How to Become a Sommelier (And Why You Should)

Become a Sommelier

A wine enthusiast may choose to become a sommelier in order to create wine lists for restaurants or wine bars. Photo Credit: Flickr CC user N Wong

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 Some wine enthusiasts believe that sommelier certification takes years to complete, and that it’s only useful for those who want a career in the wine industry. This isn’t necessarily true. Dedicated students can become a sommelier in as little as 24 weeks through the American Sommelier Association. Moreover, sommelier status opens new doors for you that you might never have considered before. When Vinfolio’s Tamara Forward went through the process in 2014, she not only received a top-notch wine education (which made it easier to shop for and enjoy wine in her spare time), she also made meaningful connections to her fellow students, and was able to use her education to move her wine career forward. Even if you aren’t looking for a career in wine, you can gain a great deal of experience and improve your wine collection by becoming certified. If you’re wondering how to become a sommelier, here’s how to go about it, what to expect, and how it can help you as a collector.

The Benefits of Getting Certified

When Tamara Forward decided to get her formal education in wine, she had already been working for years as an uncertified sommelier at a New York restaurant. For her, the benefits of becoming a sommelier were obvious: she wanted to have more clout in the food industry so that she could continue to work for fine restaurants in the future. But as she went through the certification process, she discovered that this was only one benefit of many. In addition to improving her career prospects, taking sommelier classes allowed her to meet fellow students who also have a passion for wine. Outside of class, she would get together with some of these students in a group to practice their tasting skills and talk about the wines they loved. This is a potentially important resource for any fine wine collector, even those who never plan on working in the wine industry. By getting to know your fellow wine enthusiasts, you’ll be introduced to their favorite wines and new discoveries, which in turn will improve your collection decades after your certification is complete. By attending formal classes, you introduce yourself to a network of dedicated wine experts who could become lifelong friends and colleagues in the future.

Sommeliers often work in restaurants with wine lists that are dozens of pages long, ranging from Penfolds to DRC. They’re expected to find the one bottle of wine that a customer will love out of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of bottles. In order to do this, a sommelier has to be incredibly knowledgeable about wine, specifically when it comes to flavor profiles and food pairings. Even if you never work in a restaurant, when you receive sommelier certification, you gain in-depth knowledge of different wine regions, flavor profiles, styles, and essential facts about virtually any bottle of wine you’ll encounter in your lifetime. This could serve your collection well in the future, allowing you to select the best bottles for your cellar, and make investment decisions quickly.

Decide Why You Want to Become a Sommelier

While you’ll find a number of benefits to your collection and your palate when you become a sommelier, that doesn’t mean that certification is right for everyone. There are two types of certified sommeliers: those who currently work in the industry, and those who go through the certification process to learn more about wine. One option isn’t better than the other–you just need to know which category you’ll likely fall under before you become a sommelier. That’s because, while this process may not take you more than about 5 months to complete, depending on the course, there’s still a great deal of work involved. In order to make it through the long class schedule and nerve-wracking final exam, you should have an ultimate end goal in mind from the beginning. Some sommelier students drop out before the courses are complete, sometimes because they underestimate the amount of studying required to pass the exam, and sometimes because they only liked the idea of being a sommelier, without having a plan to use their education for a specific purpose.

You need to have a purpose in mind when you receive sommelier certification. Consider the following options:

  • Establish As a Professional in the Wine Industry: If you know that you will pursue a career in the wine industry, you’ll likely find that all of the classes you take throughout the course will be essential for you. You may also decide to get certified through more than one sommelier association, as certain courses have better reputations in certain regions. For instance, the Court of Master Sommeliers has a bigger reputation among West Coast restaurants, whereas the American Sommelier Association tends to have a bigger reputation on the East Coast. By getting certified with both associations, you can cover all of your bases and give yourself the opportunity to change careers in any location. You’ll want to pay especially close attention to the classes that teach you about the business side of wine, in addition to courses in tasting wine and understanding regional styles.
  • Become a Sommelier for Personal Enjoyment: Tamara Forward says that, while you can become a sommelier without working in the industry, the process is much harder. Since you’re not working with wine every day, you have to carve out time in your schedule to practice. This is even more difficult if you have a non wine-related career, as you only have so many spare hours in your day to dedicate to wine. Additionally, she points out, you can only call yourself a “sommelier” if you are actively working as one in the industry. She compares it to getting a yoga teaching certification–unless you’re actively teaching yoga classes, you can’t really call yourself a “yoga instructor,” even if you are certified.

That said, you can still “become a sommelier” and get certified without having any intention of working in the industry. In this case, you’ll want to pay closer attention to the classes focused on wine itself (including taste and regional style), rather than the business-oriented classes. Forward suggests taking just a few sommelier courses, rather than going through the entire certification process.

How to Become a Sommelier

Once you’ve given yourself a goal (such as “working in a restaurant” or “learning more about Louis Jadot”), you’ll need to prepare yourself for sommelier courses. This isn’t as simple as just signing up for a full sommelier course online, especially if you aren’t currently working in the industry. Sommelier courses are comprehensive, yet they still require a certain level of base knowledge to start, and plenty of practice time outside of class. Here are the steps you should follow in order to become a sommelier:

Become a Sommelier

Start by getting together with a group of wine enthusiasts who are interested in becoming sommeliers as well, or who simply want to try new wines. Forward says that as she was going through the certification process, group wine tastings were absolutely essential, because they gave her the chance to practice what she learned in class. By establishing this tasting group early, you get a head start on your education, you surround yourself with like-minded people who can keep you excited and inspired about wine, and you can also share costs. Instructors provide you with some bottles of wine in class, but outside of class, it’s up to you to buy your own wine to practice with. Sharing this responsibility with a group keeps overhead costs low.

Become a Sommelier

This is an optional step for aspiring sommeliers who don’t already work in the industry. When you work in a restaurant, you already have a base knowledge of best serving practices, wine regions, and varietals. However, if you’ve never taken a formal wine class before, and you don’t work in the industry, you shouldn’t jump right into your sommelier courses. Instead, take a few classes through WSET first. These courses are excellent preparation for more advanced sommelier classes, and they can help you decide whether becoming a sommelier is the right decision. You may discover that you learned all that you need to know at WSET, and that getting certified as a sommelier is more effort than it’s worth.

Become a Sommelier

If you have restaurant experience, or you’ve completed the first two levels of WSET classes and want to know more, you should sign up for at least these two sommelier certification courses. You may also decide to become certified in other courses from other organizations, however, the Court of Master Sommeliers and the American Sommelier Association courses are the most popular in North America. By getting certified in both of these North American courses, rather than just one, you better your chances of getting hired as a professional sommelier anywhere in the country. Alternatively, you can sign up just with the organization that is most recognized in your region (CMS on the West Coast, and ASI on the East Coast).

Become a Sommelier

Each certification course requires different classes, but regardless of which certification process you choose, you will need to carve out time outside of class to study. Tamara Forward recommends meeting with your wine group at least once a week to talk about the wines you’re currently studying in class. In addition, you’ll want to create a flashcard system to recall facts about different wine regions or styles. Finally, practice taking detailed tasting notes for every bottle you drink in preparation for the final exam. You may also decide to find work as an uncertified sommelier at a restaurant in order to squeeze in more study time outside of class. Generally, the less time you spend actively working as a sommelier outside of class, the more time you’ll have to dedicate to studying on your own. Don’t enter into this process unless you’re prepared to spend every spare moment you have learning about wine.

Become a Sommelier

Your classes and extra practice time should leave you well-prepared for the final exam. However, not every student passes on his first try. It is extremely difficult to pass the exam if you don’t already work as a sommelier at a restaurant, so you should be prepared to take the exam multiple times until you pass.

While the ASI final exam consists mainly of a wine tasting and identification course during a blind tasting, the CMS exam tends to be more intimidating for people who aren’t already working in the industry. That’s because this exam requires you to identify wines in a blind test and to serve a table of Master Sommeliers different bottles of wine. You’re judged on both knowledge and your level of service to the customer. For the CMS exam, you’ll need to know how to open and pour different-sized bottles of wine, and how to open a Champagne bottle without letting it make any noise. Forward says that one of her fellow students nearly failed the exam after he accidentally sent a Champagne cork flying and it bounced off of one of the adjudicators. He had to make up for his mistake with near-perfect scores in every other portion of the exam.

Choosing the Right Classes for Your Needs

If you’re only looking to boost your wine knowledge, and not interested in learning how to serve customers, then it’s best to stick with WSET classes, or become certified with the ASI. The CMS exam is usually too difficult for those outside of the service industry, even if they have an in-depth knowledge of wine. Typically, most sommelier certification courses, or formal wine classes in general, teach students about wine styles and regions very early in the program. Courses typically switch over to the business side of the industry around level 2, which is true for both the WSET and ASI programs. Going beyond level 2 in these programs is really only useful for those who anticipate having a wine career someday, or who insist on getting fully certified for personal reasons.

Here’s a simple guide to the type of student who should enroll in each sommelier or wine education program:

WSET classes: These courses are for students who want to build a solid knowledge of wine and have no interest in actually becoming a working sommelier. You can take multiple classes in order to receive a Level 4 diploma, which is a stepping stone to getting a Master of Wine certification later.

Court of Master Sommeliers: Getting certified with this association is best for students who want to become sommeliers, especially those who want to work in restaurants on the West Coast. Students start with an intensive two-day introductory course and exam, reviewing the basics of wine. Then, students take a tasting method workshop, followed by the certified sommelier exam. From here, students can continue their education to become an advanced sommelier, and eventually, a master sommelier.

American Sommelier Association: Getting certified with this association is best for students who want to become sommeliers, especially those on the East Coast. The ASA program is somewhat less serving-focused than CMS, but still essential for sommeliers working in restaurants. Students start with a 6-week foundation course, followed by three more courses, each 10 weeks long. These include grape-focused classes, and those centered on different wine regions. Advanced students, or those who passed the previous classes, can then take a 24-week vinification course, followed by a 16-week at-home study session to practice blind tasting. Once the final blind tasting exam is complete, students can continue to take additional classes on serving, sales, and other business-oriented subjects.

The course you choose will depend on your personal goals, as well as how much time you have to dedicate to this endeavor. Regardless of which option you decide is best, Tamara Forward recommends finding a tasting group that aligns to the goals you have for yourself. Being in a group with students who are taking the same classes you are, through the same program, will help you understand the course material more easily, and give you reliable resources to fall back on if you are feeling overwhelmed.

Certification Isn’t Everything

Becoming a sommelier is only the tip of the iceberg. The reality is that wine education never ends, even for those who are fully certified with every program. Getting certified is only one method for growing a greater understanding of wine, and it’s not necessary for every wine aficionado. Before you pressure yourself into becoming certified, it’s important to ask yourself why you want to go through the experience, and whether it’s truly the right choice for you. Some wine collectors find that they are content with taking a few sommelier classes without taking the final exam, whereas others like to have certification because they want to have the option of a wine career later on. Regardless of which choice you make, as long as you’re dedicated to learning about wine, and trying new varietals, you will make the most out of any formal program.

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