The term sommelier is derived from the Middle French noun “saumalier”—which referred to an official in charge of all travel supplies, including (incidentally) wine. After the Middle Ages, the term evolved to Sommier du Seigneur, denoting the man in charge of stocking food and drink in the household of a noble or wealthy family. Not until the 19th century did the word “sommelier” take on the meaning of knowledgeable, experienced wine-procurer for fine restaurants, hotels, or prominent individuals in France. In Britain, the role was known as a “wine steward” or “wine butler.”
Today, in the United States and elsewhere, a person doesn’t have to be officially certified, trained or educated to serve as sommelier in a restaurant. However, prestige, job opportunities—and usually salary—are greatly enhanced with practical work experience and/or a college degree, or special sommelier accreditation. Quite a few universities offer bachelor or masters degrees in Oenology (the science of wine and winemaking), and the Society of Wine Educators, founded in 1974, has internationally recognized certification programs, including Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), Certified Wine Educator (CWE), and Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS).
The highest levels of wine education are “Master Sommelier” (MS) and “Master of Wine” (MW). One course of study is not better than the other; rather, there are differences in the orientations of the two programs. A MW’s training is academically rigorous, requiring much essay-writing as well as a final dissertation. Training for a MS emphasizes wine education as it pertains to the food and beverage industry. Most students entering the MS program have already had quite a lot of experience in a restaurant setting. The institutions offering these two courses of study are The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) and the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW). Both courses of study require several years of academic training and extensive wine tasting to complete the programs.
According to The Court of Master Sommeliers, Master Sommelier certification currently is held by only 180 individuals in the world, the majority—112 of these—are North Americans (95 men and 17 women). According to the Institute of Masters of Wine, 289 individuals in the world are Masters of Wine, just 25 are from North America and 79 are women. Only a handful of individuals have attained both MS and MW distinctions.
To become a sommelier there are many possible paths. To start, one must be blessed with a sensitive palate and the natural ability to perceive the qualities in a wide array of wines. Otherwise, a sommelier can be self-taught, raised in the business, have had on-the-job training, perhaps have studied wine in college, be specially certified, or might even have completed years of study to attain the title of Master of Wine or Master Sommelier.