sommelier, Shayn does carry around a usable knowledge of
the 1,350 selections—15,000 bottles in all—composing
the restaurant’s wine cellar.
he goes at work, Shayn Bjornholm carries 15,000
bottles of wine. Not the physical bottles, of
course; that would hardly be practical. But as a
A sommelier (soh-mel-YEA) is skilled in
the art of matching wine with food to augment the food’s
flavor. With their specialized training and fine-tuned
palates, sommeliers serve as restaurants’ wine experts
and share this expertise with restaurant guests. "My
job is to demystify wine," says Shayn, "while
still honoring what a fantastic food pairing it is."
At Seattle’s Canlis Restaurant, Shayn’s
first goal in offering his assistance to guests is to put
them at ease. He might initiate conversation without
mentioning wine, chatting instead about topics like the
weather or the guests’ interests. After establishing a
rapport, he eases the discussion toward what the guests
will be eating for dinner. The talk gradually shifts from
food to wine.
Still, before suggesting a wine to
complement their menu choices, Shayn seeks input from the
guests. He asks about the kinds of wine they enjoy, what
their favorites are, and whether they want something that
is similar to—or different from—those preferences to
accompany their meal. He also asks whether they have in
mind a price range.
Based on information that the guests
provide, Shayn proposes three selections at various price
levels. And, much to the surprise of some wary diners, his
suggestions won’t strain their budget. "I
undershoot," he says. "When guests ask for a
$100 bottle, for example, I may go for one that’s $85.
Never, ever, ever, do I try to up-sell."
Shayn can suggest complementary wines
from various price ranges because he knows what’s on the
menu and in the restaurant’s wine cellar. That’s
because consulting with the chef and stocking the cellar
are another realm of the sommelier. Shayn reflects on the
restaurant’s menu, which changes seasonally, when
deciding what to buy. But he updates the 54-page wine list
weekly because of rapidly changing inventory.
Public relations, marketing, and
education related to wine are part of a sommelier’s job,
too. Among Shayn’s activities in this arena are
wine-tasting dinners that he coordinates. Each dinner
showcases wine from a different domestic or international
region. "They’re hard work, but a lot of fun,"
Shayn says of the dinners. "Tasting is just a blast
Tasting wine is, obviously, an essential
part of whetting the sensitive palate that a sommelier
needs to differentiate among the many nuances of wine.
While much of that ability may be innate, however, some is
the result of training. Several organizations offer
programs that lead to sommelier or wine-related
certification. Instruction usually includes courses in
grape varieties and characteristics, wine production,
sensory evaluation, food and wine pairings, and service
techniques. Because tasting wine, an alcoholic beverage,
is required during training, program participants must be
of legal drinking age.
Other than the age requirement, there
are no prerequisites in the United States for becoming a
sommelier. But, realistically, a sommelier without
credentials is not likely to find a job. Shayn has a
sommelier diploma from the International Sommelier Guild,
an organization for which he now teaches. He also has a
higher certificate from the Wine and Spirits Education
Trust and recently passed the advanced-level examination
from the Court of Master Sommeliers.
The Court of Master Sommeliers’
advanced exam is the intermediate stage of a three-level
process for becoming a Master Sommelier. The title of
Master Sommelier is an elite designation held by only 112
sommeliers worldwide, including 56 in the United States.
According to the Court of Master Sommeliers, earnings vary
widely—from about $28,000 for a sommelier with limited
experience to $80,000 to $160,000 for a Master Sommelier.
But because there are no restrictions on assuming the
general title of sommelier, there are no other reliable
employment or earnings data available. The Bureau of Labor
Statistics does not collect data on sommeliers.
Shayn developed an interest in wine and
fine dining after earning a bachelor’s degree from the
University of Virginia.
Gaining experience in restaurants, he
recognized the importance of enjoying the work as a career
instead of merely doing a job. "You have to love the
art of dining," he says. "You have to believe
there’s a grace and an art to it."
By the time he moved into restaurant
management, Shayn concluded that his job would have to
focus on wine if he wanted to continue in the restaurant
business. He pursued sommelier training and worked under
an experienced sommelier at Canlis Restaurant before
assuming the top job there. In 2002, Shayn was named
Sommelier of the Year by the Washington Wine Commission
and the Seattle Times Company. "This is a really,
really fun job," he says. "It’s really fun to
get out there on the floor and get people excited about
Providing sommelier services and selling
wine on the restaurant’s floor account for about 35
percent of his work, Shayn estimates. Tasks related to
stocking the cellar, such as ordering, purchasing, and
inventory upkeep, take up another 35 percent. Marketing
and public relations duties, including teaching, fill the
Except for his classroom teaching, Shayn
spends most of his working hours at the restaurant.
Sommeliers are employed primarily in high-end restaurants,
which provide a comfortable job setting. Whether out on
the floor or stocking the cellar, however, sommeliers work
hard and are on their feet most of the time. If you’re a
morning person, cautions Shayn, you’ll have to either
reset your body clock or consider another line of work.
"Make sure you like to work at night. It affects your
entire life," he says. "You’re not going to
find a daytime sommelier job. It just doesn’t
For Shayn, the tedium of receiving and
recording shipments is the worst part of the job. But
having basic computer skills, including knowing how to set
up and read spreadsheets, makes it more manageable. Some
business knowledge—for determining cost-related issues
such as pricing and profit margins—also is helpful.
Shayn cites people skills, an empathic nature, and an
excellent palate as being important as well.
The most rewarding part of a sommelier’s
job combines those last qualities. "When I see that
light go on in guests’ eyes when they like something I’ve
recommended, especially when they’re skeptical—that’s
phenomenal," says Shayn, "I wouldn’t be doing
this if I didn’t believe wine is the ultimate pairing
Original photos courtesy of