Navigating Wine Certification in America

I’ve been told that life is about the journey, not the destination, and I try to remember this when I’m up at 6:00 a.m. for a tasting group, or at my desk at midnight after work writing an essay about modern viticultural practices in New Zealand. When I decided to pursue my passion for wine by earning a certification, I couldn’t choose between the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and the Court of Master Sommeliers—so I signed up for both. I often find myself having to explain why I’m pursuing such a rigorous course of study, and it’s a valid question. Why are we losing sleep and sacrificing time and money for the pursuit of certificates and lapel pins? There are plenty of successful sommeliers and wine professionals who have never pursued credentials. And if we do believe in the power of the pin, how do we know which program to choose?

Our industry is crowded with post-nominal letters: MS, MW, CWE, FWS, CSE, etc., can all lengthen your professional signature. There are also arrays of acronyms that accompany various programs of study like WSET, CMS, FWS, AWBP and SWE. Taken all together, one begins to swim in alphabet soup. “Many people are confused by what I call the wine credential blur,” writes David Glancy, a Master Sommelier and founder of the San Francisco Wine School. He makes note of at least a dozen credentialing bodies or schools that offer their own sommelier programs. “It is hard for most people to tell which one is best,” he says.

Things get even more confusing when we consider that the word “sommelier” is often used as a blanket term for all wine professionals, not just those who work in restaurants. Likewise, we tend to speak of “sommelier certifications,” without making the distinction between programs designed for hospitality professionals and those geared toward professionals working in the retail or distribution side of things. This is a useful distinction to make when thinking about which certification program might be right for you.

Below, I’ve outlined the most prominent organizations and credentials: The Master of Wine (MW), Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) and Society of Wine Educators (SWE). I’ve also taken a look at programs offered by major culinary schools. If you’re thinking about pursuing a beverage credential, this is where you should begin your search.

The Master of Wine

There’s something mysterious about the Master of Wine, a qualification issued by the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) in the UK. I first saw this set of initials in World of Fine Wine, the award-winning magazine filled with full-page color photos of glossy grape bunches and works of art. Seemingly, every article was written by so-and-so MW. But what does it mean to be an MW? What’s the exam like? Where do you study? How do you get in?

To find out more about this prestigious qualification, I spoke with Antony Moss, MW, Director of Strategic planning for the WSET, a related organization also based in the UK. Antony explains that there’s a historical relationship between the IMW, WSET and CMS:

In the 1950s, there was an attempt to professionalize the UK trade by having exams in place like the ones required for doctors and lawyers—the MW exam. The people who passed the exam formed the IMW, a membership organization. But the IMW was very small and elite. So in 1969, the institute decided it would formalize training and make it more widely available to people working in the trade. They created the WSET for people working in the distribution and retail side of things. During this time, there weren’t really sommeliers outside of France or Italy. But in the 1970s, as fine dining and the sommelier profession grew, the IMW realized there was a need for another organization that would provide the job-specific skills that sommeliers needed. So in 1977 they helped create the CMS for people working in restaurants.

To this day, the focus of these three organizations remains the same. The MW and WSET are geared towards people working in the import, distribution and retail side of the business, while the CMS is geared towards people working in the hospitality sector. This difference in focus is one reason people may choose one certification over another or choose to pursue more than one certification.

So how, exactly, do you become an MW? The exam is certainly one of the most rigorous in the world, consisting of three parts (theory, practical and research paper). For the theory sections, candidates must complete five three-hour-long question papers on viticulture, vinification and pre-bottling procedures, the handling of wine, business of wine and contemporary issues. The 2015 exam included questions ranging from, “What contributions do yeasts make to wine, and how can a winemaker control these?” to “Is the ‘natural wine’ movement losing momentum? What is its future?” The practical, or tasting, portion of the exam consists of three 12-wine blind tastings. For each of the three tastings, candidates have 135 minutes to assess wines for variety, origin, winemaking, quality and style, with responses written in essay format. The research paper incorporates even more writing, requiring candidates to write 6,000-10,000 words on a topic of choice.

Part of the perceived mystery surrounding the MW qualification may have to do with the fact that the exam is largely self-study. Although candidates receive some support in the form of seminars, graded practice papers and an MW mentor, the program is otherwise unguided. “There isn’t a mummy and daddy or teachers with the answers,” Moss explains. “You’ve got to go figure it out.” He points out that the MW exam mimics real life problems one will encounter in the wine business and is part of what makes this qualification desirable to employers. “When you’re interviewing someone for a job you want to see that they have the ability to operate in an open-ended environment that’s more like a professional work environment. There are real life business problems that no one will tell you how to solve.”

There are other, less obvious benefits to earning a beverage certification, particularly one like the MW, which help justify costs. According to the organization’s website, the MW program is about $13,000, not including the necessary travel or wine costs. “If it was just about learning a whole load of facts it wouldn’t have particularly motivated me,” Moss explains of the MW qualification. “It’s about much more than that. I’ve benefited from the network of people I formed while I was a student. The time I spent as an MW student was the time when my perspective of the wine industry became a truly global perspective. I was talking on a fairly high level with people in different sectors of the industry who were operating in different countries, so I suddenly understood what it’s like to be an importer in Hong Kong or a producer in Spain.”

The Wine & Spirit Education Trust

If being thrown to the exam wolves isn’t your thing, the WSET is a more formalized, guided educational training organization that provides several progressive levels of qualifications. For example, the Level 2 Award in Wine and Spirits gives a basic overview of the world of wine and spirits, with candidates assessed by a short multiple-choice exam. On the other hand, the Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits, a steppingstone (if not a formal prerequisite) for admission to the MW program, is much more involved. Candidates must sit exams in six different units of study, from viticulture and vinification to wine business. Exams incorporate essay questions and comprehensive blind tasting notes. Students may study in a classroom or online and there are instructors, homework and tasting assignments. Costs vary depending on your location, wines, instructors and the level of certification you are pursuing. In the US, Level 2 ranges from $750-$840; Level 3 from $1525-$1700; Level 4 from $6,750-$7500.

Whether you prefer self-study or guided study is another critical factor when choosing a certification. Guided study may prove more relevant for people just getting started on the path to learning about wine. Something I often hear from people just beginning their studies is that there is so much to the world of wine that they just don’t know where to begin. Moss points out that a program like the WSET can be a great way to structure your studies. “It’s always possible for people in the industry to teach themselves by reading articles on the internet or books or clericals,” he says. “Some people are very capable of doing that. But it’s possible to waste quite a lot of time going down unpromising alleys and exploring them without realizing they don’t go anywhere. With organizations like the WSET, the syllabus is carefully thought out and the knowledge is being structured in a way that builds. It’s immensely useful.”

Having your studies validated by certification does help differentiate you in the wine world, Andrew McNamara, MS, Chairman of the CMS-Americas, says. “Certifications show dedication and effort for something you didn’t have to do, but you put the time and energy and effort into doing it,” he says. “You don’t need a certification to be successful in the profession but I do think it allows for a more structured environment and goal achievement. It can help you push yourself.”

The Court of Master Sommeliers

The CMS is arguably the most well known organization for those seeking a beverage certification. There are four levels of certification: Introductory, Certified, Advanced and Master Sommelier. Prices range from $525 for the certified exam to $800 for each portion of the master sommelier exam. Limited guidance and structured education is offered at the introductory and advanced levels in the form of classroom-style lectures and tasting practice. Exams at the certified level and beyond consist of three sections: theory, blind tasting and service. A strong focus on service is the distinguishing feature of the CMS. McNamara says most people pursuing certification through the CMS work in the hospitality or service industry. “It’s a unique program because we need people to be able to talk about wine in a restaurant setting. Being able to recall information at a table is often very difficult. It’s not a prepared speech. You need to be able to speak eloquently and intelligently about wine and sell it.”

These are truly sommelier exams, with a focus on being able to sell wine to guests in a restaurant setting. Bob Bath, MS, a Professor of Wine and Beverage at the CIA at Greystone in Napa agrees that service is the distinguishing element of the organization. “In the CMS, there’s always going to be that one element of service and people are going to say, ‘that’s me or that’s not me,’” he explains. “For someone like myself who came up through the restaurant industry, it seemed like a natural progression because that’s what I had been doing most of my career. But it’s got to be a decision one makes, whether they want to have that element.”

The nature of self-study comes into play again with the CMS certifications, especially at the higher levels. The curriculum at the advanced and master level is notoriously slim. A quick check of the website includes links for suggested reading, service standards, the deductive tasting format and exam standards. Last year did mark the beginning of a separate advanced course, providing candidates with three days of intensive lectures and tastings with master sommeliers in order to help them understand the breadth and depth of knowledge required at the advanced level. “The curriculum is loose,” McNamara confirms. “We give an idea about countries and places you need to know, but it really is about being able to take a guideline and extrapolate it beyond that into the world of wine.”

Having to come up with the answers, or even the questions, on your own is a common theme in upper level certifications like the MS and MW. At this level, knowledge becomes the backdrop to a more personal struggle. This type of challenge forces you to prove to yourself what you’re really made of. Bath compares the MS exam to athletics. “It’s kind of like clearing seven feet in the high jump,” he explains. “You can clear six feet and three quarters, but you’re still going to knock the bar off. There aren’t that many people who can high-jump seven feet. It’s always going to be a low percentage, but the people who apply themselves—they’re going to make that height and they’re going to find out what they need to do to make it happen.”

This level of personal commitment in certification, especially for programs that require intense self-study, is setting the bar for the industry as a whole, McNamara argues. “It teaches you to be resourceful. It teaches you to ask for help. It teaches you to seek out others’ opinions and solutions,” he emphasizes. “If I were to tell you, okay, go out and become an MS or an MW, what would you do? What steps would you take to get there? It’s obviously a difficult process, but it’s definitely worthwhile. It raises the bar. It enhances the profession because it’s something that takes in the entire world of wine, the entire world of beverage alcohol. The more you push people to get there—the more people that get to the highest levels of certification—the better off we are as an industry.”

The Society of Wine Educators

The SWE is another educational organization founded in the same year as the CMS that provides wine education through several different certifications. The Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) and Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS) qualifications are prerequisites for the more challenging Certified Wine Educator (CWE) and Certified Spirits Educator (CSE) qualifications. The first two exams consist of a one-hour multiple-choice test with questions based on the contents of a comprehensive study guide. The CWE and CSE exams are more rigorous, with three sections that include theory, tasting exams and a presentation skills demonstration. The theory involves both multiple-choice and essay questions, while the presentation demonstration requires candidates to present on a wine topic to an audience. Enrollment ranges from $600-675, depending on the certification.

Edward Korry, President of the SWE, says that one of the unique aspects of the CWE and CSE qualifications is the focus on learning to teach others about wine and spirits. “You have to give a presentation where you’re judged on how well you can disseminate information. Whether you’re teaching a consumer group who doesn’t know much about something like Chablis, or you’re addressing a room full of MWs, you still have to be able to teach to that audience. Teaching is all about understanding your audience.”

Audience is one reason, Korry says, that certifications are becoming more important. “You have an increasingly sophisticated audience with disposable income that wants to purchase good quality wine and, in many cases, has become better educated than those serving them,” he says. “Creating an experience in a restaurant or in retail—helping to create an experience that someone will enjoy at home—is experiential. But if you don’t have the knowledge, you can’t really give them an experience.”

The Culinary Institute of America and the International Culinary Center

Many people who decide to pursue a career in wine begin as culinary students. The Culinary Institute of America’s Accelerated Wine and Beverage Certificate Program (AWBP) was implemented in 2010. Available only at the Greystone campus, it lasts nine months. Students learn about all areas of wine including wine business, tasting and professional wine service. “Our graduates are working in all different venues,” Bath says. “They’re working in auction houses, restaurants, running some of the top wine programs in San Francisco. Others are working in retail, wine production and wine writing. It’s a program that’s accelerated and allows them faster entry into the business, but at the same time, it exposes them to the entire breadth of opportunities out there—not just the sommelier route.”

While the CIA is non-profit, this is a degree program. The cost with room and board is about $30,000. Bath says the program is well worth the money. “Because of the intensity of this program, employers are getting somebody who’s more qualified and needs less introduction, less training. They’re going to be able to make a contribution much faster in terms of their ultimate employment. We’ve seen that people have been able to rise up very quickly in their organizations and take on responsibility that perhaps would take other people much longer.” Students also have access to professional tasting rooms on campus and are in direct proximity to the Napa valley. They will taste over 1,000 wines, hear from 50 guest speakers and take 20 field trips. Amy Racine, Wine Director at Sons & Daughters in San Francisco, graduated from the AWBP program. “The program truly exceeded my expectations,” she told me. “I benefited from the community, the knowledge and the life experience. My professors gave me all the tools I needed to go in any direction.”

The International Culinary Center (ICC), the only for-profit school profiled in this article, offers what it calls the Intensive Sommelier Training Program (IST), a 50-class, 200-hour program that works in concert with the CMS, which administers its introductory and certified exams to students once they complete the IST program. Offered only in New York and California, students receive a diploma for completion of the program, which costs about $11,000. I ask Scott Carney, MS, Dean of Wine Studies at the ICC, why students should pay this much for a sommelier degree. “It’s a blue-chip education,” he says, noting that students have access to state-of-the-art tasting rooms where they have the opportunity to taste wines side-by-side and are taught by master sommeliers.

But Carney also points out that there are other, intangible benefits to this type of professional certification. “People benefit not only from their teachers but from their colleagues,” he says. “The people they meet while they’re in the program, it’s part of creating a network for yourself and moving ahead and advancing your life.” Stephen Mostad attended the ICC’s IST program in 2014, passing the CMS certified exam directly afterward. “What I loved best about the IST program was the strong sense of community that exists among sommeliers,” he says. “Having graduated from the ICC, I joined a very solid community of alumni. The ability to network, especially in a city like New York, is critical.”

So what path will you choose? They say life is about the journey, and the same is true for one’s career. You don’t need credentials to be successful, but if you choose to take that journey, remember that a lapel pin or certificate is just the destination. McNamara summed it up perfectly when he said, “My thoughts, and what I’ve always been told, is that it doesn’t matter what certification you get, it’s what you do with it that matters.”

Parents Comment Children
No Data