Although there is no specific qualification or educational requirement to become a sommelier, it is beneficial for an aspiring candidate in this field to take up certain certifications and courses to have an edge over the others. This CareerStint article gives brief guidelines to all those who want to know how to become a sommelier.
Wine Certification Isn’t as Easy as Sipping Wine!
Did you know that the Master Sommelier diploma is the highest qualification a professional can attain in the field of fine wine and beverage? Introduced in the year 1969, till 2014, there are only 219 professionals in the world to have earned this diploma. There are 140 Master Sommeliers in North America and the CMS Americas. Out of these, only 21 are women.
They say that the difference between good wine and a great wine is that moment on your palate, similarly, the difference between a sommelier and an ideal sommelier lies in his/her insatiable passion towards wine. Yes, to reach the epitome of this career, a sommelier should not only possess knowledge, but also the desire to learn more and more, along with the inclination to share this passion with as many people as possible. Technically, in the United States, there is no set educational requirement to become a sommelier; however, if you see yourself serving in the finest restaurants in the world, then employers would definitely want you to have an edge over the others, a background, diploma, or perhaps a significant amount of work experience in the wine and beverage industry.
A sommelier is not just confined to suggesting and serving wine that would suit a customer’s need, he or she needs to do a lot more than that! In fact, serving and suggesting accounts for rarely 25 to 30 percent of the total job description of a sommelier. He also needs to know which kind of wine goes with which food items. In fact, a sommelier plays a crucial role in listing the wines and food items in the menu. Therefore, a sensitive palate and the knack to judge wine and food pairing is one of the crucial skills that one should have in this field.
Steps to Becoming a Certified Sommelier: Knowledge, Experience, and Certification
Almost anyone, from those belonging to the hospitality industry to wine retailers to simply wine lovers, tend to apply for these certification courses with an intention to learn and benefit more in the field. However, before that, it is suggested to learn more and more about this beverage through hands-on experience and reading industry publications and connoisseur magazines. The Court of Master Sommeliers suggests to “read a good wine encyclopedia such as Tom Stevenson’s, The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia or Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible in preparation before the actual class takes place.”
Experience also plays a crucial role to absorb the most of what is being taught in the class, the duration of which may vary based on the type of course chosen by you―foundation course, certification diploma, advanced course, and the like. For example, The Court of Master Sommeliers suggests that candidates should ideally have been working in wine service for at least three years to enroll in the Introductory Sommelier Course and Exam, although this is not mandatory. On the other hand, as per the requisites of The Culinary Institute of America, the candidate must have a Bachelor’s or Associate degree in hospitality management, culinary arts management, or a related field. If not, then he/she must have a Bachelor’s degree in another discipline, plus a minimum of six months experience in service or management related to professional wine and beverage.
Various sommelier institutions worldwide offer certification, diploma, and other short courses for wine enthusiasts. Some of them include: The Culinary Institute of America, Society of Wine Educators, The Sommelier Society of America, The Court of Master Sommeliers, and International Wine Guild. There are different types of courses offered by these organizations.
The Sommelier Society of America has a 21-week program for certification diploma. This includes a study of the significant wine-producing countries and regions of the world, blind tastings, viniculture, viticulture, and cooperage. Study materials are also provided for preparation of the examination.
The International Wine Guild has a three-step certification program consisting the following courses: (1) Level I – Guild Wine Seminar, (2) Level II – Advanced Wine Course, and (3) Level III – Advanced Wine and Food Pairing Course.
The Court of Master Sommeliers offers a four-level program to become a Master Sommelier. These are: (1) Level I – Introductory Sommelier Course & Exam, (2) Level II – Certified Sommelier Examination, (3) Level III – Advanced Sommelier Course and Examination, and (4) Level IV – Master Sommelier Diploma Examination Details. Here, Level II is the certification requirement, after that the courses are for advanced learning.
The Society of Wine Educators offers the ‘Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) Program’ and the ‘Certified Wine Educator (CWE) Program’ pertaining to wine study. These are self-study educational programs and are recognized globally in the wine and spirits industry. Their exams are held multiple times in a year both in the United States and abroad.
The Culinary Institute of America offers 1-5 days wine courses, 30-weeks Accelerated Wine & Beverage Certification Program, and CIA Certified Wine Professional® Exam. These programs together help in increasing one’s knowledge and practical skills that are required in the industry.
The pay scale of a sommelier is likely to vary widely based on whether he/she is certified or not. According to The Court of Master Sommeliers, from approximately USD 28,000 for a sommelier with limited experience to USD 80,000 to USD 160,000 for a Master Sommelier. This just implies that although a certification isn’t a must-have, it is a must if one wishes to excel in the industry, both socially and financially.
A true sommelier is an enthusiast who eat, drinks, and sleeps wine. The intricate knowledge, dedication, commitment, and passion that is required to pass these courses and examinations for certification is more challenging than it may seem. One needs to be an absolute type A personality to clear the certifications, especially if you’re aiming towards a Master Certification. You need to understand all kinds of wines and everything associated with their cultivation and storage. A prior experience is a definite advantage as it helps understand customer preferences and palates. For true wine connoisseurs, all these steps and preparation are just a way to indulge further into their passion. You can never learn enough about wines, and this job gives you a chance to be with your passion all through the night (it’s mostly a night job) where you’re on the constant move to introduce more and more people to the most quintessential drink that goes with food―a perfectly complementing wine.