How To… Become an Austrian Sommelier

Becoming a self-taught wine writer is easily more fun than covering city hall or the sewer district.  Still, as my articles on local wines and vintners accumulated, all written after a pleasant day cruising one of Austria’s charming wine regions, I developed an uneasy feeling of self-doubt: Other than enthusiasm, where were my qualifications? 

Even in the dark days of lockdown, the WIFI (Business Development Institute) in Vienna was taking registrations for their Wine Sommelier course starting in February 2021, a ten week course for around €1600, with the promise of solid theory and plenty of in-the-mouth practical training. 

Time to get serious.  

Hard grind learnings

Anyone expecting a Sommelier course to be a leisurely stroll through the romance of the vineyards, topped off with a few snifters of the good wines to close out the class, was in for a rude surprise. The facts and figures of the various regions, the care of the vines and the multiple technologies in the cellars, the purchasing structure and price management of the wine list – all of this is hard-grind learning.  

The wine tasting itself, I discovered, is especially difficult.  To evaluate 10 wines in 60 minutes means looking, sniffing, tasting and spitting, while making precise notes against the clock. This has nothing in common with that delightful moment of losing yourself in the first glass of your favorite wine after a tough day of hammering out project proposals or wrangling with ungrateful clients.  So don’t say I didn’t warn you!  

We were a disparate dozen in the level 2 Sommelier Course at the WIFI, young to older and mostly well along in careers in and around the food and wine business. There was: Jacqueline (all names have been changed), an Austro-French entrepreneur balancing an up-market on-line wine retail business with two small children. Ingrid, a tough-minded restaurant manager in mid-career, looking to add Sommeliere to her impressive resumé; and Suzie, a middle-aged daughter of a wine-making family near Vienna. 

Among the men: Bogdan, a burly but sweet-natured Serb, unemployed since Covid closed the restaurant he had been managing; Sven and Peter, two German engineers, there for the challenge and the love of wine; Benny, a rangy 20-something with cool dude nonchalance, who turned out to have one of the best wine noses in the group. And finally, your correspondent, a devoted appreciator trying to understand what it is that he loves about wine. 

Full frontal Zoom

The course began on Zoom, in the darkest days of lockdown.  Not ideal, but I must admit, the Zoom sessions worked remarkedly well.  Our instructors, all hardened pros from the biz, were well prepared, with some occasionally idiosyncratic slides.  However a massive five-kilo ring binder delivered the details, softened with magnificent Wine Marketing Board photography of rolling vineyards.  

And as many of us now know, the prying eye of the Zoom camera reveals the private world of colleagues and classmates previously unseen in the neutral space of conference or classroom. Some were cozily settled at their kitchen tables, others in spartan Ikea style corners, pets and children cheerfully ignoring the class work. “Your wall clock has stopped,” one admonished me. (Sigh.)

For the wine tastings, we ventured into the depths of the 22nd district to collect our dozen small numbered bottles. Then at the following Zoom, we lined them up and tasted them systematically in real time, under the watchful eye our genial bearded instructor, Florian.  Our sometimes blundering first attempts were cheerfully corrected. But unlike a real class room where you see the back of peoples’ heads, the full-frontal Zoom is unforgiving: The sardonic grins of those who got it right where you have blundered off into the wrong region, grape or vintage are a more powerful corrective than any schoolmaster’s crack on the knuckles. 

Balkan bureaucracy rules

A core discipline is creating the wine list.  For our course the program demanded a hundred wines, a considered balance of white, red and (increasingly) rosés, with a leavening of aperitives and sparkling wines. And of course fine desert wines – this being Austria, home to some of the world’s greatest late harvested Edelfäule (botrytis or “noble rot”) specialties. And of course to Sachertorte and a host of other patisseries that cry out for something elegantly sweet. Sounds simple enough: you just have to just trawl the sites of a few good growers and note down what you need. 

But getting it right turns out not to be so easy:  The wine listing must provide all the information the labelling laws require, but many growers are selective in what they reveal, or just plain careless. For the 16 regions with the coveted DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus) status (plus two others with similarly tight regulations not yet formally accredited) the labelling requirements are minute and precise – and in infuriating ways often different.  The regulatory legislation that followed the 1985 wine scandal was intended to simplify and consolidate the rules. But in the time-honored tradition of Balkan bureaucracy succeeded in doing just the opposite.  Cynics say it’s because the major growers in each region crafted the details to favor their own wines. They are probably right. 

Describing the indescribable

Language is critical in the sommelier’s professional competence.  This correspondent had always been wary of the “luscious blackberries and cherry … a hint of ripe peaches … with a faint note of burnt almonds …” spiel. Or as NY Times wine critic Eric Asimov sardonically refers to it, “those extravagant grocery-shopping lists” – hymns of praise that bolster the shelf price of many wines and send ad-land writers scouring the thesaurus. 

We were (at least partly) wrong.

For the sommelier’s daily work, such vocabulary is indispensable – you  must be able to recognize, categorize and evaluate (often highly similar) wines in order to purchase, list and advise. The color, the clarity and viscosity on the glass, the first aroma, the delightful assault on the tongue, and then the lingering after taste – all of this must be packed into words. The sommelier must then remember each wine’s profile and communicate it to suppliers, colleagues and customers. 

This is dauntingly difficult, but it can be learned. And the WIFI sommelier courses respect this: about 25% of classroom time is spent tasting (and spitting), while studiously noting the wines’ characteristics for discussion and comment with the instructors.  

Austrian white fits all

Knowing the wines is just the start; restaurants are selling wine to go with the food (or is it the other way round?). Which wine goes with which dish? The unappetizing profi phrase “food pairing” is the eternal question and moment of painful uncertainty for many a diner.  

This is the test of the sommelier. The old commonplace of red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat rapidly proves inadequate: richly oily salmon or eel, spicy oriental or Latino, certainly call for something robust in the glass.  Vegetarian or vegan? A whole world of new flavors is opening up, an intriguing challenge for the classically trained wine waiter. And for paleo diet fans, there are the trending natural or “orange” wines: often cloudy, a bit musty and acidic – but “authentic”.  

Austria’s own wines are about two-thirds white, so it shouldn’t have been surprising that for most dishes our instructors favored white wines. The recommendations went well into what Anglo-American palettes have long considered red wine territory: chicken and veal dishes, charcuterie plates with salamis and smoked meats, even (or perhaps particularly) Austria’s signature dish of Tafelspitz (lean beef boiled in a broth of fresh vegetables). For all of these there are Austrian whites that fit. 

Sommelier’s moment of truth

“First, and last, you’re a performer,” our presentation instructor had told us early on in the course.  Bruce was an English South African, with excellent German and the crisp no-nonsense manner of a drill sergeant on the parade ground. His assignment: table service, the point of actual customer contact. 

This is the moment when everything you know must come together in a moment, like the painter’s first brush stroke or the pianist’s opening chord.  It’s a rigorous combination of good manners and common sense: serving from the right, glasses held by the stem, guiding the customer to a good wine without arrogance or condescension.  Some of it is surprisingly tricky, like removing the foil capsule and drawing the cork cleanly, while keeping the bottle’s label facing the diner.  

But most important, of course: the sommelier must know the wines – what they are, where they come from and (usually) what makes them the right choice for the food to be served.

In the end, it’s a business

While the sommeliers’ great love may be wine, they must also have an encyclopedic understanding of everything served in glass, cup or mug. Aperitives and beers, teas, coffees and other non-alcoholics, liquors and liqueurs. Drinks are a key part of any restaurant’s business model, and the sommelier must make it profitable. A rule of thumb in the industry offers an illustration: A wine cellar consists of winners (sell well, good margin), runners (sell well, poor margin), crawlers (slow but profitable), losers (neither/nor).  It is the sommelier’s responsibility to keep the balance: adjusting stock levels, pricing up or down, and so on. 

So in the end, I learned it was a lot more than cruising the vineyards and sharing the wines new and old in the Gemütlichkeit of the growers’ tasting rooms. Day dreamers be warned.

BOX: Find your own veritas

All the great wine producing nations offer sommelier courses. In Vienna, the WIFI professional school (right across from the Volksoper) offers three courses at successive levels, with all three required to for a professional qualification.  Just outside the city is the Klosterneuburg Weinakademie, billing itself as the “The Largest Wine School on the Continent,” with a full range of professional and academic programs, but also a 1 1/2 day basic course for a modest €250. A couple of days in the magnificent monastery complex (itself a major producer for centuries) could be just the right introduction before deciding on the rigors of total beverage immersion. May you find your own veritas in vino.