A Guide To Wine Certification Programs

Enrolling in a wine education course may seem confusing, but there’s an option for everyone. Here’s advice to consider.
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Photographer Kirsten Georgi has been a wine lover for years. She started a blog, Armchair Sommelier, to expand her perspective. She dreamed to become a sommelier, but as her skills developed, Georgi realized that the role didn’t quite fit. So she weighed her wine education options.

“The more I learned, the more I realized how much I didn’t know,” says Georgi. “So, if I was going to move beyond ‘sort-of studying,’ I knew I needed organization, deadlines and a looming exam.”

Three people examining wine in glasses and writing things
Taste wine like the pros / Getty

Wine & Spirit Education Trust

Georgi settled in with Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). It offers qualifications in tiers, from one-day beginner courses to the advanced Level 4 Diploma. WSET’s education is delivered via accredited classroom and online providers around the world, and all of its examinations are conducted in person.

Final exams for Level 3 and Level 4 certification require tasting evaluations, codified in the widely recognized WSET Systemic Approach to Tasting. WSET’s grid, with gets more in-depth as students advance in level, classifies the sensory acts involved in drinking wine. This is beneficial for students who want to hone their palate and tasting skills. The program is growing in popularity. According to WSET, there were 14,204 U.S.-based candidates during the 2017–18 academic period, 24% growth from the previous period.

Georgi says that WSET offerings parallel sommelier training, but it serves students with differing goals. “Figure out before you start whether you want to go the service route or more of a strictly educational route,” says Georgi. “Regardless, they all require disciplined study and a significant time commitment.”

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Court of Master Sommeliers

A sommelier offers customers stewardship and service, generally in an on-premise setting. However, such expertise has value outside of that environment.

Tami Wong is a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, and she’s had success working in restaurants and hotels. “The court includes a service aspect that most other certification programs do not,” says Wong.

But the certification is versatile. Wong now serves as an ambassador for the wines of San Diego County and also works as a winery and sales representative, educator and wine judge.

For wine lovers with a deep commitment to learning, the classes offer a rich and challenging experience. “A consumer or enthusiast would benefit from the breadth of information presented,” says Wong, who says the program requires an intense amount of study to succeed.

The Court of Master Sommeliers study is capped by four exam levels that culminate with the Master Sommelier (MS) Diploma exam, said to be one of the world’s most challenging tests. There are only 255 Master Sommeliers worldwide.

Bird's eye shot of three people with full wine glasses and notebooks on the table
An Institute of Masters of Wine Symposium / Photo by Dillon Osbourne

Institute of Masters of Wine

Alongside the rigorous MS designation, is the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW). There are only 379 Masters of Wine (MW) in the world currently, including Wine Enthusiast Contributing Editor Anne Krebiehl MW. These individuals have completed self-directed study in three stages in preparation for the notoriously difficult MW exam. The arrangement includes work with a mentor, a research paper and an annual residential seminar.

Application to the IMW demands the WSET Diploma or equivalent, like a bachelor or master degree in wine or top-level sommelier certification. Requirements also include three years of current and continuous professional wine involvement, a recommendation from a current MW or senior trade pro and completion of a practical and theory assignment.

Man smelling wine to two tables of adults with multiple wine glasses each
Jimmy Smith teaching a WSG course at West London Wine School / Photo courtesy of Wine Scholar Guild

Wine Scholar Guild

For students who prefer to focus on a particular country, the Wine Scholar Guild (WSG) offers French and Italian studies with Spanish beginning in fall 2019, all of which can be further specialized with master-level certifications for distinct wine regions.

WSG offers classroom and online curriculum that’s either instructor-led or independent study, both backed by reading materials, quizzes and a comprehensive manual. Exams are also conducted in-person or with an online proctor. Students are also eligible for immersion study trips and membership benefits like access to past webinars and a private forum. Nearly 30% of WSG students say that they don’t work in the wine industry.

Jodi Kennedy Gaffey is owner and chief experience officer of The Epicurean Concierge, which offers curated French travel experiences. She enrolled in WSG Master-Level Wines of Languedoc-Roussillon study to help educate her guests.

“All of the wine programs I have taken had wine professionals in them,” said Kennedy Gaffey. “There is nothing preventing you from developing the same level of knowledge they possess. And remember, your classmates are there because they need to learn the same information you do.”

Tables of adults sipping and smelling wine
A SWE Conference / Photo Courtesy of the Society of Wine Educators

Society of Wine Educators

Society of Wine Educators (SWE) offers a range of self-study programs. They include specialist and educator certifications in wine and spirits, as well as a hospitality and beverage specialist course. The programs culminate with a multiple-choice exam taken at testing centers, located in most major cities.

The Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) is the organization’s most pursued designation, with more than 8,700 graduates. Students can utilize a study guide, flashcards, quizzes, workbook, webinars, seminars and other support materials from SWE.

“I love the CSW course because you can take a seminar in a region, and build on that to earn your credential,” says Thea Dwelle, founder and principal of Vine Wire Consulting. Dwelle says exposure to the vineyard and winemaking research behind the CSW curriculum helps her advise clients. “Understanding why a wine is selling—the styles, variations and growing regions—is a great boost.”

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International Sommelier Guild

International Sommelier Guild (ISG) course offerings begin with its eight-week International Wine Certificate which consists of six hours of study per week. Once successfully completed, students can go on to the 16-week Advanced Wine Certificate, also six hours per week, and ultimately take the 30-week, 10 hours per week, sommelier certification course. Education comes via classrooms around the world as well as online, with instructor contact and proprietary materials.

Novelist Patrick Ember enrolled in an ISG program after he devoured wine books and online learning opportunities. When he’d taken to quizzing himself, he knew it was time to enter a formal course.

Ember used his education to write and publish Wine Runs Deep (FriesenPress, 2018), a novel set in Paso Robles’s wine country.

“ISG is a respected entity with a long history of providing quality education, and the classroom approach and access to an instructor who is a trained sommelier appealed to me,” he says.

Learning more about wine has significant rewards outside of formal certification. “Another reason to take a wine course is for building community,” says Dwelle. “I have made a lot of friends in my wine classes, and there is nothing more fun than studying with a wine from that week’s class.”

“Many who enjoy wine know very little about it, but once you begin learning, it’s fascinating to understand that there are so many factors,” says Kennedy Gaffey. “This knowledge is helpful in circumstances like a business dinner when you’re asked to select the wine for all guests.”

All options require time, dedication and money, so it’s important to stay inspired. “Understanding the growing practices, climate differences and winemaking rules and styles really opens your eyes to why wine is such a living thing,” says Dwelle.

Published on February 5, 2019
Topics: Wine Education


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