Posted on | June 19, 2015
Written by | Jim Clarke
The path to where they are today was not always straight.
Take some courses, taste some wine, pass some exams: et voilà, you’re a sommelier. That’s the way it may appear from the outside, but many of today’s most respected sommeliers enjoyed remarkably different career starts and trajectories. Even with formal training and certification commonplace, there’s still a lot more to becoming a sommelier than passing tests.
Haley Guild Moore
Stock and Bones Restaurant Group
**Service first: “My family took me to Paris when I was 15. We dined at Napoleon’s former hunting lodge and I remember thinking, ‘There are so many eyes watching us.’ It totally changed the way I saw restaurants.”
**Wine later: As a child, “My father had me pick the wine: ‘We’re having duck; what pairs with duck?’” But it was only after working at A Côte in Oakland that Moore decided wine and spirits was where her passion lay.
**Do: Learn the dollars and sense of how a beverage program makes money for the restaurant. “If you add value through knowledge as well as adding to the bottom line, you in turn become more valuable, and will likely always
have a job!”
Bourbon Steak at The Four Seasons Washington, DC
**From foreign policy to cellar rat: Mayor was working in foreign policy and then international banking after college. “I began organizing dinner meetings, often with wine, and choosing which wine to go with which food. Eventually I realized I liked that better.”
**Making a change: “I quit [banking] cold turkey.” Mayor went to culinary school in New York, at the same time working as a cellar rat at places like Balthazar and Best Cellars.
**Do it again? “I’d kind of do the opposite of what I did; it’s a bigger field, with a lot more competition. I did a lot of my training on the floor and on my own. Now it’s important to have concrete paperwork to back up your knowledge. But don’t think certifications are a substitute for experience; you still have to do the ‘dirty work’ on the cellar and on
Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud
New York City
**Gotta start somewhere: Madrigale worked in Burgundy for two years after some time in retail at Burgundy Wine Company in Manhattan. “I learned the most difficult wine to learn as my first real education in wine.”
**Self-taught: While coursework and classes work for some people, everyone has their own way. “I’ve never taken a formal wine class. I figured it out on my own and it served me very well. I’m the kind of person who learns through experience, so for me it was the
**Do it with passion: “Jump in head first. I specialized in Burgundy and expanded from there. Finding a region you’re passionate about and learning that, drinking that region…I think that’s a way to start,” rather than trying to be a generalist from
Associate Professor, Culinary Institute of America, Napa Valley
**Early exposure: “I had seen sommeliers in France on trips with my dad. I remember asking, ‘Who is this guy, Dad?’ I thought, ‘Wow, sommelier; that’s a cool job,’ but I didn’t consider it as a career until I had a wine class years later. That’s when I had the flashbulb moment.”
**Think ahead: From her first sommelier gig in Philadelphia—in the early ‘90s— “People thought I was the busboy; I wore a polyester tuxedo!”—Dufault eventually made her way to San Francisco, where she worked at RN74, Quince and Gary Danko. And then? “No one tells you what you’re going to do when you’re 45 or 50. Finding a role as a wine instructor has been really meaningful to me.” Few sommeliers have the energy to stay on the floor forever, so thinking about the next step is important.
**Do: “I hope to instill a sense of the meaningfulness of service. There’s almost too much focus on knowledge and how many pins you have on your lapel. When you get past all that you can have real, meaningful conversations with guests. Then you can become a charismatic, respected, dynamic sommelier.”
Elm Restaurant Group
**Be motivated: “I was looking for a job, and found one at a winery [in Texas]. He asked me, ‘Have you ever tried wine?’ I said, ‘No, but it seems like a great place to meet women.’ He loved the honesty and I started in the tasting room.”
**Follow the money: “I really wanted to understand what happened to wine when it left the winery. I worked for 10+ years in distribution.” Running restaurant beverage programs today, Collins says, “I believe I’m a better buyer because of that knowledge. I’m a better partner to my purveyor; to be successful in the industry and have longevity, you have to understand their role.”
**Don’t follow the money: “Make sure [running a beverage program] is something you have a passion for because you don’t get rich in this industry.”
Aaron Von Rock
New York City
**Started early: Von Rock stomped grapes for his mom’s homemade wine at the age of three. “There were old vines on a steep hill that you couldn’t do anything else with. She was making Concord grape wine in Maryland.” While the results were far from the liquids he’d work with later at Verbena and then Lincoln, he says trying to make wine is great preparation for understanding winemakers when they talk about their work.
**“They keep pulling me back in…” After a year in college, a restaurant owner noticed Von Rock’s enthusiasm and put him in charge of the wine program. When he went back to school, he thought, “I’ll never have to count another bottle,” but more restaurant work while studying for an MBA taught him “these are the people I want to be with.”
**Do: “Take advantage of New York” or the wine community wherever you are; motivated, interested peers keep you from getting stale or blasé.