The word sommelier has come to us byway of an interesting etymological journey. A somier (Old French for 'pack animal'), was watched over by a sommerier. A sommerier's responsibility included the animals and their cargo. Sommerier mutated into soumelier, and the meaning slightly shifted-- a soumelier (a Middle French word) was responsible for transporting supplies. The spelling and meaning slightly shifted again-- a sommelier was someone in charge of a specific type of cargo. Now, this term refers exclusively to beverages, and sometimes cigars (Parr & Mackay 2010:4).
During the 1300s in England, the royal butler would source wines for the king. We can reasonably concur that many butlers in wealthy households also procured wine for their households. In the butler's records from this time we can see interesting trends: Some years, just before harvest (in late summer) there would be a shortage of wine-- the previous year's wine having been consumed. The price of wine would rise sharply, then fall again when the new vintage became available. The butler would buy heavy in poor years for the household's table wine, but in good years the butler would buy larger quantities of the best wines for the king's personal consumption, and less bulk purchases for household consumption (James 1971:6-7). In a way, the sommeliers in most restaurants today echo similar rhythms and trends: we try to concentrate our higher end bottle selections in the finest vintages, and look for good declassified wines in less-acclaimed vintages for the house pours.
The modern day sommelier emerged alongside the modern day restaurant. Public dining used to happen in a tavern-like form: diners would eat whatever stew, pie, or meal the tavern owner had made that day. The phenomenon of the a la carte menu didn't occur until during the French Revolution. The word restaurant comes from a French root word that means "to restore," and these first dining venues were seen as places to eat restorative food during the trying times of the Revolution. By 1782, two of the first a la carte restaurant menus at Antoine Beauvilliers 'Beauvilliers' and 'Boulanger' offered made-to-order dishes in France (Bakas 2011). Another early restaurant, Boeuf a la Mode (1792-1936), also helped cement this new genre of eating establishment into a form with an assured future. André Jammet, formerly an owner of the NYC restaurant La Caravelle and a descendant from a family with centuries of French restaurant experience, notes that the chef profession was once a patronized job funded by the European aristocracy. After the French Revolution-- with the aristocratic class wiped out-- many chefs found themselves without a job and began to open up small shops cooking for the public. This was the impetus for these early 18th century restaurants.
These venues began to require beverage professionals, and the first sommeliers laid the foundations of our current discipline. Early wine stewards were usually rejected cooks, kicked out of the kitchen and sent to the basement, usually with a chip on their shoulder (Steinberger 2008). But early sommeliers had much different jobs than we do today; they dealt with negociants and barrels, and a few bottles here and there. Estate bottling only became the standard format for transporting wine in the mid-1900s.
With these growing restaurant wine lists, growing wine cellars, and a consumer demand for variety and knowledgable service, came the demand for the sommelier profession. The lively and popular sommelier profession as we know it today is a recent development made possible by the challenges and changes of the 20th century. Tremendous growth in the sommelier industry carries with it just a few decades of recent history.
But how does the present day sommelier differ from a sommelier in the mid-1900s?
Many US sommeliers I meet were once on a career path for something completely different, but through often tumultuous circumstances, found wine. I hear this same story again and again, and even lived it myself. Browse through a few of Levi Dalton's sommelier interviews on the I'll Drink to That podcast, and you will see how many sommeliers came to restaurants after a different career. Pascaline Lepeltier? She was studying philosophy. Jeff Porter? High school teacher. Thomas Pastuszak? A pianist. Matt Stinton? An actor.
I'll posit that most of us come to being sommeliers after a first career because the legal drinking age in the US is 21, and most people graduate college and set their career paths long before they have exposure to inspiring wine. Then in our 20s, after setting the course, we become entranced by wine and are confronted with a crossroads: break away from the chosen career path and commit to the restaurant lifestyle, or stay the course and be a wine enthusiast on the sidelines. There are exceptions. Grant Reynolds discovered wine in a study abroad program to Piedmonte. Roger Dagorn was incubated in a sommelier household. And in other countries, an early connection with wine is more easily forged.
But despite the lucky few who found their callings early in life, the plethora of people coming to wine from different careers has had a profound effect on the industry. In just about any area of study, when an infusion of interdisciplinary ideas merge, there is usually a renaissance of some kind. In the Manhattan market, I've been amazed by this phenomenon. When people come to restaurants from a science background the operational data of the restaurants are enhanced. I worked once with an MIT guy who instated some of the most incredible spreadsheets I've ever seen for tracking wine. The spreadsheets help go through the motions of wine ordering and inventory evaluation much faster, and the sheets have since been passed around from restaurant to restaurant. Now the entire restaurant industry is better because of this simple way of seeing things from an engineer's perspective. When people come to restaurants from an acting or theater perspective, the dining experience can be enhanced for the guests-- many former actors find correlations between service and acting and have taught the tools of entertainment to their FOH colleagues. When people come to restaurants from a dancing career, the movement in the dining room can be almost like choreography. Per Se famously brings in ballet dancers to teach their staff how to move with grace. When people come to wine from a teaching career, their tableside manner and philosophies on staff education can be revolutionary. When people come to wine from a writing background, the quality of tasting notes and the day-to-day verbal jargon becomes enhanced with more meaningful vocabulary. When former cooks come to being sommeliers, they bring with them an enhanced depth of food and beverage pairing that can inspire the entire industry. When different disciplines collide, new genres and ways of doing things emerge, and this incredible, culture-rich phenomenon is happening right now in the sommelier community.
The modern-day sommelier emerged from the violence of the French Revolution, but the future of the profession is blossoming into a beautiful web where snippets of wisdom from all walks of life come together and express the multi-dimensional magic of wine.
Anonymous (1887) "The Bill at Bignon's" New York Times. 10 April 1887.
Bakas, Rick (2011) "The History of Restaurants & Dining." Wine Country Eating.
James, Margery Kirkbride. (1971) Studies in the Medieval Wine Trade. Oxford: Clarendon.
Jammet, André. (2013) Personal Communication at a wine event in NYC. December 30.
Parr, Rajat and Jordan Mackay. (2010) Secrets of the Sommeliers: How to Think and Drink Like the World's Top Professionals. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Steinberger, Michael. (2008) "A Turn of the Corkscrew." Slate. 2008 January 2