When people find out that I’ve gotten certified as a sommelier, the response is often: “Have you seen that movie on Netflix? I think it’s called… “
“Somm? Yes, I’ve seen it.”
(What I don’t tell them is that I’ve watched it multiple times and that when I watched it before my exam, I was convinced I would fail.)
Of course the movie glamorizes a lot of what working in the wine business actually looks like. It doesn’t show the grind of inventory, cellar management, and difficult customers. Nonetheless I still enthusiastically recommend studying wine and potentially becoming certified to anyone who is even partially interested.
I was actually more interested in cocktails before I started seriously studying wine. Like most people, I love a creative balanced drink and liked making them at home, but I quickly learned that my eye hand coordination was seriously lacking from the level needed to pursue it professionally. I then turned to studying wine. I figured that biology and geography were two of my best subjects in school and wine seemed like a natural fit. (No one tells a 17-year old that they should pursue a sommelier career, so I hadn’t thought of it until now.)
Then I realized, where do I even start with this? Luckily most major cities, including Toronto, offer various paths to becoming a certified cork puller. I’m here to break them down for you and hopefully shed some light on why studying wine is not only delicious but also intellectually fulfilling.
Option #1: THE COURT
This is the one from the movie. The Court of Master Sommeliers was established in 1917 but really saw a renaissance when it gained popularity in the US. The Court has four levels of certification – Introductory, Certified, Advanced, and Master. There are currently only four Master Sommeliers working in Canada and it’s a life-long devotion to learning and improvement. Most people strive for the Certified level, where you need to be able to evaluate both red and white wine blindly on a structured scale, answer theory questions on regions and winemaking, and execute a fine-dining sparkling wine service. Generally I would recommend taking a year to ramp up to this level if you’re a beginner. While CMS does not have specific courses to prepare and you are welcome to study on your own, I found it particularly helpful to take structured classes with tasting groups (also much more affordable than buying all the wines on your own!).
For example, Master Sommelier Bruce Wallner runs the Sommelier Factory school in Toronto and they described CMS as the following:
“The Court of Master Sommeliers provides the world’s most recognized sommelier certification. It is well-suited for serious candidates who are keen to hone in on blind-tasting, in-depth theory, and demonstrate the precise service standards required to challenge their exams. Importantly, the CMS is a Certification body, focused on exams – the Sommelier Factory is the educational institution that helps prepare students for these exams.”
Option #2: WSET
WSET, the Wine + Spirit Education Trust, is also a four-level certification process, ending in the WSET Diploma. It is a great option if you are interested in wine business as it incorporates more elements of managing wine than CMS. I took WSET 2 and found that it also incorporates various levels of wine in terms of price point whereas CMS typically just looks at the classic (read: often expensive) examples of each wine region. WSET courses are typically offered by different wine schools locally in your city and each level culminates in an exam of various elements.
Debbie Shing, an instructor with IWEG in Toronto, describes WSET: “Anyone interested in entering the alcohol trade or simply better appreciating the origins of what’s in their glass would benefit greatly from enrolling in WSET education. WSET teaches students to extract maximum information from a wine label, as well as explain to others how and why a wine tastes the way it does.”
Option #3: Location-specific programs
Another option would be to take a program specific to your country or market. This is particularly helpful if your restaurant specializes in local wines. Here in Ontario we have CAPS, Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers. CAPS focuses on a full program of courses aimed at various facets of the wine business, including completing a stage at a restaurant.
Shawna Kaufman, a CAPS graduate, notes that “The Court is essentially just an exam so relies on self-study – you need to plan another way to learn the material. CAPS is an all-included program which forces some rigour for your schedule – someone else helps make sure you’re devoting the hours you need to!”
At the end of the day, the course you choose to take is up to what fits your personal goals. If all this feels overwhelming, I recommend sitting down with a bottle of wine and reading Jancis Robinson’s 24-hour Wine Expert. If nothing else, you’ll feel more confident in telling your Bordeauxs from your Burgundies and it’s a great excuse to try more wine!