If you’re passionate about drinking wine, you may have wondered if you should up your level of knowledge by getting a sommelier certification. There are many educational bodies around the world that offer courses leading up to diplomas or certifications in wine, but do you need to do one, or would you be best off without formal training? Let’s look at a few situations and options.
First, it’s good to ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you plan on working, or already work in, in a fine restaurant?
- Do you want to work in wine marketing or sales?
- Do you require proof of your knowledge for your curriculum?
Sommelier certification with one of the internationally-recognized bodies is something you’ll want to have on your CV if you plan on becoming, say, head sommelier in a Michelin-starred restaurant, or work in a winery. For example, just to take the Introductory course and exam at the Court of Master Sommeliers, you must have already worked in food and beverage service for three years – and that’s the first of four exams that can take up to 10 years to complete.
A more self-guided process is offered by the UK-based WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust), which is approachable also for novices and consists more of exams than of formal courses. In Italy, AIS (Associazione Italiana Sommelier) is the only internationally recognized body; with its 3 levels it takes just short of 3 years to become fully certified. These are the three probably most important educational iters that will prepare you for work in the wine sector. You’ll come out with solid technical knowledge, many hours of practise, and the diploma or certificate that you can put on your CV.
On the other hand, if you don’t need a sommelier certification for work, but just to further your passion, you might benefit more from a locally organized seminar or by plotting your own course of study. In every country there are beginner courses as well as thematic seminars and opportunities to get to know wines better. For example, in London, auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s both run introduction and thematic classes in wine in prestigious locations. In Italy, having solid wine knowledge is so common that there are tons of choices for basic and inexpensive course series – some actually sponsored by the ministry of agriculture! – that result in a locally-recognized certificate.
Outside of formal training, there may be wine clubs in your city that offer social events with tastings of ranges of wines that will simply expand your palate’s understanding of the many vintages in the world. In Toronto, Canada, for example, there’s an Italian wine club, one dedicated exclusively to South-African wines, and another for wines of the province of Ontario. Attending a few of these evenings will not only up your knowledge but provide opportunity to meet others with your same interest, with whom to organize future travel to meet winemakers and learn on the spot. Go in even deeper by becoming a board member of one of these clubs!
If you don’t live in Italy or in a major international city, fear not. Chances are you do have a local wine store that might offer tastings, or if they don’t, you can probably convince them to start. Finally, there’s a lot you can do on your own, with a book (see our “best books about wine”) or an online course (of which there are many).
Last but not least, in the category of “choose your own adventure,” travel may be the best form of education about wine and food and wine culture. You can visit wineries around the world, meet winemakers and find out how each place’s specific terroir contributes to different results. Most wineries have information to book a wine tasting on their website, and it’s a good idea to always do so in advance.
So, what have you decided? Do you need a sommelier certification, or will you continue to expand your knowledge by some of the other means we’ve talked about here?