Being a sommelier involves more than just drinking wine all day. Keep reading and discover exactly what it takes to become a wine steward.
If the idea of professionally drinking wine all day sounds appealing, you’re not alone. However, there’s a lot more to being a sommelier than just sipping wine. Did you know there’s actually a Court of Master Sommeliers dedicated to maintaining an excellent global standard for beverage service? Yeah, it’s pretty serious stuff.
Luckily, you don’t have to be a master sommelier to enjoy wine. If you’re still curious about what it takes to become a sommelier, however, keep reading!
What is a Sommelier?
For most people, their experience with sommeliers (pronounced suh-mel-yay) starts and ends with an interaction during a fine dining experience. They’re the ones who serve wine and help make recommendations based on the dishes you’ve selected.
These individuals don’t just read a How-To guide before getting the job though. Sommeliers are wine stewards. Professional sommeliers have formal training that makes them knowledgeable in areas of wine service, storage, and wine pairings. Today, a sommelier (or “somm” as it’s now sometimes called) may take on a more pivotal role.
Some sommeliers consult with several restaurants to help curate wine lists. An in-house somme may help train staff members in wine basics. There are even restaurants that encourage partnerships between chefs and sommeliers so they can work together to develop complementary dishes. If you couldn’t tell, it takes a lot of wine knowledge to do this job well.
While someone who works with wine at a restaurant might take on the label of sommelier, it takes a lot to become a “certified” sommelier. The path to professional sommelier is surprisingly labor-intensive, which is why they’re in such high demand. Depending on their experience, certification levels, and the restaurant in question, a somme can make anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 in a year–sometimes more.
We weren’t kidding when we said it takes a lot of work though. Depending on where your wine knowledge is when you start, it can take months or even years to move up the ranks in sommelier certification. So, what exactly does it take?
How Do You Become a Sommelier?
We mentioned The Court of Master Sommeliers earlier, but they’re also the most widely known certification in the U.S. Their certification involves four levels, the top being “Master” Sommelier status. That particular title is reserved for the absolute best wine stewards, with only about 236 people worldwide qualifying.
There are other avenues of certification, such as organizations like the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET). While the Court of Master Sommeliers is usually the top choice, WSET is still a respected academic program from the U.K. There’s also the Institute of Masters of Wine that involves a rigorous academic program designed to provide a broad and detailed understanding of the wine industry.
While these other programs have their own prestige, it’s important to understand that they’re almost purely academic and don’t always include a wine service component. Oftentimes, however, people who have completed these programs will still take the sommelier title. There isn’t one institution that has a monopoly on Sommelier certification, but some programs are more respected than others.
Regardless of where you go to get certified, the only way to reach the next level is to complete each one before it. Each level covers roughly the same information, but as you reach a new level the information becomes much more detailed and nuanced.
Level I: Sommelier Introduction
The first level of certification involves studying wine and beverage theory, an intro to tasting methodology, and wine service etiquette. You don’t have to have any prior experience to attempt this course, but the more experience you have the easier it will be to pass the evaluation.
After two full days of studying in-person, you’ll be given a multiple-choice exam. However, before moving on to Level II, you’ll have to score 60% or higher.
Level II: Certified Sommelier
To be a Certified Sommelier you have to do a lot better than 60% in the areas of theory, tasting, and etiquette. This one-day exam covers all the same topics from Level I, but in much greater detail. In addition to that, it’s recommended to have at least three years of experience in the hospitality industry before attempting to take this exam.
Plus, if more than three years have passed since you completed the Level I certification, you’ll have to take that preliminary exam again. The only way to get around this is to mentor with a Master Sommelier who will vouch for your knowledge. Considering how few Master Sommeliers there are, landing a mentorship with one is pretty difficult.
Basically, this exam proves that you’ve successfully used the information from the Level I certification in the real world. This is important because there’s a big difference between understanding a theory and being able to put it into practice. Plus, some people just aren’t as good at smelling or tasting wine. The next two levels require a palate that’s able to pick up on subtle nuances. This exam helps to weed out anyone who’s nose or palate just won’t cut it.
Level III: Advanced Sommelier
While you can have a successful sommelier career with a Level II certification, attaining the status of Advanced Sommelier places you a cut above the rest. Not only is this exam more complex, the qualifications for it are also steeper as well.
First, candidates are required to attend a three-day Advanced course. Afterward, they’ll be allowed to take the assessment. This exam takes place over the course of three days and involves a written exam, a verbal tasting exam, and an exam that covers practical service and sales. Candidates must pass with 60% or higher in each section. However, the difficulty of this assessment can’t be stressed enough. Of the students who take these exams, less than 35% usually pass.
Before someone can qualify to attempt this certification, they must have at least three years of experience in restaurant service and be currently employed in the hospitality or beverage industry. If a candidate passes all three exams, and that’s a big IF, they can then attempt the Master Sommelier certification.
Level IV: Master Sommelier
It should come as no surprise that the highest level of Sommelier certification is extremely difficult to attain. While the format of these exams is similar to the ones from Level III, they’re much more rigorous and require a minimum of 75% on each one.
The difficulty of this certification is so extreme, that the exams can be broken up over the course of three years. After a candidate passes the theory portion, they can then take the remaining exams over the next three years. However, if they miss the deadline they’ll have to retake the entire exam. After a candidate has passed all exams, they can then claim the coveted title of “Master Sommelier.”
You Don’t Have to Be A Sommelier To Enjoy Wine
If the qualifications for becoming a sommelier seem a bit too rigorous, don’t sweat it. You can still love and learn about wine without having to pass any exams. Simply trying new wines, reading wine blogs or books, or forming a local wine club can help you expand your knowledge. No matter what, just make sure you’re enjoying the experience.
If you’re ready to get started today, consider joining SECCO Wine Club so you can try several low-carb, natural wines. Having wine delivered right to your door is the safest, easiest way to sample a variety of wine so you can test your wine tasting skills today. Don’t forget to tag us in your SECCO Wine Club posts on Instagram for a chance to be featured in one of our stories!