If you are looking to establish your credibility to enhance your wine career or just challenge yourself to learn and have fun, you have several certification options available to you. These range from local schools to international programs. A local program (Boston University Wine Studies Program) gave me the opportunity to learn and taste hundreds of wines with two MWs and one CWE, but I also wanted certifications from nationally and globally recognized organizations. There are several nationally and globally-respected certifying bodies. I have personal experience with three of them, so that is what this post is about: the Court of Master Sommeliers, Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and Society of Wine Educators. I have no personal experience with the following, but depending on your career goals, other schools/certifying bodies such as the Culinary Institute of America, International Sommelier Guild, Sommelier Society of America, or International Wine Guild may be the right next step for you.
Note: Special thanks to Mr. Antony Moss, AIWS, MW, Strategic Planner of the WSET, who provided several facts in this post and had this to say about comparing the certifications:
"CSW is about WSET Level 2.25, CWE is about WSET Level 3.5, and CS is about WSET Level 3.25 (with more emphasis on producer knowledge, plus the service skills, but less on understanding the reasons why wine taste difference to each other)."
|CMS 1 (Intro)||CSW||WSET Advanced||Certified Sommelier|
|Percent correct required to pass||60%||75%||55%||60%|
|Professional title awarded||Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW)||WSET Certified||Certified Sommelier (CS)|
|Class taught by expert||X||X|
|Hours of class contact time||15||0||30||0|
|Wines tasted in class||24||0||84||0|
|All testable material in book||X||X||X|
|Theory (multiple choice)||X||X||X||X|
|Theory (fill in the blank)||X||X|
|Blind tasting on exam||X||X|
|Spirts and beer||X||X||X|
|Results||Same day||By mail in 2-4 weeks||By mail in 4-12 weeks||Same day|
Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) Level 1 - Introductory Sommelier Course
The CMS Level 1 is a great first step into the world of wine certifications because it involves an in-person class taught by Master Sommeliers, is graded against a well-defined standard, is multiple-choice theory only, and requires only a 60% on the test to pass. The course spends a small amount of time (and the exam has a few questions) on spirits, sake, and beer, but this is really all about wine. The course book is available online as soon as you register, and is included in the $500 price of the course. The exam consists of 70 multiple-choice questions. Sample question: "What is the dominant grape variety of [X region]?" with four possible answers.
Society of Wine Educators - Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW)
The CSW certification is a big step up in difficulty from CMS 1, and is roughly equivalent to a CMS Level 1.5, halfway between Intro Sommelier and Certified Sommelier. You don't need to take CMS 1 before CSW. This is a great way to prepare for Certified Sommelier. This is all about wine - no beer, spirits, or sake. There is more content (and exam questions) about wine faults and chemistry than WSET 3 or Certified Sommelier. It's a self-study course with no formal classroom time. The exam costs $300 and the study guide costs another $100. You can cut your costs by not buying the study guide, but every question in the exam comes from the study guide, so it may be worth the cost. There is a lot of wine knowledge out there, and knowing what to study and what NOT to study is huge. A preview of the CSW exam is available, and when bundled with the exam fee and book, brings the total for all three up to $775. The exam consists of 100 multiple-choice questions and requires a 75% to pass. Sample question: "Which of these is not a sub-region of [X region]?" with four possible answers.
Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) - Level 3 (Advanced)
If the CSW is roughly equivalent to a Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) Level 1.5, then the WSET Level 3 (Advanced) is like a CMS Level 1.75 (the wine theory required to pass both is similar, but the service element and cocktails of CMS Level 2 really steps up the difficulty). A person may start at Level 3 without passing Levels 1 or 2 if they feel prepared. The breakdown for wines and spirits tasted in the first three levels goes:
WSET Level 1 (6 wines minimum),
WSET Level 2 (44 wines and 4 spirits)
WSET Level 3 (84 wines and 6 spirits)
Level 3 has dozens of pages devoted to spirits and detailed dives into all of the world's major wine regions and styles. The course lasts about four months and costs about $1,500 to take the class in-person, or $1,000 to take it online. Prices will vary in every city because the course (whether in-person or online) is taught by a local school, and they may have slightly different prices. This includes the cost of the WSET Advanced textbook. The exam includes blind tasting two wines, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, and essay questions. Sample question: "Compare the production methods (both similarities and differences) of [X wine] and [X wine]" with several blank lines to fill in.
Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) Level 2 - Certified Sommelier (CS)
Certified Sommelier is the most challenging exam covered in this post. One reason it is challenging is the uncertainty about what is testable. CMS 1, CSW, and WSET 3 have a book, but CS does not. Students are given a long list of books to study, the most of important of which are the CMS Level 1 course book and Brian Julyan's Sales and Service for the Wine Professional. When it comes to wine theory, that book should be enough. And if you are fresh on WSET Advanced, that should be enough to pass the theory portion. Blind tasting is of equivalent difficulty to WSET Advanced. What really sets CS apart from WSET Advanced is service. There are three areas tested in the service exam: serving wine, recommending wine, and discussion about spirits and cocktails. While the purpose of the CMS Level 1 is to educate you about wine and introduce you to the Court of Master Sommeliers values and deductive tasting methodology, the purpose of the CS exam is to make sure you know your stuff and serve the guest well. The Master Sommeliers want everyone to pass, but they hold the candidates to a high standard and only about 65% of the candidates pass on any given day. Sample theory question: "Name two classed growth producers/grand cru vineyards in [X region]" with a blank line to fill in.
If you want to share your experiences with hopeful test takers, write about it on your blog and leave a comment below so I can point people your way. If you don't have a blog, email me your experience and I'll create a page for you on winekick.com.
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