A career in wine is often seen as a glamorous and exciting profession, the antithesis of a regular office job or work in a high-pressure environment. While there are undoubtedly perks to working in wine, the amount of hard work and stress in this field is often underestimated. In truth, somms are a group of folks who know how to make a tough job look easy. If you are a hard worker with a passion for wine and interacting with people, you may have found your calling.
When you search the definition of a sommelier, the typical answer is a “wine waiter or butler.” Unfortunately, that is only partly true. There are two kinds of sommeliers.
The first is a restaurant sommelier, known colloquially as a “somm.” This is someone who provides customers with wine recommendations tableside. Behind the scenes, a somm will teach fellow staff members about the wine on offer, update the wine list, and meet with distributors to sample different wines. The somm is also in charge of inventory, including restocking and arranging wine deliveries.
The second type of sommelier works anywhere but a restaurant. These are people in the wine trade with a sommelier certification but are employed in other –often higher-paying– sectors of the wine world. But, again, this is very common for the best of the best: most Master Sommeliers do not work in restaurants.
How to become a sommelier as a hobby?
Becoming a sommelier as a hobby is a surprisingly common endeavor. The Court of Master Sommeliers has barred this type of student, but many others (Wine & Spirit Education Trust and the National Wine School) accept these students with open arms.
How To Become a Sommelier
Before signing up for any formal education, it is crucial to consider the following:
- Do you have an interest in wine and food?
People in this field are passionate and highly competitive. Therefore, obtaining a wine education will be unappealing if you are only lukewarm about working in the industry.
- Do you work well with people?
It might seem like a trivial question, but many people do not enjoy constantly interacting with people. There are always groups of people vying for your attention in a restaurant setting. If this is something that does not come naturally, you might experience burnout.
- What knowledge do you have?
Becoming a Sommelier is much easier when you have some basic knowledge about wine and food. In addition, it would be best if you had a good palate and a desire to experience different types of cuisine.
If you feel ready to take on the educational section of being a Sommelier, different options are available.
Different Sommelier Certification Types
In the industry, five significant organizations are recognized for the certifications they offer: Court of Masters Sommeliers, The Wine and Spirits Education Trust, Institute of the Masters and Wine, National Wine School, and Society of Wine Educators. Each of these institutes offers different options, programs, and levels.
Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS)
The Court of Master Sommeliers program is exclusively for employment as a restaurant sommelier. If your goal is a career in fine dining, this is an option. The CMS is well known due to its exposure in the media. However, it has a reputation as a boys’ club and has recently been involved in grading scandals. There are no schools affiliated with the CMS, and exams are held in various states, typically at hotels.
- Introductory Sommelier Course. This short, 2-day course focuses on viticulture, the winemaking process, cultivars, classifications, tasting techniques, and wine service.
- Certified Sommelier Course. This is a 1-day examination that includes blind tastings, theory, and tests on wine services.
For the current scandals plaguing the CMS –including charges of racism and sexual violence– please refer to this page: Master Sommelier Scandals.
Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET)
Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) is an excellent certification as it is rather broad, covering wine history, theory, and practical examinations. However, the focus is on restaurant work. There are WSET-affiliated schools around the country. Keep in mind that WSET works on a franchise model: the only requirement to become a franchisee is to have attended WSET classes. This means the quality of education can differ widely.
- Level 1. This is a 2-day course on the basics of wine.
- Level 2. This 3-day course focuses on cultivars, regions, styles, quality, and prices.
- Level 3. This course goes in-depth into the tasting and assessing of wine. There is also a survey of viticulture and winemaking practices throughout the world.
- Level 4. Completing this diploma will take longer than two years to complete. This certification covers wine production, sparkling and fortified wines, the business side of wine, and blind tastings.
National Wine School (NWS)
While WSET and CMS evolved in Europe, the National Wine School started in the United States. This school does not attempt to train people for restaurants but acts more like a liberal arts college for the wine trade. Only accredited wine schools and universities offer their programs; however, they offer many online programs.
- Level 1, Introduction to Wine. A six-week online wine course.
- Level 2, Foundation Course. One semester course focused on blind tasting.
- Level 3, Certified Sommelier Course. One semester wine program on wine regions.
- Level 4, Advanced Sommelier Course. Four semesters. Sections include winemaking, food and wine pairing, wine educator training, and an in-depth study of major wine regions.
- Level 5, Master in Wine Course. Similar in scope to the Master of Wine and Master Sommelier programs.
Society of Wine Educators (SWE)
The Society of Wine Educators is an independent study program specifically designed to certify wine educators. Several multinational corporations back the program.
- Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW). Wine theory is the focus of this program. Students learn about viniculture, winemaking, regions, pairings, laws, and wine in the hospitality industry.
- Certified Wine Educator (CWE). To complete this, you need first to earn the CSW. This certification takes it a step further and introduces blind tastings. This certification also tests your ability to conduct a class while conveying your wine knowledge accurately.
Earning Potential of a Sommelier
Once all the hard work is behind you, you can look forward to the job and rewards. On average, a qualified sommelier earns around $80,000 annually. However, an advanced Sommelier can earn up to $100,000, and a Master Sommelier as much as $250,000. Becoming a sommelier can be lucrative, and most of the best-paying jobs are outside of restaurants.
Common Questions on Becoming a Sommelier
How long does it take to become a sommelier?
To be considered a sommelier, you will have to earn at least a Level Three certificate. Some schools offer accelerated programs to get your sommelier pin in a week, although that is uncommon. The typical time frame is two months.
How hard is it to become a sommelier?
It is not particularly hard to earn your sommelier pin. However, working as a restaurant sommelier takes time and willingness to work your way up the ladder.
Do sommeliers make good money?
Becoming a sommelier can mean a drop in income for people in corporate America. However, sommeliers working outside of restaurants often make six-figure salaries.
Is it worth it to become a sommelier?
Becoming a sommelier is usually worth the effort. The prestige that comes with the title and the doors it opens–professionally and personally– are hard to overstate.
What Education Is Required to Become a Sommelier?
Becoming a sommelier does not require any specific certification. However, most sommeliers earn their credentials through the Court of Master Sommeliers, the National Wine School, or the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.