It’s all the rage to become a sommelier. Thanks to the Somm documentaries and a general increase in awareness about wine but also about sommeliers and the Court of Master Sommeliers, there’s now a certain celebrity status, a glamour associated with becoming a sommelier. The Court of Master Sommeliers’ (CMS) Introductory Sommelier courses and Certified Sommelier exams are full the instant that dates are announced, regardless of an increase in number of dates and locations available, as new and veteran wine enthusiasts decide to learn about wine by “becoming sommeliers.”
This author and Certified Sommelier — and floor sommelier — is here to state an unpopular opinion: If you want to learn about wine, don’t become a Certified Sommelier.
It really comes down to the definition of a sommelier in the first place. A sommelier is a person who works in a restaurant with the primary goal of selling wine on the floor. To that end, the Introductory and Certified Sommelier exams are less about teaching you about wine and more about assessing a person’s current ability to know, taste, and sell wine in a restaurant setting. This is the disconnect between the Court of Master Sommeliers exams and the average wine lover. It may sound glamorous and official to receive the title of “Certified Sommelier,” but a person who does not currently work in a restaurant is not, in fact, a sommelier, and he or she will likely receive a more well-rounded and lasting education about wine by learning in another way.
The problem with enthusiastic wine novices focusing solely on becoming a Certified Sommelier is that the program is entirely based on self-study. The exam is just that: an exam, with no mentorship nor input from advanced wine professionals except for the one-page feedback sheet received at the end of the exam. Even the Introductory Course, while an excellent opportunity to receive tasting advice from Master Sommeliers, lasts only two days and acts as more of a review of key wine information than a true instructional course. For those who are just dipping their toe into the world of wine, this presents an issue: Is there a way to effectively self-educate without any sort of curriculum, structure, or mentorship?
Of course, it’s absolutely possible to cram for and pass the Certified Sommelier exam without working in a restaurant (this author did — but more on that later). Many use the CMS exams as goals in order to motivate themselves to study, knowing that they need some sort of deadline in order to fully commit to studying on a regular basis (again, right over here!). But again, for most wine lovers, is this really the best way to approach learning? The issues are two-pronged: First, you’re essentially scaling the same mountain of wine knowledge but doing it without any of the gear and guidance that will help you reach the top. And second, think back to high school days: If you’re memorizing information with the goal of passing an exam, you are much more likely to forget all of that knowledge after that exam has come and gone. Whether your goal is to become a sommelier in a restaurant one day, to work in another wine-related profession, or just to learn about this exciting, interesting world because you love wine, the goal should be to thoroughly understand and appreciate wine — not to simply pass a test and receive a title.
So what’s the alternative to the CMS? Highly recommended are the courses offered by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), a U.K.-based organization that essentially acts as a more academic, rather than service-oriented, counterpart to the Court of Master Sommeliers. Through partnerships with teaching centers across the U.S. and around the world, WSET offers programs in wine, spirits, and sake for all knowledge levels, allowing those studying to take weekly courses, including in-depth tasting, culminating in an exam and certificate. Virtual classes are also offered, sans tasting. While it doesn’t get as much buzz in the U.S. as the CMS program, WSET is extremely well known and respected internationally. It should be noted that the WSET Level 2 and 3 courses were entirely responsible for this author’s education in wine prior to becoming a sommelier, and (in her opinion) if you take and pass the Level 3 exam, you will almost certainly pass the Certified Sommelier exam — but the knowledge will stay with you for life.
Other organizations, such as the American Sommelier Association and Sommelier Society of America, also offer in-person courses in major cities (the largest hub is New York), but there is also a plethora of written materials offering structured, informational curricula for wine lovers. Karen MacNeil’s “The Wine Bible” is an excellent, well-rounded overview, as is the book for Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Wine Course. Visual learners will find themselves engrossed in “The World Atlas of Wine,” which comes in an excellent e-book version as well, and the Guild of Sommeliers website is a subscription-based hub of knowledge with study guides, discussion boards, mobile compendium app, and more.
Does all of this suggest that the Court of Master Sommeliers’ exams aren’t worthwhile for some people? Of course not. But they are by no means the only option for learning about wine — and for most wine lovers, the other options are far more valuable for getting started.