The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word sommelier as a wine steward. But most people think of a sommelier according to how the word is used by the Court of Master Sommeliers. They're an educational body that awards sommelier certification. In this article, we’re concerned with the word as used by the Court of Master Sommeliers and commonly understood as certified wine professional.
Shiny sommelier pin on their lapel, certified sommeliers have passed multiple sommelier levels on their way to becoming respected and sought-after wine pros. So let’s look at just what they had to do to get there.
First we’ll cover how many levels of sommelier there are, then we’ll go over what each sommelier level consists of. And finally, we’ll look at some alternatives to sommelier certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers. If you're looking for somewhere to start on your journey of how to become a sommelier, you're in the right spot.
The Court of Master Sommeliers
How Many Levels of Sommeliers Are There?
There are 4 levels of sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Introductory Sommelier is the first level and Master Sommelier is the fourth and final level. In between them are Certified Sommelier and Advanced Sommelier. Each level must be completed before moving on to the next.
What are the sommelier certification levels? Glad you asked!
Each sommelier level covers the same content, though it gets more detailed with each one.
- They cover theoretical wine knowledge like understanding classic wine regions, history, geography, and grapes.
- They also cover wine tasting, which is crucial to being able to describe wines, help guests navigate wine menus, and find the right wine bottle in the right price range. And if price range isn’t a thing, the ability to speak knowledgeably about how wines interact with our senses is a great way to upsell drinks at a restaurant or bar.
- And, finally, each level covers wine service, from all the necessary steps to hitting standard wine pours every time.
Level 1 Sommelier: What Is an Introductory Sommelier?
The level 1 sommelier course, also called the Introductory Sommelier course, requires two full days of in-person study. The course and exam cover three primary topics at an introductory level:
- A review of wine and beverage theory
- An introduction to deductive tasting methodology
- Wine service etiquette, covering all service steps and related topics like corkage
There are no requirements of years of experience in the hospitality industry to sign up for the Introductory Sommelier course. It’s enough to be considering a career in the industry. At the end of day two, students take a multiple-choice test that they must score at least 60% on. If they do, they’re eligible to take the certified sommelier course.
Level 2 Sommelier: What is a Certified Sommelier?
A Certified Sommelier is someone who has earned the level 2 sommelier certification. The level 1 sommelier certification is designed to introduce students to the three basic fields of study for a wine professional. But the level 2 sommelier certification demands candidates demonstrate proficiency in them.
To become a Certified Sommelier, you must take and pass a one-day examination that covers theory, tasting, and service. Certified Sommelier is the minimum certification needed to begin getting sommelier jobs in the hospitality industry.
To sit for the Certified Sommelier examination, candidates must have passed the introductory course within three years (or five years if vouched for by a Master Sommelier by whom they’re directly mentored). A minimum of three years in the hospitality industry is strongly recommended. It’s also recommended that one year be used for study between passing the introductory level and sitting for the Certified Sommelier test.
Level 3 Sommelier: What Is an Advanced Sommelier?
To become an Advanced Sommelier, or level 3 sommelier, candidates must attend the three-day Advanced Sommelier course. After that, they sit for the three-day Advanced Sommelier examination.
To qualify for the course, applicants must have passed the Certified Sommelier exam, have a minimum of two years of restaurant service experience, and have not previously taken the Advanced Sommelier course.
To qualify for the examination, applicants must have taken the Advanced Sommelier three-day course, have a minimum of 3 years of restaurant service experience, and be currently employed in the hospitality or beverage industry.
The same three topics are covered during the course and exam, though in greater detail. The exam consists of a written theory section, a verbal tasting section, and a practical service and sales section. To pass, a 60% on each section is needed. About 25–30% of all students who sit for the exam pass it. And if you pass it, you can sit for the Master Sommelier exam.
How Many Advanced Sommeliers Are There?
Roughly 14 students pass each Advanced Sommelier examination, and the Advanced Sommelier exam is offered three times per year.
How did we determine this? We know from the Court of Master Sommeliers that roughly 25–30% of those who sit for the Advanced Sommelier exam pass it. We also know that 23 people passed the exam once, which turned out to be a 43% passing rate. That means 52 people sat for that exam, which we took 25–30% of.
And if you’re one of the lucky few, you can go on to fight the boss: the Master Sommelier exam.
Level 4 Sommelier: What Is a Master Sommelier?
A Master Sommelier is a wine professional who has passed the fourth and final level of sommelier certification. Doing so earns them a Master Sommelier Diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. It is the highest level of sommelier possible.
This level is the reason for the sommelier’s hard-won reputation. This is the level they make documentaries about. Since the inception of the Court of Master Sommeliers in 1977, only 274 people have been awarded the Master Sommelier Diploma. The current Master Sommelier list includes 269 people.
The Master Sommelier exam is similar to the Advanced Sommelier exam in terms of format and content. It consists of a written theory section, a verbal blind tasting section, and a practical wine service section. This time, though, the minimum score to pass is 75% on each section.
A candidate for the Master’s Diploma must first pass the theory portion of the test. They then have three consecutive years to take the tasting and service sections. If all three parts are not completed within three years, the entire exam must be retaken.
What’s with the Sommelier Pins?
You may have heard of or seen sommelier pins, which are awarded to sommeliers after each level they pass. Proudly displayed on a sommelier’s lapel, each pin has a thick colored border with an image of the face of Bacchus in the center. The design is as simple as the wine knowledge it represents is complex. In the Court of Master Sommelier tradition, each pin is as follows:
- The Introductory Sommelier pin has a red border with a silver interior.
- The Certified Sommelier pin has a purple border with a pewter interior.
- The Advanced Sommelier pin has a green border with a pewter interior.
- The Master Sommelier pin has a red border with a gold interior.
Other Wine Certifications
The Court of Master Sommeliers isn’t the only game in town. Let’s look at some other bodies that award certification for wine expertise. Two specifically, the Institute of Masters of Wine and the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.
Wine & Spirit Education Trust
The Wine & Spirit Education Trust, also known as WSET, also offers wine educational and certification programs. Like the Court of Master Sommeliers, WSET offers four awards in wine. They call them level 1, level 2, level 3, and level 4. After completion of each WSET level, the student is awarded a lapel pin.
Is WSET a Sommelier?
A wine professional who has completed one or more of the WSET courses could likely find a job as a sommelier. Then of course they’d be called a sommelier. But, unlike students who complete a Court of Master Sommeliers certification, they wouldn’t be called a sommelier just because they finished the course. That’s because the Court of Master Sommeliers uses the word sommeliers to refer to their students and graduates. WSET doesn’t.
What is the Difference Between WSET and Sommelier?
The WSET wine awards are purely academic. Which is to say there is no wine service component to them. That means they’re a good fit for wine writers, oenologists, or any other wine professionals working outside of the hospitality industry. Those who have passed sommelier certification have demonstrated advanced skills in wine and table service.
Institute of Masters of Wine
The Institute of Masters of Wine offers a three-level wine education and certification program. The program is often called one of the most academically rigorous.
What Does MW Mean in Wine?
MW means Master of Wine. It's the title conferred upon those who complete the three-stage certification process through the Institute of Masters of Wine.
What is the Difference Between a Master Sommelier and a Master of Wine?
Where sommelier certification tests for theoretical wine knowledge, tasting, and wine service, the MW covers a broad and very developed understanding of the wine industry and the world of wine as a whole. The MW requires a more research-oriented focus. The final step is the submission and acceptance of a research paper of up to 10,000 words on any wine-related topic.
In Vino Veritas
This was the cold, hard truth about sommelier levels. The material was mainly focused on the education and certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers. There are some educational bodies that issue wine certification and use the word sommelier. There are others that don’t use the word sommelier at all. But no one certification has a monopoly on the industry.
Of course, the Court of Master Sommeliers is the most well known. And it’s the one geared primarily toward practical application in the hospitality industry. If you’re a server or bartender working in the biz and you want to get some wine education, it’s probably the way to go. If you’re a bar manager and you’ve got an eye on becoming a beverage director or wine director, it’s also probably the way to go.