How to Become a Sommelier

Posted by Keith Wallace

Table of Contents

Sommelier 101

What is a Sommelier Certification?

This type of wine education originated in restaurants, but escaped those confines years ago. Sommelier certification is now the de facto credential for the entire wine trade. No matter what wine job you are dreaming of, a sommelier certification is typically required.

The shift away from requiring a university education began in the 2010s, when there were not enough winemakers to fill all the open positions. Back then, it was typical that a winemaker was required to have a masters degree in viticulture from a prestigious winemaking college like the University of California at Davis. However, that school only graduated 10-15 students a year. It was only natural for companies to start looking elsewhere for talent.

Sommelier Certification Process

Here’s a streamlined view of the key steps to becoming a sommelier:

  1. Find a Reputable Wine School: Look for schools offering professional wine courses. The Wine School of Philadelphia is ranked the #1 wine school in the United States.
  2. Register for a Course: Enroll in a course appropriate for your knowledge level, such as the Core Sommelier program.
  3. Attend Professional Wine Classes: These cover winemaking, tasting, and wine regions.
  4. Take the Exam: Pass the sommelier exam to prove your expertise.
  5. Earn Your Certification: An L3 sommelier certification marks the start of your professional journey.
how to become a sommelier

Sommelier Certifications Levels

There are five levels of sommelier certification. Completing up to level three grants you a sommelier pin. For the Advanced Sommelier pin, complete Level Four, and for the Master-level pin, complete Level Five.

Some agencies use trademarked terms for these levels, like the “Master Sommelier” trademark by the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS).

LEVELTRADE NAMESCORE COMPETENCY
L1 (Level One)Level One Certification (NWS) Introductory Sommelier Certificate (CMS), Award in Wines (WSET)Basic Wine Knowledge. Some schools do not require this for in-person classes.
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 in Wine Studies (NWS), Master Sommelier (CMS), and Master of Wine (WSET)Comprehensive knowledge of wine and ability to perform at an executive level.

Choosing the Right Sommelier Credential

Sommelier Accreditation

There are three major credentialling agencies in the United States. They all have their pros and minuses, but the certifications are very similar.

  • Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET): This agency uses a franchise model to offer it’s wine programming. They do not offer sommelier certification, instead they offer “wine awards” to their graduates.
  • National Wine School (NWS): this program started as University-only programming but now offers it’s programs online and through a handful of approved wine schools. It offers sommelier certification up through the Master-level.
  • Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS): A well respected institution that created the concept of a Master Sommelier. However, it has been rocked by controversy in recent years, as well as becoming highly politicized.

Other agencies like the Society of Wine Educators, the North American Sommelier Association, the International Sommelier Guild, and the International Wine Guild also offer comprehensive programs and are worth considering​​.

Pick your Sommelier School

Wine education has been a staple in American cities for decades. The first wines schools were opened in the 1980s on the East Coast, and the movement has grown ever since. There are about a hundred wine schools dotting the US. The website SOMM offers a comprehensive listing of them.

image of a book and a wine bottle

Since there is very little government regulation over wine education, we recommend a few key points before investing in your money into your sommelier education.

  • Does the school offer one of the top three credentials?
  • Do they have their own brick and mortar facility?
  • Have them been in business for more than five years?

Online Sommelier Courses

Only a few years ago, an online sommelier program was unthinkable. Now, more people are attending these programs than are attending in-person programming, according to Philip Brandeis of the National Wine School.

wine glass with the wifi symbol

In 2023, our schools graduated 354 students from the Advanced Sommelier program. For the first time ever, a higher number of sommeliers took our online programs , with 378 graduating.

P. Brandeis

One of the reasons so many students are opting for online sommelier programs are three innovations that took place in 2020. The first is adopting the usage of a coravin system, which allows students to taste wine without opening wine bottles. The second is customizable wine aroma kits, which are built to order for students. Finally, the use of high definition streaming for audio/visual content.

Some programs have not kept up with the times. For instance, WSET still uses a interminable PowerPoint presentations in it’s online programming, and does not offer a learning management system (LMS) for it’s students.

Alternative Paths

While formal wine education and certification are the most straightforward paths, alternative routes to becoming a sommelier include:

  • Self-Education: Read books, subscribe to wine magazines, and attend wine tastings.
  • Wine Clubs and Networking: Build your palate and network at wine clubs and industry events.
  • Experience in the Hospitality Industry: Start in an entry-level position in fine dining and work your way up.
  • Mentorship: Learn from an established sommelier.
  • Online Communities and Forums: Gain knowledge from experienced professionals.

These alternative paths require significant time investment and may not lead to the same recognition or opportunities as formal certification.


Become a Sommelier: Most Asked Questions

What is a wine expert called? Wine experts can be called sommeliers, winemakers, or simply wine enthusiasts, depending on their background and education.

How much do sommeliers make? Salaries vary widely. Restaurant sommeliers can earn $40K to $100K, depending on location and restaurant profitability. Higher-level sommeliers in distribution or import companies can earn low six figures.

What does a sommelier do? Sommeliers manage wine programs for restaurants and may also work as beverage managers. Many now work outside restaurants, in tech startups, wine magazines, wineries, and import companies.

What is a sommelier diploma? Issued by accredited agencies, sommelier diplomas include Certified Sommelier, Advanced Sommelier, and Master Sommelier levels.

What is a sommelier test? Each certification level requires passing an exam, which gets progressively harder. Many tests include a blind tasting component.

What is a Certified Sommelier? Anyone who passes both Level Two and Level Three exams can use this title. WSET does not use “sommelier” in its programs but allows the term “somm.”

What is an Advanced Sommelier? An Advanced Sommelier, or Level Four sommelier, must identify major grape varietals and wine regions in a blind tasting and have at least one year of formal training.

What is the Master Sommelier Exam? The highest level exam in the wine service profession, known as the Level 5 Sommelier Exam. Terms include Master of Wine (WSET) and Master Certification (NWS).

How much does it cost to be a Master Sommelier? Costs vary by agency. NWS charges $6,600 for the full in-person program from L1 to L5. CMS charges $4,783 for exams only, with additional hidden costs possibly totaling over $20K.

What does WSET stand for? Wine and Spirit Education Trust, a major certifying body for sommeliers and wine professionals.

What is the CSW exam? Certified Specialist of Wine Exam by the Society of Wine Educators, similar to the Wine Speaker Certification by NWS.

How long does it take to become a sommelier? It can take as little as a week (Accelerated Core Program) to as long as five years (Master Sommelier, CMS).

5 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!

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply

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