WINE IS the staple of every romantic dinner in a high-end restaurant and the drink of choice for the sophisticated drinker. Choosing the right wine to be paired with the right food at the right place is one of the many responsibilities of a wine sommelier, and something they are trained extensively for. To understand what being a wine sommelier is like, The Yonsei Annals has interviewed Cha Jin-seon and Yang Dae-hoon, wine sommeliers who have years of experience working firsthand at various events and restaurants.
Choosing to be a wine sommelier
Annals: What exactly does a career as a wine sommelier entail?
Cha: A wine sommelier is typically responsible for selecting wines and providing a service for restaurants. Using our knowledge of wine, we create wine lists and recommend the best wines that pair best with the dishes served and the ambiance of the restaurant, to provide a better experience for the customer.
Yang: It’s a mixture of intuition and knowledge of wine, specifically when it comes to providing services based on the customer’s preferences and taste. A wine sommelier is the link between selling food and beverages and providing an experience to the customer. Wine sommeliers are also usually in charge of managing inventory and purchase of a wine selection that pairs best with the food offered at the restaurant they work at.
Annals: How did you decide to become a wine sommelier?
Cha: While I was studying gastronomy, I became fascinated by how a customer’s experience with the dishes served would differ depending on the beverage they were paired with. There were endless combinations of food and beverages that I could experiment with, so I decided to study this further. Eventually, I found my passion as a wine sommelier, as there is a complexity to wine that captured my attention.
Yang: For me, the phrase “drinking wine can make everyone happy” left a deep impression when I was younger. Many people think wine is just another type of alcohol, but if you’re involved in the process that a bottle of wine goes through from production to being served at a customer’s table, it’s not something that you can overlook. Unlike other types of alcohol where you get drunk right away, drinking wine is a different experience. I remember talking sincerely with a senior in 2007 about his future career whilst sharing a bottle of wine, which I felt that I couldn’t have done if it had been another type of alcohol. At that moment, I realized that wine is more about the process than the results, which is why I decided to study it further and eventually, it became my career.
Annals: What are the requirements to become a wine sommelier, such as qualifications or a type of mindset?
Cha: The first thing you need is passion, because this career requires a lot of studying. It’s necessary to learn about the cultivation of grapes, the different processes of making wine, the different types of wines and grapes, characteristics of vineyards and the countries they’re located in, and wine service practices. All of this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are currently four major institutions that offer certificates: The Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET), the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), the Society of Wine Educators (SWE), and the Institute of Masters of Wine.
The certificates you aim for depend on the career aspirations you have as a wine sommelier. The SWE is aimed more for those who wish to be wine educators, while the CMS focuses on wine service and gives you the official title of sommelier. WSET covers a broad range of topics, as it focuses on all aspects of wine trade, not simply service. Finally, the Institute of Masters of Wine gives the highest certificates you can achieve, focusing on wine education and research.
Yang: While understanding the background and basic framework for wine is one of the biggest requirements, I think that working comfortably in public settings and communicating effectively and directly with your customers are essential. Because everybody’s tastes and preferences are different, a wine sommelier must be flexible to be able to work with different people, types of wines, and dishes. Simply knowing the theory behind wine processes isn’t enough, as hands-on experience and knowing how each wine tastes and pairs well with a dish is crucial to doing your job as a wine sommelier.
Being a wine sommelier
Annals: What is the best part about being a wine sommelier?
Cha: It is truly a fulfilling experience when we communicate effectively with our customers and find a good selection of wine that they enjoy, thus meeting their needs. The fact that we can provide a satisfactory experience for our customers, as well as receive recognition for it, is one of the best things about being a wine sommelier.
Yang: The best thing about being a wine sommelier is working in restaurants. Not only is it amazing to work with the chefs to create a wine list that goes with the recipes that they prepare, it’s also fulfilling to talk with customers and see that they enjoy the wine that you’ve recommended for them. I also find myself learning new things every day, not just about wine and food pairings but also about people, which is why I am glad I chose this career path.
Annals: What are some of the obstacles you have faced in your career?
Cha: There are many difficulties in any career, but since wine sommeliers could be considered as service jobs, most of the difficulties can come with dealing with customers. It can be taxing to deal with demanding customers, especially those who think wine is “just” alcohol or the customers that demand a specific type of wine and then complain that it doesn’t pair well with the dish that they’ve ordered. However, our country has grown and with it, people’s knowledge and the way they think about wine is changing, which have opened up a lot of opportunities in Korea.
Yang: I think getting the necessary experience to become a successful wine sommelier was the hardest obstacle I’ve faced. Because wine is expensive, it was financially challenging to pursue it as a career in the beginning. It can also be physically exhausting to study so much about wine and attend various events like wine tastings to gain the necessary experience. However, I believe all that I have learned through this process is more than worth the trouble.
Annals: How has your career as a wine sommelier influenced your daily life?
Cha: As it allows me to try a variety of food and wine, it has made me enjoy trying new dishes that I hadn’t had before. While having a passion for wine can hurt your wallet in the short run, wine is the type of beverage that provides satisfaction beyond drinking alcohol. I also travel a lot, for conferences and events, so it has helped me meet a lot of different people and visit new places, which has helped me increase my palette. The biggest influence, however, is that it recently gave me the opportunity to branch out into Japanese sake. I am currently studying the different brewing techniques used for sake, because I find its diversity and richness of taste interesting.
Yang: In general, I think it has made me become a more patient person. I used to be a very impatient person who wanted things to be done efficiently, but through my career, which requires a lot of thought and an appreciation for fine cuisine and the appropriate wine pairing, I have learned to take things slowly and observe things that I normally wouldn’t.
Annals: What can be considered significant career milestones for wine sommeliers?
Cha: Personally, a successful milestone as a wine sommelier is getting to know a variety of people and knowing that I have provided a satisfying experience for the customers. Far beyond simply drinking and eating, it can be a joyful experience delivered through taste. For me, that’s the charm of wine—it can enrich every moment and bring happiness to the conversation.
Yang: Career milestones are different for everybody, but for me, my biggest achievements so far have been participating in the National Sommelier Competition since 2009, which takes place once a year, being a judge for the Korea Wine Challenge, and becoming a member of the Berlin Wine Trophy Review Board, a very prestigious wine competition held in its namesake.
For reference, the National Sommelier Competition is a competition open to all sommeliers worldwide under the age of 30, who compete in a series of regional competitions until the 12 finalists for the last round are decided. Last year, the final round was held in Seoul for the first time, with some of the most prestigious wine sommeliers gathered at the Grand Hilton Seoul hotel, hoping to earn the title of world’s top young sommelier.
The Korea Wine Challenge is Korea’s only international wine competition, which is hosted by The Wine Review*. It’s a competition that determines the best quality wines to introduce to Korean customers, which is very helpful for global wine brands that want to enter the Korean market.
A word to aspiring wine sommeliers
Annals: Is there any advice you could give to people looking to pursue a career as a wine sommelier?
Cha: First of all, I would like to say that being a wine sommelier isn’t an easy career path, especially in Korea. While it requires a lot of studying, many of the things that a wine sommelier must learn are gained through experience and passion. It is a very demanding job, as simply preparing for an event or working with a restaurant needs one’s full commitment for over eight hours a day. It may seem like a cool and fancy career, but it’s one that has its fair share of obstacles. Travelling and knowing the different cultural practices of different countries when it comes to wine is also very important, which is hard to enjoy if you don’t have the right mindset.
Yang: I recommend approaching a career as a wine sommelier with humility and patience. For most people, a bottle of wine being opened at the dinner table might not be that much different from other types of beverages, but there has been a lot of thought and effort put into selecting the best wine for that moment. I think it is the same for every other career, but the most important thing to remember is to choose a career that you enjoy not just in the moment of success and happiness, but continuously even through the hard times.
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Every career looks to make a difference in someone’s life. Some careers are oriented towards saving people’s lives and improving their living conditions, while others, such as the career of a wine sommelier, are focused more on providing people with memorable experiences. As demanding as it can be, both with the educational requirements and the necessity for field experience to know the best type of wine to choose, pursuing a career as a wine sommelier can be a great opportunity to travel and experience different cultures, learning what different people are looking for in a glass of wine. For them, wine is more than a beverage—it can be a “sip of the good life”.
*Magazine that specializes in wine, published once a month