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How does a sommelier develop skills for creating amazing food and wine pairing?

Being a sommelier in a fine restaurant is an important responsibility. You have to understand your guests past wine experience and their wine preference. These two insights help you recommend several wine options that could pair well with their choice of dishes.

I always like to ask the sommelier for his / her advice to select a wine that will accompany my food choice. 

I have met very professional sommeliers in my career in the wine industry and some who have had some gaps in service and food pairing. These are the skills you learn on the job, I assumed. That's why I was excited to read the title of this article published in January 2020:  Acquiring Competence: Sommeliers on 'good' food and beverage combinations. 

So, what does it take for a sommelier to create good food and wine pairing? 

A study sheds light on a sommelier journey to good food-wine pairing

Researchers from Sweden led this study. I was not surprised to see the authors' affiliation because Sweden has a fantastic wine culture. Two Swedish sommeliers have won the title of the world's best sommelier, I found out.

Swedish sommelier Arvid Rosengren clinched the coveted title of the world's best in the fifteenth ASI Meilleur Sommelier du Monde competition in 2016

What is a sommelier?

  • A waiter in a restaurant who has charge of wines and their service; A wine steward [Merriam Webster online dictionary]
  • A sommelier (/ ˈsɒməljeɪ / or / sʌməlˈjeɪ /; French pronunciation: [sɔməlje]), or wine steward, is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, usually working in fine restaurants, specializing in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food pairing. Wikipedia

The study aimed to understand how professional sommeliers describe their journey to acquire their competence in food and wine pairing.

The process

To do so, the research team set up several group discussions with a total of 21 professional sommeliers, including nine women, from different parts of Sweden and with at least three years of professional experience up to a maximum of 40 years.

Six to eight participants sat in the group discussions, which lasted between 73 and 115 minutes.

The discussions followed a structure to ensure the research questions would remain at the heart of the discussion. Sometimes, conversations can drift on a tangent irrelevant to the main topic; the group moderator needs to monitor and keep control of the talks without leading the thinking.

The conversations covered four themes.

  1. What are your favorite food and beverage pairings for different occasions? 
  2. How did you learn about these pairings? What did you do to inspire you?
  3. How did you work to create these pairings?
  4. How did you present your creations to your restaurant guests?

The analyses of the interviews consisted of coding the sommelier responses into topics, and topics into categories.

The findings

The analyzes provided three leads that could explain how a sommelier acquires his food and wine pairing skills.

First , it's about understanding what a good pairing is. There are basic rules of tastes that match or blend and tastes that fight with each other. Some examples of good pairing were about "a refreshing effect," "simplicity," and "elegance requires elegance."

The participants shared that developing this understanding is easy, but it takes time to practice and educate yourself through reading and experimenting.

Second , more surprisingly to the researchers was the notion of “lowbrow” and “highbrow” applied to describe the pairing. One interviewee referenced this notion by saying that simple foods are sometimes needed to highlight a complex wine - the authors used the term sophisticated that I translated into complex.

Through these discussions, it appeared that the wine is central to bringing some validity to the pairing.

Third , the importance of learning through an appropriate social network, ie, knowing the right people, became apparent in acquiring sommelier skills. 

Some participants referred to the importance of authority figures in their professional development: a father, who was also a Chef, famous sommelier with through events or wine competitions.

I think the benefit of a social network is real in many professional domains. However, one can argue that a sommelier is also an artist in a way; Therefore, learning with different masters of the art provides the depth of knowledge and experience in the sommelier competencies.

Additional thoughts on this study

By the end of the article, I was disappointed not to have answers to all my questions.

As a sensory scientist, I wanted to learn more about the experiments with food and wine pairing the participants did to learn the basic rules (# 2 and # 3 in the interview structure). The authors seem to think these rules are easy to learn, and I disagree.

It is fundamental for any wine taster to understand the whole importance of sensory perceptions, why some sensations blend and mix well, and others clash. This learning takes both formal education and personal experience to understand and apply these basic rules. That might be the subject of another study.

How you could become a sommelier

The most renowned sommelier school is the Court of Sommeliers [2]. The program is tailored to people wanting to work in the hospitality industry, in particular, in fine dining restaurants. It is a four-level education curriculum starting from an introductory course to the prestigious title of Master Sommelier (MS). Per the Court website, only 269 professionals worldwide have earned this distinction through a rigorous exam.

The Court of Master Sommeliers elevates the quality of beverage service throughout the hospitality industry with our peerless credentials.

You may have heard of the Masters of Wine (MW).
What is the difference between an MS and an MW , you may ask [3]? MWs tend to work in the wine trade, while MSs are trained to work in the hospitality industry. As for any rules, there are exceptions with MWs being sommeliers and MSs being wine merchants or even winemakers.

There are also other routes than formal education to consider; If you do not become a professionally certified sommelier, you will at least gain some skills to better understand food and wine pairing or manage a wine cellar and a wine list [4].

I can't wait for the next time a sommelier will advise me on a unique wine that will pair with my food. 

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Published May 6, 2020


 1. Henrik Scander, Nicklas Neuman, Richard Tellström, Agneta Yngve, Acquiring competence: Sommeliers on 'good' food and beverage combinations International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science, Volume 20, 2020, 100199, ISSN 1878-450X

2. Court of Master Sommelier

3. How Anyone Can Become a Sommelier

4. Master of wine vs. Master sommelier: What's the difference? - ask Decanter