Learning about wine and wine service is not only fun and interesting, but a sommelier salary is nothing to sniff at. It’s one of the most promising career tracks in the growing wine industry. Successfully certified sommeliers go on to become beverage directors, wine directors, consultants, resident sommeliers, professors, and more. The sky’s the limit.
There are a few different ways to go about getting a professional wine certification and learning how to become a sommelier. In this article, we lay out the four most common routes and give you a starting point for each one. So whether you’re after one of the sommelier certification levels from the Master Court of Sommeliers or you’re just scoping out your options, you’ve come to the right place.
First, we’ll focus on the wine education and sommelier classes offered by the four primary wine professional certification bodies. If you want nationally-recognized certification, you have to go through them and their coursework.
Then we’ll list some great supplemental online sommelier courses and sommelier training books. Along with the degree-granting institutions in the U.S. where you can actually get a four-year degree in wine. Let’s get to it!
Sommelier Classes & Training
There are four certifying organizations that are highly regarded by hiring managers within the wine business. They’re essentially sommelier schools, though only two of them use the word sommelier. They are, in no particular order:
- Court of Master Sommeliers
- Wine and Spirit Education Trust
- Institute of Masters of Wine
- International Sommelier Guild
Each organization offers education in preparation for its certifications.
Court of Master Sommeliers Classes
The Court of Master Sommeliers offers three sommelier classes (four certification levels, i.e. exams, but three educational opportunities) and is often considered the preeminent sommelier school and training program. Two are associated with a sommelier certification level and one is an elective.
None of the classes can be taken online. They must all be taken at set times and locations around the country. And participants must sign up well in advance. Before we dive into the classes, we'll take a closer look at everything that goes into the four certification levels.
Each sommelier level covers similar content, though it gets more detailed with each one:
Theoretical wine knowledge like understanding classic wine regions, history, geography, and grapes.
Wine tasting, which is crucial to being able to describe wines, help guests navigate digital wine menus, and find the right wine bottle 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 cocktails at a restaurant or bar.
Each level covers wine service, from all the necessary steps to hitting a standard 5-ounce wine pour every time, the proper wine serving temperatures, and how to decant wine.
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 covers 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 fees.
There isn't a requirement 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 evaluation 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 assessment 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 assessment, candidates must have passed the introductory course within 3 years (or 5 years if vouched for by a Master Sommelier by whom they’re directly mentored). A minimum of 3 years in the hospitality industry is strongly recommended.
It’s also recommended that 1 year be used for study between passing the introductory level and sitting for the Certified Sommelier evaluation.
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 assessment.
To qualify for the course, applicants must be a Certified Sommelier, have a minimum of 2 years of restaurant service experience, and haven't previously taken the Advanced Sommelier course.
To qualify for the assessment, 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, though in greater detail. The assessment consists of a written theory section, a verbal tasting section, and a practical service and sales section. To pass, a 60% score on each section is needed.
About 25–30% of all students who sit for it pass it. And if you pass it, you can sit for the evaluation to become a Master Sommelier.
How Many Advanced Sommeliers Are There?
Roughly 14 students pass each Advanced Sommelier evaluation, and the Advanced Sommelier exam is offered 3 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 pass. We also know that 23 people passed once, which turned out to be a 43% passing rate. That means 52 people sat for it, 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 course.
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 certification 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 assessment is similar to the Advanced Sommelier one 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 Sommelier Diploma must first pass the theory portion of the assessment. They then have 3 consecutive years to take the tasting and service sections. If all 3 parts are not completed within 3 years, the entire exam must be retaken.
As you can see, there's a lot of work that goes into becoming a sommelier. The classes and tests require an immense amount of knowledge. Below, we'll break down the courses with more of a focus on what you'll need to know.
A two-day, in-person overview of all the major wine growing regions in the world. As well as related information on spirits, beer, and proper wine service. According to the Court of Master Sommeliers website, the course covers:
- A review of wine and beverage theory knowledge
- An introduction to the Deductive Tasting Method
- Wine service etiquette, from the basics of how to clean a wine decanter to how to decant wine a $1,000 bottle
The course culminates in a multiple-choice exam and can’t be taken separately from it. It’s an entry level course, though, and if you’re just starting your sommelier journey, look into this course.
This intensive one-day, in-person workshop isn’t required for any certification, though completion of the introductory course is required. It covers:
- The Deductive Tasting Method using grape varieties that will be on the Certified Sommelier (2nd level) examination.
- The link between wine theory and wine tasting
This is the sommelier class associated with the Advanced Sommelier (3rd level) certification. It’s a three-day, in-person exploration of:
- Wine theory
- Wine tasting
- Wine service standards
This course, unlike the introductory course, can be taken independently from the associated exam. The requirement is having completed the Certified Sommelier course and examination. After successfully completing this course, students can sit for the three-day Advanced Sommelier exam.
Wine and Spirit Education Trust
WSET, like the Court of Master Sommeliers, has four levels. But they have a network of over 700 third-party teaching and examination centers across 70 countries. They’re known as Approved Program Providers (APP). The courses are available online, too.
This requires around 6 hours of online or classroom study. There is no admission requirement. The topics it covers include:
- The main types and styles of wine
- Common grapes and their characteristics
- Wine storage and service standards
- Wine and food pairing
- How to describe wine
This will provide students with a hands-on introduction to wine. Successful completion is passing a 30-question multiple choice exam. If you’re just starting out on your wine certification and sommelier training journey, look into this course.
This course requires around 28 hours of total study time, with 16 classroom or online hours and 11 personal study hours. It covers:
- How to taste and describe wine
- How environmental factors and winemaking techniques influence a wine’s style, quality, and wine tannin levels
- Wine storage and service principles and processes; from ideal wine storage temperatures, choosing the right wine storage racks and cabinets, and proper wine cellar lighting
- Principles of wine and food pairing
Like the Level 1 Wine Award, this level has no entry requirements. Not even the previous level! It’s a more in-depth introduction to wine. It builds on the information in the first level, and gets much deeper on each topic. Students must successfully complete a 50-question multiple choice exam at the end.
This course requires 84 total hours of study time, which includes 30 hours of classroom or online instruction from an APP. It covers:
- The key factors in wine production
- Still, sparkling, and fortified wines
- How to taste wines, describe them, and evaluate their characteristics
This is an advanced-level qualification for professionals working in the wine industry. Completion of the Level 2 course is recommended for entry. After the course, students take a 50-question multiple choice, short answer, and wine tasting assessment.
This course requires approximately 500 hours of study time. That’s 116 hours of classroom or online study through an APP. And around 370 hours of personal study with about 12 hours of examination time. It covers:
- Advanced wine production
- The wine business
- Wines of the world, sparkling wines, and fortified wines
- An independent research assignment
This is WSET’s expert-level course. It greatly deepens students’ understanding of how and why wine production and business/industry factors influence wine quality, style, and price (both by wine by the glass pricing and wine price for bottles). It takes up to three years to earn this diploma. To be accepted into the course, candidates must have the WSET Level 3 Wine Award. To successfully complete the course, a variety of assessments are used: blind tasting, short answer, and an original 3,000-word research paper.
The great part about all the WSET coursework (but not all the exams) is that it’s available online.
The Institute of Masters of Wine offers students a three-stage journey toward becoming a Master of Wine (MW).
This is a five-day residential seminar, along with two non-residential course days. This seminar includes:
- A variety of tasting sessions
- Winery or vineyard visit
- Blending sessions
- Marketing workshop
- Research and writing techniques
The MW is a self-directed, though not online, course of study. More than any other wine professional certification course, the MW course has an academic focus. It aims to have students prepare to do original research and writing on the subject of wine. Stage 1 is open admission and students have six voluntary assignments: three essays and three tastings. To pass Stage 1, students must submit a 12-wine tasting paper and two essays.
Also a five-day long residential seminar and typically includes a variety of tasting sessions and mock exams. It covers:
- Wine theory
- Wine research and writing
- Wine tasting
- Wine assessment
MW Stage 2 is the next building block toward being able to interact academically with the wine industry and conduct and communicate original research. To progress to Stage 3, students must submit at least three essays.
The final stage of the MW journey, Stage 3 is fully dedicated to the production of an original research paper. It doesn’t necessarily cover anything, and it’s similar to a doctoral student’s dissertation period. Candidates propose a wine-related topic and write a deeply-researched paper on it. It must be 6–10,000 words and contribute to the understanding of the world of wine.
International Sommelier Guild
This is the other organization of the four that uses the word sommelier in their classes and training. They offer four relevant certificates with associated sommelier training:
Intermediate Wine Certificate (IWC)
This broad, foundational course consists of eight sessions which clock in at about 24 hours total study time. It’s available both online and in a classroom environment. It covers:
- Prevalent grapes used in the wine industry
- Wine tasting terms
- Wine evaluation and assessment
- Label information and service standards
- Food and wine pairing theories
- Wine geography and appellation concepts
The IWC is designed for those interested in beginning a hospitality career or those simply learning about their passion. A review and exam are given after the eight classes are completed.
Advanced Wine Certificate (AWC)
The AWC consists of 16 sessions which totals 48 hours of study time and is available online or in a classroom setting. It covers:
- Old and new world wine regions
- Sparkling and fortified wines, spirits, and ales
- Blind tasting skills
- Service skills
- Wine and food pairing techniques
- Wine storage
- Wine management and bar inventory systems
A five-hour exam concludes the certification. Successful completion of it gives you membership to the International Sommelier Guild.
International Sommelier Guild Member Degree (ISGM)
The ISGM Sommelier Degree is an intensive 30-session course over roughly 360 hours. It’s available online or in a classroom setting and covers:
- Viticulture and vinification
- Tasting techniques and regional analysis
- Investment strategy
- Wine program management and menu engineering
Pursuit of the ISGM degree is only available to those who’ve completed the AWC course. To be awarded the degree, candidates must pass a six-component exam and submit a dissertation.
Frequently Asked Questions On Sommelier Classes & Sommelier Course Options
Beyond this breakdown of the general Sommelier classes and Sommelier course options, there are a few other questions you should have an answer for before you dive into the journey of becoming a Sommelier. These questions include:
Which Sommelier Course is Right for Me?
If your goal is to work in a restaurant setting with the public and you’re willing to go all-in, the Court of Master Sommeliers course is right for you. Start with the Introductory Sommelier Course.
If you want the most flexibility regarding course locations and online accessibility, while still getting 360-degree coverage of the wine business, the WSET is right up your alley. Start with their Level 1 Wine Award.
If you want to approach wine expertise academically and focus the majority of your time and energy on research, writing, and contributing to knowledge within the wine business, the Institute of Masters of Wine is a good fit for you. Start with their MW Stage 1.
And if you want a combination of online accessibility and a focus on original research, the International Sommelier Guild is your best bet. It’s a good combination of the WSET and the MW. It offers online courses with the ability to earn an advanced degree through the submission of an original-research dissertation.
What are the Supplemental Online Sommelier Classes & Courses?
While the four organizations above are the most popular certification bodies, they certainly don’t own wine education. There are lots of resources you can use to study independently and supplement your certification journey. The following three are particularly noteworthy:
The online wine school from Wine Spectator offers students the option to start wine courses whenever they want. And download a variety of worksheets and study guides while connecting with a vast array of professional and practical resources.
Courses useful for sommelier training include:
- ABCs of Wine Tasting
- ABCs of Wine Sales and Service
- Understanding Wine
- Understanding Professional Wine Sales and Service
- Wine and Food Pairing
- Sensory Evaluation
- California Cabernet
- Australia and New Zealand
One of the most popular online wine schools, Napa Valley Wine Academy offers beginner, intermediate and advanced courses online. And in nine classroom locations across the U.S. They’re also a WSET APP, so you can take all four WSET levels right on their website.
Courses useful for sommelier training include:
- Wine 101: Foundation
- Napa Valley Wine Expert
- American Wine Expert
- WSET Levels 1–4
- Society of Wine Educators CSW Course
- SommDay School Deductive Training and Service Workshop
- Business of Wine
The Cornell wine certificate expands students’ wine knowledge from the four major wine-producing regions of the U.S.: California, Washington, Oregon, and New York. It can be 100% completed online.
Courses useful for sommelier training include:
- Wine Essentials
- Grape Varietals of California, New York, and the Pacific Northwest
- Experiencing Wines of California, New York, and the Pacific Northwest
What are Good Sommelier Preparation Books?
We scoured the internet for the top 10 sommelier training books out there. All to help you prepare for any sommelier courses and classes you take. Here they are, in no particular order:
- The Sommelier Prep Course
- Introductory Sommelier Course Workbook
- The Wine Bible
- Michael Broadbent’s Wine Tasting
- The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste: A Field Guide to the Great Wines of Europe
- Sales and Service for the Wine Professional
- The World Atlas of Wine
- Parker’s Wine Buyers Guide
- Perfect Pairings
- Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours
How to Find a Sommelier School? Wine School Directory
Looking for even more? Like, say, a wine degree from an accredited college or university? Here’s a roundup of all the available wine education programs at the baccalaureate level in the U.S.
- California State University, Fresno Department of Viticulture and Enology
- Cornell University’s Viticulture Program
- Washington State University Viticulture & Enology
- University of California, Davis Viticulture & Enology
- California Polytechnic Wine and Viticulture
- Oregon State University Viticulture and Enology
- Michigan State University Viticulture
Godspeed, Future Sommeliers
Hopefully all these sommelier training courses and classes give you a good idea of where to begin. Some day you too may be a master sommelier. There's a lot of restaurant lingo involved. And a good idea of what’ll be required of you once you do begin.
If want to excel at how to run a bar, encourage your employees’ professional development with some of these wine and sommelier classes. Even if your bar staff isn’t looking to go the distance, getting some wine school and sommelier courses under their belts will help. They'll be able to speak about wine—or help guests navigate a digital wine list menu—intelligently and confidently. And that’s a huge part of upselling drinks. And that’s a huge part of running a profitable beverage program.