Throughout the many years of teaching, consulting, coaching, speaking and writing as a professional and certified Sommelier internationally, there are few issues that I have encountered as possessing a more clouded and convoluted public understanding like the mere concept of what a 'Sommelier' actually is.
The word itself is a mystery to most, even the ones who own the title and in more recent times, as the "trend" has increased publicly - especially in the good old USA, the term has been usurped, stripped, modified, tweaked and often forcefully molded to fit business interests.
So how can we answer the question "What is a Sommelier ?" in a sincere, historically accurate and truthful manner, especially one that doesn't tend to conceal commercial agendas ?
First the etymology...The word "Sommelier" derives from the French, who were yes indeed the very first to create this very specific and qualified credential (more on that later...) and more specifically from the French word 'saumalier'...that is "he who is entitled to the handling and managing of the provisions for a nobleman", aptly called a "Somme" - or STOCK. In other words...the guy who is responsible for the drinks and the food.
The other part of the sommelier’s position was to ensure the perishables were still edible and that none of the food or wine had been poisoned. This involved tasting / testing the food and the beverage prior to service. During the reigns of certain, less popular monarchs, or in the service of a particularly despised nobleman, you can immagine how short lived the job could have been. The individual was thus trained and became an expert in tasting, evaluating food and wine, pairing, serving and managing the inventory...all traits that we train on and require even to this day in order to carry this hefty title. Poison aside...
The 'tastevin' (tast-eh-ven) was the Somm's "tool" (pictured above) and was carried around the neck as a personal tasting equipment, personalized and decorated, with which the trained individual would assess the wines being served and still remains a strong symbol to this day (no it is NOT an ash tray).
Due to the immense importance that food and wine had in the old-world society and the life-saving / health-saving responsibilities the Sommelier possessed, the title of Sommelier was not one that was given out lightly and soon became a strictly schooled qualification that one had to study for, train for, pass tests for and ultimately truly own. Today we see the word being slapped around on business cards, press articles, chat rooms and forums, small talk and wine lists as if simply "covering the position" means that you can call yourself a SOMMELIER. Wrong. As anyone who writes "attorney" on their resume' must have passed the bar-exam and attended law school, the same is absolutely true for the Sommelier. Would you call yourself "Doctor" without having attended and passed medical school ? For those conveniently arguing (convenient to them...) that Doctors and Pilots have lives in their hands and Sommeliers do not...please read the previous 2 paragraphs again.
France and Italy were the 2 countries that without a doubt initiated the biggest and oldest curriculums and enlistments of Sommeliers. Not a coincidence if you consider they are currently still the 2 most significant wine producing countries in the world. It was a necessity there more than a desire. Indeed, the French 'Union' (USF) and the Italian 'Associazione' (AIS) are largely considered and factually proven to be the most historical and original organizations...SCHOOLS! (like Harvard or Yale or Stanford if you want to become a lawyer). A simple Wikipedia search of 'Sommelier' shows them indeed at the 1st two positions. These 2 associations also founded the only 2 'international umbrella controlling entities', a sort of 'quality control and overseeing' organization that creates international events for its daughter schools and keeps quality and curriculums in check. For example, both have the "Best Sommelier in the World" competitions (in London, UK 2013...we were there and arrived 5th). Not belonging under any of these umbrellas literally means to have a disconnect with the origins of the Sommelier credential and operating rogue. Perhaps a positive business decision, perhaps even political...but fundamentally 'independent', with all the meanings the word can assume.
So how about the good old US-of-A ?
Unlike most European countries today, the United States do not officially recognize the title, school or diploma of "Sommelier". There is no legislation, archive, statute or piece of writing in the US Department of Education that even mentions the word "SOMMELIER", let alone give credit for it. This does not mean that if you earned the title it is a fraud...to the contrary...but it simply signifies that all certificates, diplomas, courses, titles, credentials and what not that have the word 'Sommelier' in them given on US soil; are private schools. Private courses. Private certifications.
Choosing the "school" that most suits your purposes, persona, tastes and preferences is the same as choosing whether you want to become a Cosmetologist (title officially recognized by the State) in college 'A' in Los Angeles or college 'B' in San Diego. Each one has its own approach, its own style and its own "environment"...its own 'pros' and 'cons', but ultimately trains and certifies the SOMMELIER. There is no "exclusivity" or "brand" on the word 'SOMMELIER' and the word 'Certified' as well is of public domain. That would be like saying, "you can only be a real 'attorney' if you graduate from Harvard".
Then what is NASA (North American Sommelier Association) ?
The North American Sommelier Association is the daughter school of the WSA (Worldwide Sommelier Association) in the territory of North America. The WSA is one of the 2 global "controlling entities" that I mentioned forehand. We were founded in 2006 in the American State of California, with headquarter in Los Angeles. We are one of the "schools" and represent the curriculum, methods, standards and training that were handed to us with the qualification of our Executive Council through the Italian association, one of the most significant and historical in the world (as mentioned above)...all tweaked, updated and adjusted to fit both the more modern times and our American society & market.
Aside from being the only curriculum that possesses a technical, scientific / physiological method to food and wine pairing, which is our utmost strength and one of the main focuses in our certification course, the mentality we have inherited from our old-world roots is that of tradition and experience, with high adaptability thanks to our century old educational heritage. We do not believe in "tiers" or "levels". We feel that placing a "classification" is more suitable for wineries in Bordeaux than it is to a job qualification born in the 1500's & steeped in historical reputation and risks turning the job-title into a "boys club" contest. Do you officially qualify lawyers, doctors, pilots and geologists as "ok", "decent", "good" and "big kahuna" ?? The feeling on this side of the street is that once you earn the title of 'Sommelier'...you are by all means a 'Sommelier'. Not for better or worst. And you must carry that title successfully with the skills and capabilities and knowledge that someone carrying that title should have, without discrimination on "level" or "rank". This is not the military.
NASA offers its course in 3 "phases" but in one single offering. If you desire to become a 'Sommelier', we feel this is the minimum path and training that you must endure to earn and rightfully carry that title, in accordance with its original and historical dictates of when it was created and where it was created. It stood the harsh test of time and came out with flying colors. This is a "school", and one that honors its origins.
So why the confusion and controversy ?
The USA do not have such a history with this position. In America, it was introduced into the country in the late 1970's and did not even become popularly known or recognized since the last decade. 'Business', 'politics' and 'sales' were at the forefront of the motivations behind its development in the USA and perfectly in line with a strongly capitalist society. This was essential in introducing and establishing this certification and title in America but the time has come to dot the I's and cross the T's. Traveling to Europe and attending events or hanging out with Somms there, will quickly put things in quite some context for you. So why limit yourself to one-or-two markets ? Is it all "gloomy" here ? ABSOLUTELY NOT ! The super exciting thing is that America is quickly comprehending the reality of this realm and catching up very fast. Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola ? You choose...they both stand testimony to why America remains the "land of opportunity" and no less, the greatest country in the world.
NASA Vice-President & Director Of Education