Sommelier Education Guide: The Path to Certification

Updated January 31, 2022
sommelier school student study wine take notes

So you want to get your sommelier certification. Whether you work in the industry or you just nerd-out on wine in your free time, there are multiple paths forward to get your certification. While it can be a bit confusing not to have one obvious class or course series to sign-up for, the various education options allow each person to choose the right fit for them.

What Is a Sommelier?

A sommelier is a wine professional or expert that has a rounded training in wine geography, wine varietals and styles, food and wine pairings, wine tasting, and wine service. While a common path for a sommelier may be to work in a restaurant, there are many alternative jobs in the beverage industry where a formal sommelier education is equally applicable. A sommelier can work in sales and distribution as a wine rep or buyer or work directly with producers as a distributor. Or they could be in more of an educational role, working at a bottle shop or vineyard, leading tours and tastings. There may even be opportunities to become a wine consultant or wine writer. Whichever path is right for you, the formal education can help prepare you for your next step.

Different Sommeliers' Education Paths

Each sommelier program offers an opportunity to deep dive into the world of wine. Some focus more on service and storage, while others focus more on communications. Understanding the options will help you to choose a program that fits best with your interests and/or work.

Court of Masters Sommeliers

The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) is a four-tier course that starts with receiving your Introductory Sommelier at level one and ends with a Master Sommelier status with the completion of level four. The CMS program leans more toward a traditional trajectory for a sommelier looking to work in the restaurant industry; however, you'll cover service, tasting and theory if you complete all four levels. To get your palate wet, level one is a great intro option. If you find yourself wanting to continue up through level two and into level three, you'll need to have a couple of years of industry experience to be accepted into the program. The Master of Sommelier (and final level) is a very intensive course that goes into great detail on subject matter and requires many years of dedicated study to complete.

The Wine And Spirit Education Trust

The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) is an academic certification that also offers four progressive levels. This is a great program for those interested in the education and communication side of wine. With a combination of online and in-person learning offered throughout the world, it is an accessible program that combines a lot of subject matter including the basics of service, in depth geography and appellation knowledge, the principles of food and wine pairing, and the key steps in grape growing and winemaking. WSET uses the Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine (SAT), which is a formally structured, step-by-step process to assess a wine in appearance, aroma, taste, ageing potential, and overall quality. Depending on which level you pursue, it can be anywhere from a number of weeks to a number of years of study.

The Institute of Masters of Wine

The Institute of Masters of Wine is based in London and includes both remote and on-site learning. The Master of Wine program is great for current wine professionals looking to advance in their field. This is an advanced course of study in wine, and you must already have significant wine experience and formal study to be accepted into the program. Mentorship is a big part of this program, and students have the opportunity to develop close relationships with other wine professionals over the course of their study. It is a comprehensive program that is a good fit for those pursuing a traditional Sommelier position, as well as for wine educators.

Recommended Reading

From memoirs to reference books, there are a lot of wine books out there. If you are on track to becoming a sommelier, building a little library will go a long way in your education. The following are a few books that are worth owning or placing on extended holds at your local library.

  • The New Wine Rules: A Genuinely Helpful Guide to Everything You Need to Know by Jon Bonné
  • Natural Wine by Isabelle Legeron
  • Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer's Tour of France by Kermit Lynch
  • Voodoo Vintners by Katherine Cole
  • The World Atlas of Wine, 8th Edition by Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson
  • Wine Simple: A Totally Approachable Guide from a World-Class Sommelier by Aldo Sohm
  • Amber Revolution by Simon Woolf
  • The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode

Start Tasting

variety of wine on table

Get ready to start buying and tasting a whole bunch of wines. This is fun! And it can also be pretty expensive. Starting a tasting group with a few professionals or friends is a great way to try more things and practice formally tasting and describing wine. Signing up for tasting events put on by bottle shops or restaurants is another good way to familiarize yourself with a handful of grapes and styles in a short amount of time. If you live in a wine growing region, or take a vacation in one, make sure you plan out a couple vineyard visits. Beyond tasting the wine, walking the vineyard, learning about the farming practices, and touring the cellar are all really important pieces to understanding a wine overall. Finally, wandering into any and all bespoke wine shops and picking up an array of wines to try later is always a good idea.

Becoming a Wine Expert

Pursuing your sommelier certification is a great way to really double down on wine theory and hone-in your tasting skills. Start by choosing the program that is the best fit for you. As you complete various levels, you'll likely find the more you learn about wine, the more there is know.

Sommelier Education Guide: The Path to Certification