Decades ago, learning about wine was no easy feat. Books obviously existed and were plentiful, but many covered a limited focus of the “classics” such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and assorted fortified wines. To learn the ins and outs of Greek wine, say, you might have to track down the phone number to someone at the Greek Wine Institute (and perhaps a translator). But today, all you need to learn about wine is a trip to your local wine shop and a good internet connection. Thanks to the ease with which information is accessible, wine has become something anyone can learn. Even if the cost of travel is prohibitive, there are more opportunities than ever to learn about wine.
Two of the largest and most established organizations for wine certification are the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS). They both have their origins in Great Britain and offer globally recognized credentials. Other reputable organizations in the U.S. include the Wine Scholar Guild, the Society of Wine Educators, and Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR), among many others.
Differences Between ‘The Court’ and WSET
The Court of Master Sommeliers and the WSET both offer multiple levels of certification; however, they do have some key differences. The levels of the WSET are 1, 2, 3, and 4 (Diploma). The CMS has comparable levels, including Introductory Sommelier Course/Exam, Certified Sommelier Examination, Advanced Sommelier Examination, and the Master Sommelier Certification. Level 1 is quite rudimentary for both organizations. Students don’t need to work in the industry to complete it. As one progresses through the levels, the expected level of expertise grows considerably, as does the expense involved.
The first key distinction between the two is The Court of Master Sommeliers gears itself towards working sommeliers. The certification includes a service component (the introductory exam is a written test, although there is a service demonstration). If someone has never worked in the hospitality industry, this may be a substantial obstacle. In contrast, WSET does not test for the service of wines. For this reason alone, it is frequently the avenue for those who wish to learn about wine but don’t have a background in hospitality. Keep in mind that WSET does administer blind tasting exams, but they are written, not oral.
Secondly, apart from the Introductory course & exam, the CMS hosts exams, not classes. Meaning, all preparation is done by candidates via independent self-study and mentorship. In comparison, the WSET has courses that precede each examination.
Outside of course structures, there is often a greater demand for seats at some levels of CMS exams than there are openings for candidates. So, there is a requirement for the Advanced & Master exams that the candidate works in the wine & spirits industry. This includes restaurants, hotels, retail, supply, or distribution. WSET certification, on the other hand, is available to anyone and everyone.
CMS and WSET Examinations
The Certified, Advanced and Master level CMS exams focus on three main areas. The theory portion tests knowledge of anything in the world of beverage alcohol, regions, laws, grapes, producers, and vintages.
In episode 6 of my SOMM TV series Study Hall, I share study techniques that are proven to help information stick. Spoiler alert, it involves both writing and listening.
The practical part (aka the service exam) tests the ability to perform in a mock restaurant environment. Candidates field questions and service requests while opening and serving beverages.
The final segment is the tasting. Certified level candidates blind taste four wines (two white, two red) and write their conclusions down. At both the Advanced and Master-level exams, the blind tasting includes six wines (three white and three red). Candidates must deliver their assessment within 25 minutes. Answers must touch on the wine’s appearance, aromas, and flavors to determine the grape(s), origin, and vintage as accurately as possible. The CMS has also expanded the practical portion to include the “Business of the Sommelier”, which tests candidates on their financial savvy in operating a profitable beverage program.
The WSET exams require a great deal of writing, particularly for the upper levels. Essay-style answers are expected in L3, while the Diploma level requires a thesis-style research paper. This track appeals more to candidates with a penchant for this sort of study. In turn, it might dissuade those who take no joy in research and writing.
Essentially, these two principal organizations can be complementary but certainly play to different strengths in the candidates they attract.
One final but substantial difference between the CMS and the WSET exams relates to identifying candidates and the turnaround time for results. CMS results are given in-person immediately following an exam. Students at higher levels receive extensive feedback. In comparison, WSET candidates are only identified by a number. Completed exams go to the WSET Head Office in Great Britain and are graded by someone who was not present at the exam.
Because of this difference, there is perhaps a reassurance of no potential for identifiable bias between examinee and grader. However, it often takes 6 to 8 weeks to receive the exam results with limited feedback, if any.
One last distinction is that the WSET routinely reveals prior exam questions and wines when the exams are over. This allows students on that track to better understand what they are getting into with the exams.
Wine Certification in the Time of COVID-19
The wine and spirits industry changed course dramatically following the onset of the global pandemic in early 2020. Restaurants shuttered due to restrictions and quarantine, and many students in a professional certification track found themselves stranded.
Historically, all CMS exams and courses happen in person. But with Covid, they were all suspended. The CMS worked quickly with a film crew and Master Sommeliers around the country to record lectures and make an online option for the Introductory Exam. While there is no blind tasting on the Intro Exam, the Intro Course would involve tasting wine in ’normal’ circumstances. So, the organization partnered with a company for candidates to purchase tasting kits. This solution offered an online exam solution. Currently, this is the only online option within the CMS.
The WSET adjusted similarly and began delivering its courses via Zoom rather nimbly. It allows for interaction with an instructor, and students can taste at home and submit written tasting notes and answers to practice questions for feedback. The WSET offers online testing for L1 and L2 because there is no tasting in those exams. The L3 and Diploma Exams are not available online. Students in those courses were in the same boat as many CMS candidates.
To Be a Sommelier … or Not
Working as a sommelier is a métier or trade. In Europe and around the world, schools are in place to help develop skills. However, they essentially don’t exist in the United States. Sommeliers in the U.S. learn mainly on the job, hopefully with the guidance of mentors.
This is one reason that I am such a proponent of wine certifications. They are our best option for those bitten by the wine bug and who want to make it their career. The CMS, in particular, gives guidance for working wine professionals on what are areas of importance to know and understand. However, the key to being a good sommelier is a deep and abiding adherence to hospitality. They strive to take care of guests. A genuine love of wine, food and creating experiences helps, but that selfless aspect is paramount.
There are many ways to utilize wine education and certifications that don’t require working on the floor. With that in mind, it’s key to consider what any course of study will yield. Some certifications might help land a job or convey general skill and knowledge level to a potential employer. The world of wine is unique in that it’s vast and diverse, with both formal and informal options for education. There is no right way for everyone. Whether or not to pursue certifications is a personal and pragmatic decision. Do you have the time, resources, and intellectual curiosity to pursue that goal to success? What will be the net gains? What are the potential downsides? A thoughtful examination (see what I did there?) of these points should be the first step. From there? Oh, the places you’ll go.
Take a deeper dive into the wonderful world of wine studies in my series Study Hall, available on SOMM TV. We cover everything from blind tasting to maps to get you through those tough exams. All 13 episodes are available to watch here.