Becoming a sommelier is a goal for many wine lovers, prodded on by the many “SOMM” movies and tv shows. It is now a career imbued with glamor and intrigue. Is becoming a sommelier a good career choice for you?
By the blandest of definitions, a sommelier is a wine waiter. That was the job in the 19th and 20th Centuries, but not anymore. It has expanded far beyond its humble beginnings. Adding to the confusion is that there are now multiple career paths for sommeliers.
An average, qualified Sommelier earns around $60 000 annually.
An Advanced Sommelier can earn up to $80 000
A Master Sommelier as much as $150 000. So what are you waiting for?
The most common type of sommelier works for a restaurant, also known as the “somm.” On the floor, somms provide restaurant customers recommendations for a wine to pair with their dinner. However, the real work is done behind the scenes.
A somm is the restaurant’s in-house wine educator, responsible for training the bartenders and waitstaff. They also manage the wine list and maintaining their wine cellar inventory. They also meet with wine suppliers and taste wines, often in the afternoon. Being up-to-date on wine trends and producers is a key part of the job.
The wine trade is poorly served by academia. You can get a degree in hotel management and winemaking. However, those are just two jobs are just two in a vast multi-billion dollar industry. Because there are limited opportunities at traditional schools, sommelier certification has become the gold standard in the wine world.
Back in the ’80s, certification was solely for restaurant work. That is far from true now. The jobs that require a sommelier certification have exploded. More often than not, jobs require a sommelier certification, not a college degree.
For a list of potential uses for a sommelier certification, you can check out our list of wine jobs.
It might seem like a trivial question, but many people do not enjoy constantly interacting with people. Restaurant sommeliers are expected to be in constant contact with staff, sales representatives, and distributors.
Becoming a sommelier is much easier when you have some basic knowledge about wine and food. It goes without saying that you need a strong palate, and you should try gaining some insight into wine production and cultivars.
If you feel ready to take on the educational section of being a Sommelier, there are different options. You need to apply to one of the academies available to you – and work toward getting your sommelier certificate.
There are four major sommelier organizations: Court of Masters Sommeliers, The Wine and Spirits Education Trust, the National Wine School, and the Society of Wine Educators.
These organizations offer the same certification levels, even though they do call them by different names. The following are the standard sommelier certification levels:
Level One Certification (Introductory)
Level Two Certification (Foundation)
Level Three Certification (Sommelier)
Level Four (Advanced Sommelier)
Level Five (Master Sommelier)
We believe this to be the best sommelier program available in the United States, and the program we use for our wine courses. We love their programs, and most of their clients are universities and colleges. They have a focus on student’s individual needs, and their programs are cutting edge. We see their programs as the future of wine education.
Level One. This program is an eight-week online program with a total of sixteen hours of education. The program covers much of the basics any wine enthusiast would need.
Foundation (Level Two). This program covers similar material as WSET Level Three and the CMS Advanced program. The NWS believes that sensory training is the foundation of all wine knowledge. The program includes 16 hours of in-class education.
Intermediate (Level Three). Regional wine knowledge is the core of this program. The program also relies on a proprietary deductive tasting system that expands upon the Foundation wine course. The program includes 16 hours of in-class education.
Advanced (Level Four). This program takes a minimum of sixty-four hours of class time. The program is similar to a bachelor’s degree: a student can focus on specific topics, including winemaking, Italian Wine, Food and Wine Pairing, etc.
Master (Level Five). This program is set up like a university Master’s program. The student is assigned an academic advisor. They work together on a one-on-one basis to develop a master thesis. Only projects that promote the student’s career goals are accepted.
We’ve kept our distance from CMS for twenty years, and that stance has been proven a wise choice. At first, this program seemed too much of a clique for our tastes. However, over the past few years, there have been a string of troubling reports over how they manage wine exams.
More troubling is that a former student of ours, the sommelier Tahiirah Habibi, made a credible report of bias against the CMS. We love & trust Tahiirah (she is a former student of ours) so we do not recommend CMS. There are now also credible allegations of sexual misconduct by the board of directors, as well.
The Court of Master Sommeliers offers four levels of certifications.
Introductory. This short, 2-day course focuses on viticulture, the winemaking process, cultivars, origins, spirits, pairings, classifying wine, tasting techniques, and wine service.
Certified. This is a 1-day examination that includes blind tastings, theory, and tests on wine services.
Advanced. This is a 3-day course that includes blind tastings, theory, and tests on the wine service. However, to apply for this, 5 years of experience in the industry is necessary, and it is required to take an online test before completing this course.
Master. This is a challenging certification to pass. It involves the same 3 examinations as the other courses, but obviously at a much higher level. In this case, if the theory examination is not passed, the other two exams cannot be done. This diploma often takes up to 3 years to attain.
WSET offers wine certification for the restaurant trade. Designed for students without a college education, WSET focuses on PowerPoint presentations and memorization. The exams include a cross-section of wine history, theory, and practical wine service.
Level 1. This is a six-hour program that focuses on pairing food and wine and an introduction to the styles of wine produced today.
Level 2. This program focuses on cultivars, regions, styles, quality, and prices. The program includes sixteen hours of class time.
Level 3. This course included thirty hours of wine classes. This program goes in-depth into the tasting and assessing of wine. There is also a section that focuses on the wine of the world in terms of viticulture and winemaking practices.
Level 4: Diploma. Completing this diploma will take longer than two years to complete. It includes one hundred and sixteen hours of class time. This certification covers wine production, sparkling and fortified wines, the business side of wine as well as blind tastings.
There is a lot to like about WSET, but we opted not to offer their wine programs many years ago. As respected as they are, their core beliefs don’t vibe with ours.
WSET has a focus on uniformity and PowerPoint presentations that don’t appeal to our students. We serve the most diverse populations of students of any wine school, and the WSET one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t cut it.
For those who are good at self-study, this is great as it is an independent study sommelier program – placing no pressure to attend classes – but it is an intense program specifically designed to certify Wine Educators.
Their online programs were revolutionary when they came online about a decade ago. They inspired a lot of wine schools to expand into online wine education. The programs were good for their original purpose: trade certification for employees within the wine supply chain and possibly for sommeliers.
For us, it’s not a fit. We thrive on intellectual freedom, and a trade certification underwritten by some of the biggest wine companies in America isn’t our cup of tea. More importantly, we strongly disagree on what type of training a wine educator needs.
Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW). Here the focus is completely focused on the theory component. Students are taught and tested on viniculture, chemistry, regions, pairings, laws, and wine in the hospitality industry.
Certified Wine Educator (CWE). This certification takes it a step further and introduces blind tastings. This certification also tests your ability to conduct a class and hold the class’s attention while accurately conveying your wine knowledge.
There are also the following 2 options available, which are the same as the above but focused on spirits instead of wine.
Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS)
Certified Spirits Educator (CSE)