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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Sommeliers use their senses

By Linda White
Special to The Sun

As a professional sommelier, April Kilpatrick puts her senses to the test every day. But there's much more to the job than being able to judge a wine by its sight, smell and taste. She's also responsible for creating a wine list, ordering and maintaining stock, training staff and recommending and serving wine.
George Brown college recently introduced certification programs in conjunction with CAPS, a chapter of the Paris-based Association de la Sommellerie Internationale dedicated to developing the sommelier profession.

It's an age-old service that is truly maturing. "There weren't many sommeliers when I got started. It was just a job. Now, it's a more respected profession," Kilpatrick says. "Over the past year or two, I've noticed a lot of customers requesting to speak with the sommelier."

Kilpatrick grew up in Niagara, the heart of Ontario's wine-growing region. She often visited local vineyards while working at area restaurants, which nurtured her interest in wine. She is working toward her Master Sommelier Certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers in the United States.

A sommelier/manager at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Toronto since 1998, Kilpatrick's tasks include educating staff. "We do (wine) tastings all the time," she says. "Last year, each staff member had to do a presentation on a wine region."

She regularly attends wine and food shows and must constantly educate herself about new trends in both food and wine.

"We have a revolving wine list and get a lot of specialty items in," she says. "Pinot Noir is a hit right now, possibly because of the movie Sideways."

Last year, Kilpatrick put her senses to the test and won the Best Ontario Sommelier Competition. Competing sommeliers were evaluated based on their performance on a written questionnaire, a food and wine pairing and the blind tasting of two wines for sight, smell, taste, aftertaste, grape varietal and vintage. Finalists were tested on their formal wine and food pairing presentation and their ability to blind test five premiere wines.
Michelle McCarthy is a sommelier and chair of continuous learning at George Brown.

"This profession is going through a major renaissance," says Gilberto Bojaca, director of the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Association of the Professional Sommeliers (CAPS). "As a sommelier, your main goal is to enhance the dining experience of the guest. You help transform a regular dinner into a truly unforgettable experience."

CAPS is a chapter of the Paris-based Association de la Sommellerie Internationale and is dedicated to developing the sommelier profession. It currently has chapters in Ontario and Quebec and is hoping to expand to eastern and western Canada.

A background in hospitality is helpful in becoming a sommelier but not necessary. Aspiring sommeliers should be computer literate and have a strong understanding of cooking and food. They should also have good marketing, public speaking, management and human resources skills. "It's a well-rounded profession," Bojaca says.

"International language"
A professional sommelier is well versed in food and wine pairing and has an in-depth knowledge of other beverages and how they relate to food. Sommeliers can find work:
  • Managing a beverage program at a restaurant, hotel, resort, casino or tourist attraction;
  • Managing sales programs for import/ export agencies;
  • Buying and selling for the provincial liquor authority;
  • Instructing courses in wine/beverage education;
  • Hosting wine tours abroad;
  • Developing curriculum and courses of study for wineries and training programs for restaurants, hotels and resorts;
  • Operating wine shops or restaurants.
    -- Information from George Brown College and Niagara College

  • Knowledge of other languages is beneficial. "The language of wine is an international language, with many words from French, Spanish, German and Italian," Bojaca says. "It's an old profession, but it's different from even 20 to 30 years ago ... In the past, you learned on your own. Today, there is an opportunity to obtain skills faster through community colleges, the Internet, magazines and books."

    George Brown College in Toronto and Niagara College in Niagara-on-the-Lake have recently introduced certification programs in conjunction with CAPS. The programs are open to candidates familiar with the basic principles of grape growing, wine making and wine varieties.

    The program offers courses on methods of wine production, sensory development and wine styles, New and Old World wine regions, spirits and other beverages and sommelier management. "The program recognizes the need for formalized training to support this profession," says Michelle McCarthy, a sommelier and chair of continuous learning at George Brown.

    "Wine has become a very large part of the entertainment scene and represents a large portion of a restaurant's revenues," she says. "As it becomes more and more complex, the demand for qualified individuals who can speak about wine and provide complete wine service is increasing."

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