I am a young sommelier 24, whose been in food service and restaurant since 16. Just recently though in the last two years have I gotten into and chose to focus on wine. The last restaurant I was at I got promoted from bartender to Bar Manager and Sommelier, as I was about the only person showing interest and passion.
I have just moved recently to Portland OR, from Denver CO, to get closer to a bunch of wineries and AVAs.
The new job I have found myself in is being an assistant manager at a restaurant with over site of the wines. About a 150-200 bottle list.
Here's where I am wondering if I am straying off course.
Should I instead be working under a better and more knowledgeable Somm and more established restaurant to learn and grow through that? To understand how a great places does it and all that goes behind the scenes. To have a mentor.
Or do you prefer the more self learning route, which I have for the most part been on. Where I continue to advance and gain more and more management experience. And positions where I would be over looking wine lists and buying.
I see both as viable great options. I would love to hear from everyone and their experiences on which route they have taken or would guide a younger Somm on.
I believe very strongly in mentors; I'm the wine professional that I am because I had ppl better and more experienced than I around to guide me at many stages. That said, I think you are young enough to not worry just yet. Running your own program, even a small one, is a great opportunity. Learn all that you can where you and start making some connections to people you might one day want to learn from. Let them know you are interested, and then be patient and wait for the opportunity to join them.
If you are patient and work hard, I'm sure you can find a mentor outside of your place of work.
I'm not much older than you myself (almost 27), and was an assistant manager at a fantastic restaurant when I was 24/25. I wouldn't really consider the rest of the FOH management team I worked with at the time as mentors. I did learn a lot from everyone I came into contact with (what to do and what NOT to do). I wasn't really in the wine game at that point, but it got me where I am now (working with a great team and have an amazing mentor.)
It sounds like where you are is a great opportunity to learn. Take away as much as you can from there. There are a lot of valuable lessons you can learn in the position you are in. Being a great somm isn't just knowing a ton of information about wine. The hospitality aspect is JUST as important. You have the opportunity to hone your interpersonal skills, and really work that reflex that allows you to think quickly on your feet.
In addition to a mentor, try to find someone/s at your level to study and taste with. A mentor and study group each contribute in their own way, and for me both have been equal in helping me grow as a sommelier.
I think you need to take a bit of time and assess where you want to go. Do you want to run a program at a Michelin starred house? Do you want to become a beverage manager or F&B director? Do you want to eventually get onto the supplier side? Maybe you want to make wine one day? Want to open your own place? It's hard to say what you should be doing without knowing what you want to do in five to ten years.
Having said that, I've never learned more than working where I am now. When I made the jump from 200 SKU Italian wine lists (one I ran, one I was a server/supervisor at) to working with a 2000 SKU list at Wild Ginger, it tested me more than any exam had. Being faced with a wall of Riesling, with pages and pages just dedicated to the Mosel, really forced me to to up my game (and by being able to taste these wines I was really able solidify my knowledge).
Regardless where you end up, you'll never really learn anything unless you find a way to challenge yourself. That, more than anything, will determine how good of a somm you end up being.
I like to have the combination of self study and learning as well as a mentor who isn’t my direct supervisor at work. That way your mentor can push you but it doesn’t affect your working environment and of disagreements come up (they will) ithen you don’t have to be together all the time.
Thank you Martin for your insight.
Yes, one thing I know for-sure is that I would love to open my own place. Whether that be a tasting menu style or a more casual wine bar or anything in between is what I am unsure of. Part of the draw of taking the management position was to learn and become more tuned to the back office operations that are needed to go along in running a successful restaurant. Also to grow as a leader and manager as I know very few Somm positions are dedicated solely to wine.
One factor that makes it hard to decide is that I just haven't experience enough to know. I have not worked at a Michelin Starred House, or truly know the supplier side ins and outs. And more so. Maybe my priority is to jump around and dabble in each field to see which i align more with.
Perhaps I'll follow a very similar path to yours. Where I learn as much as I can managing at a more smaller and select restaurant before jumping to a grand place.
I do wholeheartedly agree with your last statement. Continually challenging myself is one of the biggest driving forces in why I chose to pursue wine and restaurant service.
Kelli White said:That said, I think you are young enough to not worry just yet.
Thank you Kelli,
The mentors seem to be such a critical role I have found to keep popping up in so many Somm's and wine professionals story and development. That was the main reason for striking up this topic and why I feel some uncertainty.
As everything I have done for the most part has been self driven and taught. Which has its ups and downs but its tough to build a solid structure and foundation as your learning as you go.
I do always find comfort when people say i have plenty of time or your still young. I am always hard on myself in thinking i should be further or more accomplished. It always helps ground me. I have to keep telling myself that wine and hospitality are a lifelong pursuit.
I do feel that is something that i will have to find and focus on soon. Moving to Portland I left my friends, colleagues, and support study group. So maybe that's why the idea of a mentor has been more strongly rooted lately as i feel more isolated and alone then usual.
Alycia your awesome!
Thanks for sharing. Yes this latest position i took was to more so learn where I i have weakness in. The position itself will lend to that growth as very similar i wouldn't say the FOH management are "mentor material". However I am sure i'll have lots to learn from them in like you said, "what to do and what NOT to do"
The path I was on was both self guided and with a mentor. When I was just starting out in fine dining, I had a great somm to learn from. She transitioned to another location in the company and I was on my own. At that time I had not taken over the program. It was a year or 2 after, when I took over and had some time to learn on my own. I do think you can learn from everyone that you work with. Case in point, my former GM knew almost nothing about wine, except that he liked it, but taught me how to break down a P&L statement like an accounting wizard. It is now something I teach to my newer managers and chefs that have little to no back office experience. If you are wanting to someday have your own place, you will have to learn how to operate the place as a whole.
If you do decide to continue with your current restaurant, the easiest way to find mentorship outside of your workplace is through a weekly tasting group. You almost certainly gain weekly access to someone who can mentor you if you find a group that is willing to help bring you up. In one of our tasting groups, we have people who have attempted and passed the Masters exam alongside people who just passed their Certified exams and are looking towards the Advanced exam.
Mentors come in different forms. If you have good business mentors at work, that can be really valuable if you want to run your own program. I imagine there are some good tasting groups in Portland that you can find your way into to supplement that on the wine front.
I see some excellent advice so I will skip that aspect...I actually wanted to reach out and recommend some restaurants to eat at in Portland. I lived there for a year and found it to be the best place I have ever had the pleasure of eating. I've worked in restaurants my entire life and I was newly inspired by the food scene there. It sounds cliché but its true. So...here is a brief list and I hope, if you try any of these, you find them to be as wonderful as I did. I will put them somewhat in order with the first ones being my favorite:
Ava Genes...This is my favorite restaurant...ever. Joshua McFadden is a Rockstar and this is to me is the epitome of what farm to table can be. Try any of the salad plates to be reawakened at what vegetables can do. He also wrote an amazing cookbook called Six Seasons: A new way with vegetables...Its only about a year old. He has a few other amazing spots in town...a few that just opened up and Tusk which is also outstanding.
Lovelys 50/50 (Its the best pizza...ever)
Wolf and Bear (falafel)
Nongs Khao Man Gai for legit Khao Man Gai
Le Pigeon for beef Cheeks
Rose VL Deli for authentic Vietnamese
Harlow for Brunch
Mt Tabor Bakery
Portland State University Farmers Market
And a specialty food store called Providore in SE...they have a amazing fish monger there called flying fish pdx...they get amazing cuts of fish and do a great raw bar happy hour oyster special for cheap(ish). There are so many excellent places to eat there. Hope you enjoy your time there...Also...go hiking...the Colombia river gorge is half an hour away and its another world. You were smart to move there. Remember nothing is what you imagine it will be...Don't get discouraged by the lack of sun this time of year. Spring and summer will blow your mind. Enjoy the food scene!!
Seems like we have a similar story, hospitality since 16, I moved onto culinary school and found wine a few years later. I was extremely fortunate and lucked into a mentor very early into my career, and he was extraordinarily essential in me passing my certified. That being said, I moved to Chicago only a few months after that so I could be the tiniest fish in a big pond. The biggest thing is to never stop the grind, never stop looking for the next thing to learn, and constantly challenge yourself. It's a huge benefit to find someone who knows leagues more than you and find some opportunities to be able to just listen to them and hopefully set aside some time for them to hear you out. But know when the burnout is coming and do something for yourself, there is no sense trying to reach the finish line if getting there feels miserable
Testing for my Advanced in Portland this March, any local suggestions?
Keep on keeping on
A little off topic but I’m a Portland local and can give you a few recommendations if you’d like? I don’t want to hijack Remys thread though.