How to Become a Sommelier

Posted by Keith Wallace

How to Start Your Wine Career

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How to Become a Sommelier

Sommelier 101

How Do You Become a Sommelier?

A sommelier is more than a wine enthusiast; they are experts in the art of wine selection, pairing, and service. This career path is appealing for its blend of gastronomy, history, geography, and the sheer joy of wine. To become a sommelier combines passion with expertise, offering a unique and fulfilling profession.

Why Become a Sommelier?

Sommelier certifications have increasingly become the de facto standard in the wine industry, transcending their traditional role. This shift reflects a broader trend where practical, specialized knowledge is highly valued. Notably, many high-paying roles, including winemakers, no longer predominantly require a traditional bachelor’s degree. Instead, a significant and growing portion of wine professionals now boast a sommelier certification.

Sommelier Certification Process

Becoming a sommelier typically involves a certification process. Here’s a streamlined view of the key steps:

  • Find a Reputable Wine School: Your journey to become a sommelier involves finding a school that offers professional wine courses. We recommend checking out SOMM for the top sommelier programs in your area. Not to brag, but the Wine School of Philadelphia is ranked the #1 wine school in the United States.
  • Register for a Course: Depending on your current knowledge level, enroll in an appropriate course. For instance, the Core Sommelier program here in Philadelphia.
    • Attend Professional Wine Classes: These classes cover various aspects of winemaking, tasting, and regions.
    • Take the Exam: Successfully pass the sommelier exam to prove your expertise.
    • Earn Your Certification: Graduating with 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. To earn your sommelier pin –and technically become a certified sommelier– you must complete up to level three. For your Advanced Sommelier pin, the student needs to complete Level Four, and to earn the coveted Master-level pin, one would need to complete Level Five.

Some accreditation agencies use trademarked terms for the individual levels: the most famous is the “Master Sommelier” trademark owned 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

In-Person Wine Courses

Selecting the right wine school is as crucial as the certification itself. It shapes your career trajectory, much like choosing a prestigious university. In the United States, notable institutions for sommelier certification include:

  • Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET): Known for its comprehensive curriculum, WSET offers programs from Level 1 Award in Wines to Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits. It’s a widely franchised and favored institution, leading up to the Master of Wine certification.
  • National Wine School (NWS): Gaining rapid popularity since its establishment in 2012, the National Wine School stands out for its strategic distribution through colleges and its popular online format. Its nationwide partnership with colleges and flexible online platform makes it accessible and convenient. The Wine School of Philadelphia is an officially approved vendor on the East Coast.
  • Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS): This institution is renowned for its prestige, though it has faced controversies recently. It remains a significant player in the field of sommelier education.

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 for their unique strengths and educational standards​​.

Online Sommelier Courses

Portrait of Female sommelier examining red wine

The rise of online education has led to several agencies offering sommelier certification programs online. Most online programs are available at the Level 1 (L1) certification, with some advanced platforms offering up to the Advanced Sommelier (Level 4, L4) level. However, it’s important to note that no online programs currently provide the Master Sommelier (Level 5, L5) certification or its equivalent.

When choosing an online program, consider the technological capabilities, course content, flexibility, and the reputation of the offering institution​​. We prefer the National Wine School’s online programming.

The NWS programs are designed for online learning, and our students see a lot of value in this approach. The programs focus on mastery of the subject matter, and lessons are divided into short and dynamic topics.

In contrast, WSET’s focus on hours-long PowerPoint presentations is just what you expect. The other major difference is that WSET requires students to attend –and pay for– in-person exams.

Alternative Paths

While formal wine education and certification are the most straightforward paths, there are alternative routes to become a sommelier. However, it’s important to note that these paths may take longer and might not lead to the same level of recognition or opportunities as formal certification.

  1. Self-Education: Immerse yourself in the world of wine through self-study. This can include reading books, subscribing to wine magazines, and attending wine tastings.
  2. Wine Clubs and Networking: Regularly attending wine clubs and industry events can help build your palate and network. Connections made in these settings can be invaluable for career advancement.
  3. Experience in the Hospitality Industry: Starting at an entry-level position in a fine dining restaurant and gradually working your way up can lead to a sommelier position. This path requires dedication and the ability to learn on the job.
  4. Mentorship: Finding a mentor who is already an established sommelier can provide practical insights and guidance. This relationship can offer hands-on experience and industry knowledge that’s hard to gain elsewhere.
  5. Online Communities and Forums: Participating in online wine forums and communities can provide a wealth of information and opportunities to learn from experienced professionals.

It’s crucial to understand that these alternative paths require significant time investment, and the lack of formal certification might limit career prospects in some settings. The wine industry values certification highly, and the lack of it might be a barrier in certain professional environments.


Become a Sommelier: Most Asked Questions

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 (or equivalent). Sommelier certification has become the defacto diploma for the wine trade.

Not all wine schools are equipped to teach 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 in-person program for the National Wine School (NWS), 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.

To become a sommelier, it’s typically less expensive to take the NWS route.

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.

How long does it take to become a sommelier?

To become a sommelier, it can take as little as a week (Accelerated Core Program) to as long at 5 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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