuals what they knew about the word “sommelier”—no context, no hints, no warning…

“I haven’t got a clue.”
Lynda Baldin, 62, Schererville, Indiana

“It’s someone who knows wine really well and is accredited, I think. I think you have to go through some kind of accreditation. They typically work in high-end restaurants or wine shops.”
Frank Gutowski, 31, Chicago

“That sounds familiar … a drink in the summertime with fruit and ice?”
Lynn Layug, 28, Chicago

“It doesn’t ring a bell right away. … If I had to take a guess, something to do with the weather or time of year.”
Jerome Howard, 42, Chicago

“I couldn’t even guess. You’ve got me on that.”
John McMahon, 42, Frankfort