Understanding Sommelier Certifications

There are three national wine certification programs in the United States and hundreds of sommelier schools. Each has its own set of vocabulary and exam criteria. However, all wine certifications conform to the five levels of achievement listed below.

Cutting Through The Hype

We developed this vocabulary, and many of the sommelier programs have followed our lead. However, before our simple L1-L5 labeling, it wasn’t easy to understand what each program offered.

Other than trademarks and logos, there is no difference between the certifications of the Court of Master Sommeliers, the North American Sommelier Association, or any other certification agency. It’s all the same type of professional certification.

Think of it as a four-year degree: you can earn a Bachelor of Arts degree at thousands of colleges. It doesn’t matter which accreditation body approved the certification.

Wine Schools Matters

Sommelier certification is essential, but that is something most schools offer. Even more critical is what wine school you go to. After all, attending Harvard sounds a lot more impressive than enrolling at the College of the Ozarks.   Once you’ve reviewed your options, check our recommended wine schools list

Sommelier Certification Levels

We developed this system of ranking wine programs to cut out the marketing hype. That was back in 2012. Since then, most wine certification agencies have adopted our language, which we wholeheartedly applaud.

Level One (L1) Certification
The basic level of credentials is also known as level 1 sommelier certification. Not all schools offer this certification.

Level Two (L2) Certification
Knowledge of varietals and blind tasting are standard components.

Level Three (L3) Certification
Major vinicultural regions, terroir, and winemaking styles are the core components of level 3 certification. Exams may also include blind tastings and have restaurant service requirements. The L3 is typically the stage where a student earns their sommelier pin.

Level Four (L4) Certification.
Often called the Advanced Sommelier program. This is the level most professionals aspire to. To achieve a Level Four certificate, expect to invest at least two years.

Level Five (L5) Certification,
The highest certification level for sommeliers is challenging to acquire. Therefore, only the very best programs offer L5 certification.

Level Five is where you see the extensive marketing and trademark budgets. Terms like “Master Sommelier” and “Master in Wine” are not credentials: they are trademarked terms for the L5 programs.

Wine Certification Agencies

The following are the major certification programs in the United States. Attending a wine school accredited by one of the following is strongly recommended if you want to work in the wine industry. We include in-depth reviews of all the major agencies.

Each program listed here is rated on a 100-point scale. Ratings are based on several key factors: accreditation, industry acceptance, educational standards, and transparency. In addition, all wine certification bodies are reviewed and updated regularly. This includes  The Court of Master Sommeliers, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, The Institute of Masters of Wine, The National Wine School, the Society of Wine Educators, the North American Sommelier Association, the International Sommelier Guild, and the International Wine Guild.

Online Sommelier Certification

Several agencies are now offering online programs. Most of these programs are Level one, but some more technologically proficient have deployed this type of programming up to the Advanced Sommelier (L4) level. Unfortunately, there are no Master Sommelier certifications (or similar) currently available.

We maintain a list of the current best online wine courses.

Wine & Spirit Education Trust

Wine & Spirit Education Trust

A franchised favorite, this is the one-stop shop for wine certification. Classes and certification are bundled together,  which WSET franchises to hundreds of wine schools worldwide. While the term “sommelier” is never used in their material,  don’t be fooled: these are sommelier certifications.

  • Level 1 Award in Wines L1
  • Level 2 Award in Wines and Spirits L2
  • Level 3 Award in Wines and Spirits L3
  • Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits L4

The Institute of Masters of Wine

  • Master of Wine L5
National Wine School

National Wine School

A relative newcomer to the field of sommelier certification, the National Wine School has gained significant traction due to its open format and strict compliance with federal regulations. Our review explains why the NWS  approach is an excellent development for sommeliers and the wine trade.

  • Level 2  Foundation Certificate L1-L2
  • Level 3 Intermediate Certificate L3
  • Level 4 Advanced Sommelier Certificate (Baccalauréat Vigne et Vin) L4
  • Level 5 Master Diploma (Diplôme Oenotropae)  L5
Court of Master Sommeliers

Court of Master Sommeliers

The famous and illustrious Court. Does it stack up to its outsized image? How much does it cost to become a Master Sommelier? How much can you earn once you’ve graduated? What type of jobs is available for an Advanced Sommelier? Our review breaks down the pros and cons of taking exams at the Court of Master Sommeliers.

  • Level 1 Introductory Sommelier Certificate  L1
  • Level 2 Certified Sommelier  L2-L3
  • Level 3 Advanced Sommelier L4
  • Level 4 Master Sommelier Diploma L5

Our reviews of the CMS include the widely reported accusations of corruption, racism, and sexual violence that have dramatically damaged the reputation of this once-respected institution.

More Sommelier Certification Agencies

Society of Wine Educators

  • Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW)  L1
  • Certified Wine Educator (CWE) L2

North American Sommelier Association

  • Master Wine Taster L1
  • Master of Service L1
  • Sommelier Certification L2
  • Italian Wine Specialist  L2
  • American Wine Specialist L2
  • Master of Terroir L3
  • Master of Sangiovese L3

International Sommelier Guild

  • Wine Fundamentals I L1
  • Wine Fundamentals II L2
  • Sommelier Diploma L3

International Wine Guild

  • Level I  L1
  • Level II L2
  • Level III L3
  • Certified Wine Judge L3
  • Certified Wine Instructor L3

Culinary Institute of America

  • Wine and Beverage Certificate L1
  • Certified Wine Professional L2