How Somms Get Their Stars
The amount of info many wine pros commit to memory is nothing short of astounding. There are more than 6,000 wine regions, tens of thousands of producers, and Italy alone has close to 1,000 different grape varieties. They spend countless hours tasting thousands of wines. They develop pairings, and learn to judge quality and value. Seriously, it’s comparable to law or medical school—only fun. There are many wine roads leading to your table. Here’s a look at three common routes.
Restaurants commonly call their wine folk sommeliers, but, technically, only a few institutions can award the official title, most notably the Court of Master Sommeliers. The Court program has three levels and is mostly self-guided (although most participants study in groups and work with Court mentors). The program is geared toward determining quality and mastering the art of recommending, serving and running a wine program. As seen in the documentary Somm, those seeking the top title of Master Sommelier devote years of their life to flashcards, maps, blind tastings and work to become unflappable on the restaurant floor. Many take the annual Master test, but most fail: This year 65 people in the U.S. took the exam, but only five passed.
The WSET program has four levels, culminating in a famously difficult diploma test, which requires years of intense studying, memorizing and tasting to pass. WSET is far more structured than the Court, with textbooks and regular classes. While WSET has no wine-serving component, many restaurant workers still enroll. Both programs stress judging quality when tasting, but WSET students also try to determine the value of a wine or spirit.
Wine smarts are there for the taking. Anyone can explore it, study it and, if driven and passionate enough, become an expert on the stuff. And unlike many professions, wine knowledge is the true measure, not letters following a person’s name. Waiters, wine shop workers, winemakers, even wine sales and marketing execs have gone on to create and oversee some of the world’s most celebrated lists.
- 1Court of Master Sommeliers
- 2Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET)
- 3Independent Study