When acquaintances learned that I was a sommelier on the floor of a restaurant, their eyes often lit up. “We’ve seen the documentary ‘Somm!’” they exclaimed. “I can’t believe you passed that test. It’s so difficult.” When I responded that I had not taken the Master Sommelier exam, their faces fell. “So you’re not a real sommelier,” they responded, disappointed.
With the rise of sommeliers in both restaurants and pop culture, more wine lovers are aware of formal certification programs like the Court of Master Sommeliers. Certification is seen by many as necessary proof of a sommelier’s skill level. But as more oenophiles without professional experience apply for and complete formal wine exams, certification is complicated. Those who hold certifications sometimes have no on-the-job sommelier experience, while some of the world’s best sommeliers have never pursued formal education.
It begs the question: Does sommelier certification matter?
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The Allure of the Pin
Formally established in 1977, the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) hosted its first examination in 1969, and has since welcomed 236 Master Sommeliers into its ranks worldwide. To take the Master Sommelier diploma exam, applicants must pass three levels of qualifying exams: introductory, certified, and advanced. Certified Sommelier exams in major markets are often filled immediately upon announcements, and Advanced candidates must take a qualifying test just to be considered for the exam itself. Few of these applicants are invited to sit for the exam on first attempt.
Given the difficulty not only of gaining entrance to the Master Sommelier diploma exam, but of passing — the pass rate hovers around 8 percent, sometimes with as few as four candidates passing in a given year — those who choose to pursue it must have considerable motivations. Some note competitive natures, saying that the notion of passing increasingly difficult levels becomes addictive. Others have more eclectic reasons, such as being dared to take the first-level exam and getting sucked in, or requiring an educational pursuit for a visa application, like Pascaline Lepeltier, MS.
“I was lured into the CMS culture through some great mentors,” John Ragan, MS, senior director of operations at Union Square Hospitality Group in New York, says. “I was hungry to learn alongside like-minded people.” Ragan passed the Master Sommelier diploma exam in 2012.
It’s not a hard and fast rule, but many aspiring sommeliers are more likely to pursue formal certification if their mentors have also done so. Additionally, those seeking a sense of community and organization are drawn to the structure of the program.
“I didn’t choose to follow the path of MS because of a pin or designation,” says Bobby Stuckey, MS, owner of Frasca Food and Wine, LLC in Boulder, Colorado, who passed the MS exam in 2004. “I just knew that if I was going to do this profession, it was the only certified and logical next step to pursue your profession to the best degree.”
“Getting a certificate of some kind has perhaps become a shorter way to get a foot in the door for employment in wine, as opposed to working for years on the floor,” notes Juliette Pope, Louis/Dressner portfolio manager for David Bowler Wine and former beverage director of Gramercy Tavern. Other than the Institute of Masters of Wine/Wine and Spirits Education Trust, which is more popular outside the U.S. and does not focus on wine service, the Court of Master Sommeliers is the most widely recognized certification program for wine professionals.
There are also practical benefits to certification. According to the Guild of Sommeliers 2016 salary survey, the median income for a Master Sommelier is $155,000 — nearly double that of an Advanced Sommelier at $80,000. Formal certification only significantly affects income at the highest level of the CMS program, however, and many of these Master Sommeliers no longer work as a sommelier on the floor of a restaurant, making the comparison difficult.
Success Without Exams
Some of the country’s most successful sommeliers, however, such as Daniel Johnnes and Aldo Sohm, never pursued the Court of Master Sommeliers program.
“The mindset that I have is that while I love study, I like to study on my own terms,” says Paul Grieco, proprietor of Terroir Tribeca and Terroir on the Porch in New York, noting that he did take the CMS introductory exam. “Presented with the structure of any academic institution, I start to shudder.” Many who enter into the hospitality industry do so because they learn better on the job than in a formal setting, and if a sommelier already has a foot in the industry’s door and is receiving an excellent education on the floor, certification doesn’t seem necessary.
For other top sommeliers, the decision boiled down to logistics. Any formal educational institution, be it university, accreditation, or certification programs, requires both time and money. For sommeliers who typically work hourly, tipped positions, these resources aren’t easy to come by.
“I do believe that the road of the Court has two distinct challenges,” says Patrick Cappiello, owner of NYC’s Rebelle and Walnut St. Cafe in Philadelphia, referring to time and money required to pursue certification. “I was struggling to pay my rent after just moving to NYC and had to work constantly to keep up.” As there are significant costs involved in proctoring CMS courses and exams, candidates must pay fees ranging from $525 for the introductory course and exam to $995 each for the advanced course and exam. That doesn’t include travel costs or budget for purchasing study materials and wines.
“It was always clear that no kind of certification was required in order to become a stellar wine director,” Pope says, referencing former Gramercy Tavern mentors Paul Grieco and Karen King. “As much as I love school and class, the reality is that I could never have made time for certification, my job, and my personal life.”
“I got busy working, and time just went by,” echoes Rajat Parr, winemaker and partner of Sandhi Wines, Domaine de la Cote, and Evening Land Vineyards. A student of Larry Stone, MS, Parr was initially interested in pursuing the Court of Master Sommeliers program, sitting for his introductory exam, but was never pushed by his mentor to take further exams. Ironically, the James Beard Award-winning sommelier and former wine director of Mina Group has gained such a high reputation that many in the industry erroneously assume he is a Master Sommelier.
Interestingly, all the sommeliers we interviewed for this story agreed on two key points. First, that the Court of Master Sommeliers and other formal wine education programs are indeed worthwhile. But, even with formal certification, a sommelier cannot be successful without experience on the floor.
“Hospitality and service are number one,” Ellen Yin, co-owner of High Street on Hudson and High Street Hospitality Group, says. “If the knowledge is there, certification may not be required.” High Street on Hudson’s general manager and beverage director Jeff Arnold is currently a Certified Sommelier.
“The best way for a sommelier to become excellent is to work on the floor of a restaurant,” Ragan agrees, citing the importance of “interacting with people, showing genuine hospitality, and forming authentic connections with guests.” In its 17 restaurants, Union Square Hospitality Group currently employs four Master Sommeliers, including Ragan. Only one of USHG’s seven wine directors holds a Master Sommelier Diploma. (Others are pursuing the CMS program.)
“Wine certification at whatever level does not mint fully formed wine professionals,” Pope adds. At the same, time, however, she acknowledges: “Organized education is useful and meaningful. For as many inspired wine professionals as there are with no certification, there will always be a core of really excellent certified somms out there to inspire up-and-comers.”
“In the end, I think any opportunity to educate wine professionals should be supported,” Cappiello says. As sommeliers come from different backgrounds and learn in different ways, it’s useful to have multiple paths to becoming a successful somm.
The notion of service and hospitality first is critical in the opinion of restaurant owners as well, both those who employ Master Sommeliers and those who do not. It’s important to note their perspectives, as a goal of pursuing any certification program should be to obtain employment.
“They’re going to hate to hear this, but learning to be a great waiter and learning to be a great maitre’d is most important,” Stuckey says. “The problem is too many people want to become a sommelier before having those skill sets.”
Reclaiming the Mission
Despite its 40-year history, the Court of Master Sommeliers’ program has surged in popularity in recent years, first among up-and-coming sommeliers in the mid-2000s, and then among even consumers in the past five years. The Court has adjusted its format and exam content in the past three years to reflect the increasing popularity of the exams, and the need to focus on both the service and business sides of running a wine program.
The danger of the fervor that now surrounds CMS certification and the sommelier profession in general is that many candidates pursuing these programs forget the original mission of the organization: to encourage higher standards of beverage knowledge and service in restaurants. A similar debate besets the culinary industry, where aspiring professional chefs share classrooms in the country’s top culinary academies with “Top Chef” fans, and students think that a degree turns them into fully-formed chefs.
“Our most fundamental mission is to help more people fall in love with wine,” Ragan says. “It’s important to prioritize the fulfillment of that mission above all else.”
Sommeliers must always be hospitality professionals first. No amount of certification can bypass or subjugate the importance of communication. If sommeliers wish to pursue certification, it’s worthwhile to spend longer studying rather than to progress through the ranks as quickly as possible, as it will lead to a more well-rounded, hospitality-oriented education. After all, what’s the rush?
In the end, wine knowledge and hospitality are necessary. Certification is not. It is essential for wine professionals ourselves not to forget that.