So You Want to Be a Sommelier?
December 1, 2012 Leave a comment
You’ve seen that guy…freshly pressed suit, bottle held high, chatting up the customers and you’ve wondered to yourself, “How do I get that job”? As a 20-year veteran of wine education, it’s one of the most common questions I get asked. How do I get certified as a sommelier, how do I break into the wine industry? So, here goes…some thoughts on wine and spirits certification!
To start with, you need to know that the best possible “first step” to a wine career is to get your foot in the door. If you are serious about a career in wine, you need to dive in and start working at a wine bar, winery, wine store, or distributor. In no way is the wine industry full of “easy jobs” nor will you make a lot of money right off the bat. While it does have its moments of glamour, there is a lot of hard labor going on “behind the scenes” of your latest winemaker dinner.
Being a sommelier is a lot like being a chef…you need experience, passion, education, and perhaps, some sort of certification. As for the certification, there are many, really dozens, of private organizations that offer sommelier certification throughout the United States. They all have different educational tracks, formats, post-nominals and availability.
Being a sommelier is a lot like being a chef in one other aspect…at the “top of the heap” there are a few well-known characters who are celebrities in their own right, best-selling authors, or TV personalities. Then below that there are the millions who make a decent, mid-range living. And below that, are those that toil their whole lives making just enough to get by. I know money isn’t everything, and I’m proud (?) to be a mid-ranger myself, but its best to have your eyes wide open about the field.
With that being said, the good news is there is a wealth of choices for those brave souls wanting to pursue wine education, and perhaps a career in wine. Read on for my take on the subject…
The Court of Master Sommeliers is, imho, the top choice for those wanting a profession working in restaurants, providing top-notch customer service and selling wine directly to the consumer. The Court comes to most major cities once a year and offers their 2-day, $500. introductory course on a given weekend. The course ends with a multiple choice exam that is considered to be a basic, introduction to wine test. If you pass and want to move forward with certification through the Court, you will need to travel to a hub (such as Las Vegas, Denver, or Chicago) to take the Certified Sommelier and Advanced Sommelier exams. If you survive this far (and many don’t), and if you are invited to sit for Master Sommelier you may have to travel even further to take that final MS exam. The MS is considered a lifetime achievement and currently just over 180 people worldwide have achieved this goal.
The Institute of Masters of Wine is based in London is equally prestigious and a top choice for those wanting a career in wine writing, critique, or some other type of wine academia. This choice definitely involves some travel. You are expected to educate yourself and “prove your worthiness” to even be accepted into the program as an “aspirant” to the MW program. Most people do this by taking courses through the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, which offers the “DWS” (Diploma of Wines and Spirits) title. There are currently around 300 MW’s in the world.
The Society of Wine Educators offers three levels of certification: Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS), and Certified Wine Educator (CWE). This is obviously the best choice for people that want to be teachers and educators (like me!) SWE does not offer certification classes itself, although wine educators around the country often offer their own “preview” courses. They do publish “Study Guides” for the CSS and CSW which are available on their website. The CWE is considered a “self-study” program; in other words, you need to educate yourself using their suggested reading list, and then show up to have your knowledge tested. Due to this “self-study” route, this is one of the least expensive options.
The Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), based in London, is one of the largest wine certification organizations around. They offer certifications in Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3, culminating in the aforementioned DWS. Level 1 and 2 Classes are offered at many locations around the country, including most large and even mid-size cities. Level 3 and Diploma classes are a bit harder to find, but self-study and online classes are available as well. With the self-study and online classes, you do have to show up “in person” to take the tests, but it is still a very convenient option and I know quite a few people that are pursuing the WSET classes online.
The International Sommelier Guild, based in Canada, offers classes that last several months and end in a certification exam. They also offer a series of certifications; theirs being Level I, Level II, and Sommelier Diploma. The top-level, six-month ISG “Sommelier Diploma” course is offered several few times a year at many locations throughout the country.
The International Wine Guild is a privately owned school based in Colorado. They also offer wine certification courses at Levels I – IV. Their certifications come with a dizzying array of titles that you can choose from, including “Certified Chef of Wine Arts,” “Certified Senior Wine Manager” or “Certified Spirits Cellar Manager.” IWG appears to be offering classes in Colorado, Arizona, Washington, and Virginia.
Additionally, there is a plethora of smaller organizations offering their own series of certifications; so many that I cannot even keep track of them. A few examples of these other organizations include:
- The French Wine Society and their French Wine Scholar and “Master-Level Programs” in the wines of the individual French Regions.
- The North American Sommelier Association and their “Italian Wine Specialist”.
- The Center for Wine Origins and their “Wine Location Specialist”
- The National Wine School and their “Diploma Oenotropae”
- The United States Sommelier Association and their “Advanced Sommelier Certificate”
- The Sommelier Society of America offers a “Certificate Course”
- The Bartenders Association International offers the “Certified Wine Expert” course online.
- The WISE Academy offers a dozen certificates including “Wine Tasting Professional”
Full Disclosure: As my personal experience (and certification) comes from SWE, theirs are the only programs I discuss-down to the details -with confidence. My knowledge of all the other programs is second hand coming from either knowing people who have gone through the program or research, so I am sure there are other people who can speak to the content and quality of these programs much better than I.
With that being said, I hope this helps anyone out there looking for wine certification or some idea about working in the wine industry. There are a lot of choices out there and it is a long process. If you decide to move forward, make sure you find the right fit at the beginning of your journey. And of course…have fun!!
Jane A. Nickles, CSS, CWE
Bubbly Disclaimer: This is the world of wine certification from my own eyes and viewpoint…I don’t claim to speak for or on behalf of any organization. As a matter of fact, I don’t even claim to be a somm…the closest I ever came to that was in my previous career as a food and beverage director (not close at all). As an educator, most of my students are striving to become chefs or sommeliers, so I try to keep on top of wine and food education matters.