Being a Sommelier
This is perhaps the most frequent query I receive through all medium of communication – even in naughty SMSs! So I am re-stating the often-stated, yet once again, encore! Geez, talk about redundancies…
Let me also emphasize that this is primarily to those who want to become sommeliers and work in the field. For someone who is merely interested in wine, this may not be entirely applicable as, since I am trying to help youngsters shaping their vinous careers, I am extremely strict about the institutes I will recommend.
At the very beginning, let me set the record straight – there are currently no sommelier courses in India. A very good friend is setting up the WSET in India (but that will the beginners and intermediate level classes I presume) and I will soon provide links to his site but till then look outwards i.e. foreign lands.
Well being a sommelier is a practical exercise. In older days (or in certain restaurants, even 4 hours ago) people who had spent a major part of their career looking after the wine cellar and stocks were deemed worthy of serving it and they occupied themselves with this task solely, thus becoming the unlabelled sommeliers (or wine waiters) of the respective establishment.
But, as demand has grown (once again, we are talking last four hours!), various countries, especially where wine has always been more culture and less couture, have put formal schools in place where wine education and training is imparted in an orderly manner. The result is that these schools now become the most basic level to clear before someone can work in a hotel or restaurant in the wine department.
I absolutely do not ever endorse or recommend local wine clubs in any Indian city – as far as I have seen and observed, they are mostly politically complicated set-ups for midget-sized egos, more like meetings of the post mid-life crises anonymous with no dress sense; they may be good for an evening of intoxicating wine but no serious wine learning is involved or imparted really. I choose to not be a member of any wine club, interpret that as you may. Hell, my left toe tastes better wines on any given day!
Then, there is something called an Indian Wine Academy but it has no certified wine professionals for miles around and it’s functioning is not very clear to me. I would advise staying away from such dodgy backyard-businesses. Any institute without seriously recognised credentials are never a good option as hotels and restaurants will not take such places seriously while recruiting. Chances are you stand to lose more than gain from it!
So, without much ado, here are some places I feel rank as top-notch for pursuing professional wine education.
Université du Vin, Suze-La-Rousse, France (www.universite-du-vin.com): This is my alma mater and barring the small barrier that the course is entirely in French, they have a great syllabus. Being in Rhône Valley will make learning about wines much easier. It is the most recognized French course, and upon completion, they bestow upon you the title of Sommelier-Conseil. Given the magnitude or their course, other courses in agricultural schools in France seem like mere posers! The exams are tough, over 3 days and based on a blind tasting of about 10 wines. No easy-peasy this! My advice would be that if you do not speak fluent French do not waste your money on this. Wine-tasting is not about the technical bits, it is more liquid poetry and if you can’t put it that way on paper (and that too in French!) then you will never crack it.
Duration: 6-8 months 5 days a week, or more!
Cost: About INR150,000 per month, living expenses aside.
Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), London UK (www.wset.co.uk): This is one of the most prized institutes in the world for wine studies. They have five levels of courses, the last being a diploma. The first level is only a few days and is fairly basic but can be a good level of introduction. The courses are conducted at various venues but London may still be the closest for higher levels. Hong Kong and Singapore are also good options. I know that the lower levels of this course are definitely due to be introduced in India shortly but I do not know how much they will be open to individuals as against being exclusively for hotel employees. So with all these levels, how far should you study to be professionally sorted? –Well, I would suggest getting up to the certificate level at least before you head back to look for a decent job as a sommelier. Beyond that you can take an exam to be a Master of Wine (MW) but that is a totally different thing.
Duration: Each level has a different number of sessions ranging from a few days to sessions spread over a whole year. Ultimately it is taking the exam that takes you to the next level.
Cost: Apart from the cost of living in London (or any other centre where the course may be offered), look at about a couple of hundred pounds which is pretty steep. (I am not sure of the fee structure.) Scholarships are also available but mostly for UK-based students.
The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), California USA (www.ciaprochef.com): They boast Karen McNeil as the leading wine faculty who is the lady behind the famous book, Wine Bible. This was a food institute which has now expanded to include wine and has done a decent job of it. The daily classes are marked by extensive tastings and vineyard visits. Upon qualifying the final exam, you get to write CWP (Certified Wine Professional) after your name. There are shorter courses as well but I think it would be a good idea to go all the way. I have met one person, who is also a great personal contact, who did this course (successfully if I may add) and it is a pleasure to taste wine alongside him.
Duration: Almost 3.5 months, 5 days/week.
Cost: About USD10,000 for the course, living expenses aside.
University of Adelaide, Australia (www.adelaide.edu): These guys are good not only at the science behind wine making but also at wine marketing. Australia in fact has many courses but this university, being right in the middle of the “wine action zone” so to say, does enjoy a certain advantage.
Duration: They have full-time 3 year undergraduate courses in wine marketing and related subjects.
Cost: About 15,000 Aussie dollars (approx. INR4.5 lacs a year) plus living costs
Associazione Italiana Sommelier (AIS), Italy: This is a course that is conducted all over Italy (but, sadly I add, in Italian). First level covers the basics of wine, second explores more the various regions of Italy as well as international production and level three is all about food & wine pairing. The batch is big if you ask me, about 50-70 per class (!), and the classes are held once a week at various centres all across Italy. This course is high on theory (although they throw in the occasional field trip etc.) and I personally would like to sit it through given how extensively they conduct the theory bits. From what has been shared with me, the people don’t taste as much as they should. I remember doing upwards of 50 wines a day regularly while these people may finish a class with 2-3 wines. Hmmm…
Cost: 410 euro for the 1st course, 430 for the 2nd course and 510 for the 3rd and final level.
Duration: 15 lessons of 2.5 hours followed by a short tasting. The way the courses are spread, it would take two years to finish the entire series. Different cities may conduct the batches on different dates. Classes are chock-a-block so make sure you book well in advance.
International Wine Academy of Roma, Vicolo del Bottino, Rome, Italy: This is a very popular place for people to learn about wines and wine tasting. Thing is though that the way I see it, it is more for the eager and discerned consumer rather than the professional. They taste five wines at the end of each lesson. I had a look at their programme and in all fairness, they seem to cover Italy and France fairly well.
Costs: 350 euros per level which have about seven classes, one class a week. There are currently 3 levels with a level 4 in the offing.
Duration: Each level lasts about 2 months (7 weeks). Each lesson is about 2 hours.
Apart from these, there are online courses by www.winespectator.com and www.decanter.com. They aren’t bad to get some theory for bedside reading but then you could get that in a book. In India the wines they will prescribe for “home-work” will not be the easiest to procure and to learn about wine without tasting is the most futile thing; even more futile than shadow-practicing the Kamasutra!
I conduct wine education seminars and classes once I receive a critical-mass number of emails. These sessions last an entire day with lots of tasting. At the end of the session people may leave with a copy of my book (Wine Wisdom: Buying and Drinking Wine in India) and an oncoming hangover!
This is where I am tailing off for now…I will add once I have some more juice on this.