Comparing Wine & Sommelier Certification Programs

By Émilie Steckenborn |

Always dreamed of becoming a sommelier? Or, do you simply want to delve deeper into the world of wine for personal or professional reasons?

Fortunately, there are a wide range of quality courses that offer wine and beverage education — no matter your level. However, there are so many different certifications available that the options can be overwhelming. The following guide will break down some of the key programs and shed light on which course is right for you.

Personally, I’m known among my friends to be always preparing for one exam or another. I completed the WSET Diploma in 2014, have dipped my toes in beer exams, splashed around in sake courses, and am now undertaking the Master of Wine program. The thrill of learning more about wine, beer and sake has enriched not only my life and career, but also my palate. It’s no wonder I became a wine educator and am focused on sharing my passion with thousands of others in Asia. Now, I enjoy helping other people explore their own enthusiasm for wine too – and enjoy every moment of the process.

So, let’s take a look at some options.

[Courtesy WSET]

Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET)

WSET seems to be everywhere on my social media streams. Founded in London in 1969, the WSET works with individual educators around the world to deliver qualifications on wine, spirits and most recently, sake. If you’re looking for a good base of knowledge wine or sake, WSET is my top recommendation.

WSET courses range from one day for WSET L1 to over five days for WSET L3. The courses are in-depth, the study material is extremely helpful, and the cost covers everything from study books to the final exam. Diploma is the highest qualification offered by the WSET, taking around 2-3 years to complete.

Who: Anyone looking to dive into the world of wine, sake and spirits.

My tip: If you’re new to wine, don’t skip WSET Level 1. I know you’re probably eyeing a route straight to a higher level, but you’ll need to learn the systematic approach to tasting. It’s also advised to enroll in-class learning as opposed to online.; you can’t study wine without tasting it, right?

Exam type: WSET L1 and L2 exams are made up of multiple choice questions. WSET L3 and Diploma are more complex, with blind tastings, multiple choice exams, and essay writing.

Cost: WSET L1 in wines starts at USD$400.

There lots of travel available, but also lots of online options [Courtesy Wine Scholar Guild]

Wine Scholar Guild

The Wine Scholar Guild is made up of specialized and in-depth courses on wines from France, Italy and Spain. Their courses provide flexible learning options, allowing you to study through an online format and join webinars. You’ll also find available Master-Level programs that are single study units focused on regions like Alsace, Burgundy, Rhone, and Bordeaux. The certification also offers educational wine tours and short course options if you’re looking to travel and learn more about a specific wine region.

Who: Wine lovers and hobbyists.

My Tip: The Study Trip is a great way of really discovering a wine region and meeting like-minded wine lovers.

Exam type: 100-question multiple choice exam.

Cost: The single course costs around USD$1,000 and wine trips cost around USD $2,500 (not including transport or lodging).

[Court of Court of Master Sommeliers]

Court of Master Sommelier (CMS)

CMS is perfect for anyone working in the hospitality and restaurant trade. Many people were introduced to the CMS by the iconic movie Somm, which shows top Sommeliers practicing for their Master Sommelier examination. There are currently only 269 Master Sommeliers in the world. However, don’t stress — those are only the ones that have completed the final, most difficult level.

While the majority of the exam focuses on wine and service, it also touches on beer, sake, spirits and cigars. It’s important to remember that the CMS is there to test you, not train you, and it’s expected that you already have a background in hospitality.

Level 1, Introductory Sommelier Certificate is made up of a three-day training session, with the exam taking place the following day. Only upon passing Level 2 do you become a “Certified Sommelier”. Level 2 involves a one-day practical examination where you’re tested on servicing a table, opening and serving wine, and providing wine, food and cocktail recommendations.

Who: Anyone looking to recreate the pressure of the Somm movie or become a Certified Sommelier.

My Tip: You should have a minimum of WSET L3 knowledge before taking on CMS Levels 1 and 2. I’d also suggest revising your wine list to ensure that you pass the practical part of the examination.

Exam type: Level 1 exam is comprised of a blind tasting, multiple choice and short written questions.

Cost: Full cost to get certified as a sommelier is around USD $1,000.

Lots of tasting with the Society of Wine Educators [Courtesy of SWE]

Society of Wine Educators (SWE)

SWE is a US-based certification and membership system aimed at professionals. As per the name, it’s meant for educators to certify their knowledge as opposed to an actual training program. SWE provides various certificates centered on hospitality, wine and spirits. The advanced courses certainly take it up a notch compared to usual wine certifications, involving blind tasting and identifying wine faults.

Who: Educators or wine lovers in the trade.

My Tip: The first two levels of the certification are held at Pearson View Testing Centres using an online examination. The exam is relatively technical, and covers a lot of small appellations within regions.

Exam type: The Level 1 exam is also comprised of a blind tasting, multiple choice and short written questions.

Cost: SWE requires you to subscribe and pay for a membership, books, study guides and exams separately, so it gets expensive quickly. Costs start off at around USD $800.

[Courtesy of The Institute of Masters of Wine]

The Institute of Masters of Wine (MW)

A mistake commonly made is confusing the Masters of Wine program with WSET and the Master Sommelier designation. The MW program is a different entity from WSET; yet, a WSET Diploma certification or equivalent is a prerequisite for the MW program.

The key difference between the Master of Wine and the Master Sommelier certification is that the MW focuses only on wine, as opposed to hospitality, and requires a more technical knowledge of global wine production and the wine industry in business terms. Many Masters of Wine move on to become wine buyers and wine writers. Passing the MW certification is no small feat: It involves three levels and numerous exams that focus on blind tastings, in-depth essay-based exams, and a written paper at an academic level.

There are currently only 389 Masters of Wine in the world.

Who: Anyone crazy enough to dedicate their life to wine.

My Tip: Make sure you pass the WSET Diploma beforehand and have some experience working in a winery.

Cost: MW certification is more of an emotional and time commitment than anything else. Still, it’s not inexpensive. Costs will vary but you should budget at least USD$50,000-75,000 across four to eight years.

Becoming a wine expert is clearly an educational, financial, and emotional commitment. Yet still, so many people undertake the endeavor year after year. It goes to show that wine is not only a beverage, it ties in gastronomy, history and like art, that beauty can be found anywhere.

Émilie has cultivated her palate through gaining her Diploma and Certified Educator from WSET, Certified Sommelier from CMS, HEG Certificate from Cordon Bleu, and is currently a Master of Wine Candidate. As Head of Education Asia & MEIA, she develops programs for front line staff across China, where her team trains thousands of drink enthusiasts across Asia. She currently serves as China Eastern Airlines Official Wine Consultant for First and Business Class.

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