How to become a sommelier and the qualities you need before you even begin

“I’m a wine entertainer. I’m here to make you laugh and have a good time, not follow all the rules and go by the book. Recruiting is the worst part of my job, because finding someone with the right panache and flair to entertain is always a struggle.”

Romain Audrerie, sommelier at The Chiltern Firehouse, interviewed in Time Out, March 2019

We’ve all thought (well, many of us have) about becoming a sommelier. It seems very glamorous – sitting in a picturesque vineyard, sniffing (and drinking!) wine, and talking about top notes. But how do you actually become a qualified sommelier?

One of the first steps is to arm yourself with a lot more information about wine, and a good place to start is the blog, I Love Wine.

This fantastic site is run by founder, Kristin, whose father grew up on a vineyard in Argentina, and imbued his daughter with a passion for wine; and also by Erica, who tells us:

“Until I started working in the industry, the only thing I knew about wine was that there was white and red wine. And I didn’t think I liked either of them.”

Erica is now a qualified sommelier – how did that happen?

Erica’s story

While studying for a degree she started working as a waitress in an upmarket restaurant. This was the first place Erica had worked where there was a separate wine menu, and as far as she was concerned it might have been written in a foreign language. She was given some basic training and crossed her fingers that no one would ask her any difficult questions.

Slowly she became confident with the vocabulary – names of wines and grapes, geographic areas, and descriptive words – dry, fruity, earthy, and heavy. The chefs explained what type of wine paired well with which type of food. She read industry magazines avidly

Then, sometimes on Saturday nights, the managers would allow a tasting session, using the uncorked bottles.
Eventually she found she not only could tell a fruity Pinot Noir from a full-on Malbec, but she also enjoyed the process…indeed the whole industry and she switched courses to Hospitality Management.

Once Erica had finished studying she managed her first restaurant – Italian cooking – where she found a mentor in the sommelier there. She took various courses, and then went on a two-week tour on wine through France. It was at this stage that she realised that this was the career route for her.

What are the main requirements of a good sommelier?

  •  Curiosity – you will need to constantly expand your knowledge
  • Research skills – you’ll need to know how to find out about obscure grape varieties or new oenological techniques
  • Multi-tasking – you may be literally juggling expensive glassware while advising a knowledgeable customer on provenance, temperatures…. prices
  • You should have magical skills with customers (helping frightened beginners – or those who know more than you do) and suppliers (negotiating the best prices, and draining the producers and wine merchants of every important drop of information).
  • Concentration, attention to detail, dexterity
  • A good memory
  • Ability to entertain – see quote at the top of this post
  • Passion!
guide to Slovenian wine
You’ll need dexterity and a magical way with customers.

Becoming a Master Sommelier (MS)

If you are interested in pursuing a career as a sommelier in Europe the highest qualification available is the Master Sommelier – the first examinations were held in London in 1969. So far, only 250 odd people have passed these exams.

Two schools which offer this course are:
The Cordon Bleu in London and Paris
The Court of Master Sommeliers in Torquay

Both schools offer a variety of other, less intimidating, courses – see below for more details on the courses offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Other, less intimidating, courses and qualifications for sommeliers

Below Erica outlines the principal courses on offer, both in the States, on-line, and globally.

Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET)

WSET offer education and training in the fields of wine, spirits, and sake. There are four different levels available:

  • Level 1 – a 6-hour beginner’s course with an exam on the same day that can be done online or in person. Topics include common types and styles of wine and grapes, as well as explanations of how to store, serve, and pair wine.
  • Level 2 – a course with 28 hours of studying, 16 of which must be with a WSET instructor. Learn how wine and spirits are made and flavours are influenced, as well as wine regions and terminology. After the exam you could quality as a sommelier for fine dining restaurants or hotels.
  • Level 3 – this is more advanced, with 84 hours of studying required. This level has in-depth practice of assessing and analysing wines. Passing the exam means you are qualified to be a lead sommelier or a wine educator.
  • Level 4 – the highest level WSET offers, this one needs a minimum of 600 hours of studying, and offers education about the global wine trade. International wine buyers would need this level of understanding.
Guide to Slovenian wine
Level 3 offers in depth practice in assessing and analysing wine.

National Wine School (NWS)

The NWS is an American qualification that is based in California. There are 5 different levels of qualification, with specific courses about wine production and specialisation in wine regions including California, Italy and France. There are also programmes about wine pairing and beer production.

Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW)

The Master of Wine is the most difficult and respected certification there is in the States. To even enter the programme you must have a high-level certificate from WSET or an equivalent, three years of experience in the wine industry, and a reference from someone senior in the wine industry, or a Master of Wine. This takes an average of 7 to 10 years to complete, with only a 10% pass rate.

  • Stage 1 – this stage starts with a five-day seminar and two online course days. An exam is taken, six assignments are handed in, and you are given a Master of Wine mentor.
  • Stage 2 – similar to the first stage, but this next one includes an open-book theory and practical exam, as well as more assignments.
  • Stage 3 – here you must write a 6,000-10,000 word research paper, which must be related to wine in some way. There is also a final exam.

Completing the Master of Wine certificate means you can judge international wine competitions, become a wine lecturer, and advice leading restaurants, hotels, and other businesses.

International Sommelier Guild (ISG)

This programme teaches many different courses about wine:

  • Intermediate Wine Certificate (IWC) – a 24 hour course that teaches wine pairing, appellation concepts, and wine evaluation techniques.
  • Advanced Wine Certificate (AWC) – a 48 hour course that looks at viticulture, wine storage and management, and blind tasting skills.
  • International Sommelier Guild Master (ISGM) – this is the top certificate available from the ISG. 300 hours of studying give advanced knowledge in menu design, regional analysis, and tasting techniques.
  • Teacher Education Program (TEP) – a 3 day seminar that teaches how to mentor others in ISG courses.
  • Fundamentals of Wine (FWC) – finally, this programme trains the staff of large restaurants and hotels in the fundamentals, such as a basic understanding of grape varieties, how to sell wine, and serving techniques.
how to become a sommelier
The Fundamentals of Wine Programme covers a basic understanding of grape varieties.

Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS)

There are four levels available with the CMS, which are designed for people specifically in the hospitality industry.

  • Level 1 – this is a start for people with a career in the hospitality industry. This programme includes instruction on wine, beer, and and sake, tasting methods, and how to discuss wines.
  • Level 2 – this continues the instruction in level 1. It also has three exams – a tasting, theory, and service exam.
  • Level 3 – a 3-day programme that is designed for people in management and leadership roles in the beverage industry. This includes a practical service and salesmanship exam.
  • Level 4 – this final level is the highest you can achieve in this hospitality-specific course. Again there are three exams, including a theoretical oral exam and a tasting of six wines.

So whether you’re looking to increase your knowledge of wine for your own pleasure, or to further your career in the hospitality industry, there are lots of options available. Many of these qualifications also have online options available, so wherever you are in the world, wine knowledge is just a click or two away.

Our thanks for the information in this post go to Erica.

Further reading

For a post about a school for bartenders follow this link.

For a very steamy account of life as a beautiful young sommelier in the US read Victoria James’ Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumphs of America’s Youngest Sommelier.

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