The world of wine is wonderful. Sommelier training opens opportunities in all sectors, from the hospitality industry to retail, from education to marketing, from distribution to production. Wine jobs are not only appealing, but they’re lucrative too.
Wine professionals, like any other specialists, need credentials and constant knowledge updates. The wine world comprises dozens of countries, hundreds of wine regions, and thousands of grape varieties. The laws, the climate, the soil types, and the people, all form part of a wine specialist’s knowledge.
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Getting Wine Certified
If you want to get your foot in the door, you’ll need to hit the books and find the right association, school, or study program to help you in your learning, but also to vouch for you. These are the most important wine education and certification programs; find out which one is for you.
Our preference for wine certification is well known: we love the programs coming out of the National Wine School, so we are 100% biased. If you want a neutral source for information, we recommend either the Sommeliers Choice Awards or SOMM.
The Top Three Sommelier Programs
The essential wine and sommelier programs in the United States. These companies are the main certification bodies for the wine trade. You typically have to attend classes at a local wine school or attend a virtual wine course to earn these certifications.
These three programs are very different in their approach to wine education, but also their student base. We recommend considering both when choosing which of these programs you would be more comfortable in. Someone who feels at home at CMS would not be a good fit for the NWS, and a WSET person may feel at home at NWS, but definitely not the CMS.
Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET)
The Wine & Spirit Education Trust, or WSET, is based in the UK but now runs pay-to-play franchises across the globe. You can take any of their courses in any major city in the US and other countries. The basics of a WSET class are fairly simple: a PowerPoint presentation in a rented room, plus a wine tasting.
WSET is very methodical; they offer programs on different specialties like wine, spirits, sake. Advancing from levels one through four in most programs, the difficulty increases dramatically. A level four Wine Diploma is one of the most coveted and hard to get certifications in the industry.
Wine regions, tasting, and a strong focus on the business side of wine, WSET is great for someone looking towards restaurant employment.
Wine School Snapshot
Graduating L3 WSET Class
National Wine School (NWS)
The only major wine school founded in the United States, the NWS offers a uniquely American liberal arts perspective. Unlike WSET or CMS, the programs are designed for the entire wine industry, not just restaurants.
The wine trade is very different in the states than in other countries. Working in restaurants isn’t as lucrative nor as respected as it is in Europe. Unlike other wine programs, the focus is not on restaurant employment. NWS expects their students will work in many parts of the wine trade, including winemakers, wine educators, and importers, and their curriculum reflects those realities.
We think the National Wine School is the best option for someone looking to learn about wine. The school attracts a diverse student base and offers programs that are engaging to people from all walks of life.
The Wine School of Philadelphia will not offer either WSET or CMS programs due to their —what’s the best way to say this?– narrow view of both wine and students. We are far from alone in this move.
Wine School Snapshot
Graduating L3 NWS Class
Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS)
Serious allegations of racism, cheating, and sexual assaults have been leveled at members of its board of directors. These allegations have been covered in detail by the New York Times. The program is exclusively for people in the restaurant industry.
The Court of Master Sommeliers is a sommelier certification program based in the UK, now with a big branch in the US. There are four levels to accomplish before becoming one of the few Master Sommeliers in the world. There are just over 400 wine professionals with this high title.
Founded in 1977, it had a big boom after the SOMM documentary was released in 2013. The organization focuses strongly on wine service in restaurant scenarios and on deductive wine tasting, a skill that enables sommeliers to not only assess the quality of any wine but to identify its vintage, grape variety, and provenance.
Wine School Snapshot
Graduating CMS L4 Class
The Other Sommelier Programs
Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW)
The Master of Wine qualification is gained after a challenging three-year program organized by the Institute of Masters of Wine. Founded in 1955, the organization requires students to know everything there is to know about wine and write appropriately about it.
A series of essays and exams take the students to their limits, becoming some of the better-prepared professionals in the industry. To start the program, students must already have wide experience in the field, high qualifications like the level four WSET diploma, and a Master of Wine sponsorship.
Wine Scholar Guild (WSG)
The Wine Scholar Guild is an approachable study program provider. The ability to study traditionally in a classroom or online allows students to tackle the Wine Scholar Guild programs in their own time from anywhere in the world.
Master-level programs include a regional approach to most French wine regions, from Champagne to Bordeaux. Immersion trips that include high-end tasting in the heart of the wine country and mentorship from highly trained professionals complete the learning experience.
The International Sommelier Guild (ISG)
Established in 1982, the International Sommelier Guild offers an extensive wine education program through third-party schools in the United States, Canada, China, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, and many other countries.
Standardized, relevant textbooks and a complete curriculum fed by ISG instructors are powerful tools to certify capable sommeliers. Different levels lead students to a very high proficiency level, including a teacher program that helps grow the guild’s reach. A new online learning platform will help the International Sommelier Guild have an even broader reach.
If you want to become a certified sommelier or simply wish to increase your wine expertise, these are the most popular organizations worldwide. As long as you have a passion for wine and a commitment to keep on learning, you’ll find any goal achievable and any certification level within reach. Welcome to the wine world, an ever-growing community of wine lovers.