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How to Become a Sommelier

Posted by on August 17th

Upcoming Wine TastingsWine CoursesA Fun Sommelier Test

How to Start your Wine Career

There are five simple steps to start a career in wine. We will repeat these steps at least two times to give you an idea of how important they are.

Blonde mature female sommelier smelling wine in wineglass

How to become a wine taster

To become a professional wine taster, you need to earn your L2 wine certification. A reputable wine school will make sure you can blind taste all the major wine varietals before earning your L2 certificate.

  1. Find a wine school near you.
  2. Register for an L2 wine course
  3. Attend professional wine classes
  4. Take the L2 wine exam
  5. Graduate with your L2 certification.
Sommelier Pouring Wine

How to become a wine expert

To become a professional wine taster, you need to earn your L3 wine certification. At this level, you should have a professional understanding of all major wine regions and varietals.

  1. Find a wine school near you.
  2. Register for an L2/L3 wine course
  3. Attend professional wine classes
  4. Take the L2/L3 wine exam
  5. Graduate from wine school!
Sommelier tasting red wine

How to Become a Wine Expert Without Certifications

If you want to become a restaurant employee, there are several options. You don’t necessarily need to go to wine school to become the resident wine expert at a posh restaurant.

  1. Read as many wine books as possible.
  2. Take as many wine classes as you can.
  3. Taste at least 10 wines a week.
  4. Work 5+ years as a server at a fine dining restaurant.
  5. Wait a few more years before a position opens up.

Working your way up the ladder was a well-worn path to become a sommelier, up until the COVID-19 pandemic. It is much less in fashion now, as many sommeliers took the time to earn their credentials during the shutdowns.

We no longer recommend this method, as most sommelier applicants now have an L3 wine certification or higher.

But I Don’t Want to Wait 5 Years, Either!

You don’t want to go to wine school, and you don’t want to work your way up the ladder? There is one proven way to become a sommelier.

  • Open up your own wine bar or restaurant.

If you don’t have six figures to invest in your own place, and you don’t want to spend five years working, then you really only have one option: get an appropriate wine certification.

How many levels of sommelier certifications are there?

how to become a sommelier
A Wine Certification Exam

There are five sommelier levels that all sommelier certifications correspond with. Every accreditation agencies use their own trade name for the individual levels.

L1 (Level One)Level One Certification (NWS) Introductory Sommelier Certificate (CMS), Award in Wines (WSET)Basic Wine Knowledge
L2 (Level Two)Foundation Certificate (NWS), Award in Wines and Spirits (WSET)Blind Tasting Proficiency (NWS)
Beginner Wine Knowledge (WSET)
L3 (Level Three)Certified Sommelier (NWS and CMS)Comprehension of all major wine regions, wine laws, and varietals.
L4 (Level Four)Advanced Sommelier (NWS and CMS)Advanced knowledge of terroir, history, and winemaking.
L5 (Level Five)Master Certification (NWS), Master Sommelier (CMS), and Master of Wine (WSET)Comprehensive knowledge of wine and ability to perform at an executive level.
Portrait of Female sommelier examining red wine

Available Sommelier Certification Programs

Online Sommelier Courses

Of the three major sommelier certification agencies, two offer sommelier certification online. Both Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and the National Wine School (NWS) offer online wine courses. 

We prefer the National Wine School’s online programming. The programs focus on mastery of the subject matter, and lessons are divided into short and dynamic topics.

The NWS programs are designed for online learning, and our students see a lot of value in this approach. In contrast, WSET’s focus on hours-long PowerPoint presentations is just what you expect.

The other major difference between the two is that WSET requires students to attend in-person exams. NWS allows this, but they also have at-home exam options, which we love.

Sommelier tasting red wine

Common Questions About Wine Certification

What is a wine expert called?

There are a few terms that you can apply to a wine expert. If there were a pin, it would probably say, “I drink wine for a living. ” If they went to a wine school, they would be called a “sommelier,” and they actually do get a pin! If the person went to University, they are most likely called a “winemaker,” they don’t get pins, but they do get an amazing career.

How much do sommeliers make?

There is a wide variation in salaries due to the multiple career paths a sommelier can take. A restaurant sommelier can make anywhere from $40K to 100K, depending on where the restaurant is located (you’ll make a lot more in NYC or San Francisco) and how profitable the restaurant is.

Many higher-level sommeliers work for wine distribution or import companies, and they make a substantial amount more than those who work in restaurants. You can see salaries in the low six figures for these jobs.

What does a sommelier do?

A traditional sommelier develops and manages the wine program for a restaurant. Many somms also function as beverage managers. Modern sommeliers often work outside of restaurants. Sommeliers work for tech startups, wine magazines, wineries, and wine import companies.

What is a sommelier diploma?

A qualified wine accreditation agency issues this diploma. There are three levels of sommelier diplomas. Certified Sommelier, Advanced Sommelier, and Master Sommelier. Sommelier certification has become the defacto diploma for the wine trade.

Not all wine schools are equipped to teach to all levels of wine certifications. Only a few schools can teach everything from beginner to master-level programs.

What is a sommelier test?

Each level of wine certification is earned by taking an exam, which is progressively harder at every level. Many of these tests have a blind tasting component, a critical skill in the wine trade.

What is a Certified Sommelier?

Anyone who has passed both the level two and level three wine exam can use this honorific. We should point out that WSET does not use the term “Sommelier” in its programs. However, it is permissible to call yourself a somm, even if WSET doesn’t prefer that term.

What is an Advanced Sommelier?

An Advanced Sommelier is also known as a level four sommelier.  Most of the top sommeliers are certified at this level. They are required to identify any major grape varietal and wine region in a blind tasting, plus have attended at least one year of formal sommelier training.

What is the Master Sommelier Exam?

The master sommelier exam is also known as the Level 5 Sommelier Exam. It is the highest level exam in the wine service profession. The term “Master Sommelier” is a trademark of the Court of Master Sommeliers and does not apply to all Level 5 Sommeliers. Other terms used for this exam is the Master of Wine Exam (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) and the Master Certification (National Wine School)

How much does it cost to be a Master Sommelier?

This pricing depends on which accreditation agency you are looking at. The cost is $6,600 for the entire program for the National Wine School, from L1 to L5. Because they use the modern concept of student mastery, that is the full cost of taking the program online.

The Court of Master Sommeliers does not offer classes for all levels, and in theory, these programs should be less expensive. Here is a breakdown of the costs (in 2021 dollars).

Level One $699
Level Two (Deductive Tasting Method) $499
Level Three (Exam Only) $595
Level Four (Exam Only) $1195
Level Five (Exam Only) $1795

At first blush, it seems that the Court of Master Sommeliers is a great value, as it costs only $4,783. However, the Court offers exams, not the education necessary to pass them. This means many hidden costs can push the final bill to over $20K. These costs include test retakes, wine purchases, and coaching.

What does WSET stand for?

WSET is the acronym for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. The WSET is one of several firms that certify sommeliers and other types of wine professionals. Their programs are based on PowerPoint presentations, wine tastings, and written exams.

Along with WSET, the National Wine School and the Court of Master Sommeliers are the major sommelier certification bodies currently active in the USA.

What is the CSW exam?

The CSW exam stands for the Certified Specialist of Wine Exam offered by the  Society of Wine Educators. It is a multiple-choice exam many wine educators take. It is similar to the Wine Speaker Certification offered by the National Wine School.


8 thoughts on “How to Become a Sommelier”

  1. The Master Sommelier and the Master of Wine are two entirely different tracks – both pinnacles of the profession. Master Somms (MS) have achieved the pinnacle of success in the wine industry, geared toward service. Masters of Wine (MWs) have obtained the highest pinnacle of achievement in the wine industry in general. MWs and students of the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) are a diverse group – winemakers, wine educators, wine buyers, viticulturalists, writers and business people. And yes, some sommeliers. The program is extremely rigorous and academic. A few rare talents have managed to achieve both the MS and the MW title. BTW, the IMW is a separate organization from WSET!

    • I would find fault in calling either the Master of Wine or Master Sommelier as the pinnacle of the wine trade. An MS (Master of Science) from the University of California at Davis is a far greater achievement.

      I’d like to point out that IMW, WSET, and CMS are agencies that cover the same material and offer certifications based on industry standards. Under US law, their certifications are undifferentiated.


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