If you’re a dedicated bar or restaurant professional, the thought of becoming a sommelier may have crossed your mind. And who can blame you? It’s an impressive, well-paid, and highly-respected career track. But it takes a heck of a lot of preparation.
If wine is your thing and you’re ready to put in the work it takes to become a sommelier, you’ve got a bright future. You’ve also come to the right place. This free sommelier guide lays out the important information you need in your quest to learn how to become a sommelier.
First we’ll define sommelier, then cover the various levels of sommelier certification. While we focus mostly on certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), we’ll also cover other wine education bodies that issue certifications. Then we’ll go over how much sommeliers make and how many of them are out there. And finally, we’ll go over sommelier training, how to prepare for any of the four CMS sommelier exams, and some sommelier documentaries and movies for supplemental learning.
Today just may be the first day of the rest of your life, future sommelier. Good luck!
Sommelier: What Does it Mean?
A sommelier is both a job title and a certification. To get a better idea of its meaning, let’s look into the word itself and what sommeliers do.
Sommelier: The Word
The definition of sommelier is a wine steward. That’s just someone who looks after the wine. The definition that’s more commonly used, though, is a highly trained wine professional, often employed by a restaurant.
The latter definition is more common because The CMS uses that word in its sommelier certification programs. That’s the usage of the word we’ll mostly concern ourselves with in this article.
Sommelier: What They Do
To become a sommelier through the CMS, three areas of study are routinely tested through four levels of certification: wine theory, wine tasting, and wine service.
Becoming a sommelier is a very academic pursuit. They must gain expansive knowledge of types of grape, wine regions and geography, and wine history.
The first sommelier level introduces the CMS’s tasting methods, and the final three levels test it. Sommeliers must demonstrate expert knowledge of the way wine interacts with all of our senses: sight, smell, taste, and mouthfeel. We’ll get deeper into tasting later in this article.
Sommelier work is fundamentally service work. Helping guests choose wine, then presenting it and serving it is the core of the profession. All the theory and tasting chops are leveraged in the service of … service.
We know what a sommelier is and what’s expected of them, now let’s get a high-level view of what they have to go through to get certified.
Levels of Sommelier Certification
This section covers both the CMS certification levels and briefly touches on the levels of other certifying wine education bodies.
The Court of Master Sommelier Levels
The CMS has four sommelier levels, starting with Introductory Sommelier and ending with Master Sommelier. Each level must be completed before the next is begun.
Level 1: Introductory Sommelier
The level 1 sommelier course, also called the Introductory Sommelier course, is a two-day classroom course that ends in an exam that covers wine and beverage theory, an introduction to deductive wine tasting, and wine service etiquette—from choosing wines to pouring and how to decant wine. The level 1 certification is meant to introduce students to the three basic areas of wine knowledge needed to become a sommelier.
Level 2: Certified Sommelier
The level 2 certification is the beginning of students showing proficiency in those areas. There is no course at this level. It’s just a one-day examination on theory, tasting, and service.
The Certified Sommelier certification is the minimum needed to begin working as a sommelier in the hospitality industry.
Level 3: Advanced Sommelier
The third level of CMS certification is the Advanced Sommelier. Candidates will take a three-day course, then sit for a three-day examination. To qualify, applicants must be Certified Sommeliers and have a minimum of two years of restaurant service experience. Topics are theory, tasting, and service at a much deeper level.
Level 4: Master Sommelier
The end of the line. A Master Sommelier has taken and passed the final level of CMS certification. It’s the highest level possible. There aren’t many of these folks around (see the below section on how many master sommeliers there are).
The Master exam is similar to the Advanced exam in form and content. It consists of written theory, verbal blind tasting, and performative wine service.
Alternate Wine Education Bodies
In addition to the Court of Master Sommeliers, there are two other primary wine education organizations that issue highly-regarded wine certifications. They are the Institute of Masters of Wine and the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.
Institute of Masters of Wine
They offer a three-level wine certification and education program. It’s lighter on service and much heavier on academic study and wine theory.
Wine & Spirit Education Trust
Also called WSET, they offer four awards in wine: Level 1, level 2, level 3, and level 4.
We’ll get into the details of each level shortly, but we want to set the stage. Before we dive deeper into how to prepare for each level and exam, let’s cover a few more basics about the realities of becoming a sommelier. First, what can you expect to make if you become a sommelier? And second, how many sommeliers are out there?
How Much Do Sommeliers Make?
There is a fair amount of variation in sommelier salaries. And, you guessed it, it’s all based on the level the sommelier has attained. Let’s look at each level.
The median Introductory Sommelier salary is $55,000. Certified Sommeliers make around $62,000 per year, while Advanced Sommeliers bring in a median of $87,000 per year. And lastly, those who have earned their Master Sommelier diploma earn around $164,000 a year.
Compared to a bar manager salary, sommeliers tend to out earn those with similar years of experience in the hospitality industry.
How Many Sommeliers Are There?
We put together a master sommelier list that includes every master sommelier in the world. It also includes which master sommeliers were issued their diplomas from the Americas chapter of the CMS.
At present, there are 269 Master Sommeliers across the world. Looking at the numbers, about five people per year earn the title. Of those 269, 172 are from North and South America. Or, at least their Master Sommelier diploma was issued from the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas chapter. That’s about 64% of the world’s Master Sommeliers.
So, the stage is set. Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty with a detailed look into sommelier training, along with how to prepare for sommelier tests.
There are four main organizations that are regarded well among hiring managers in the hospitality industry. They all offer what amount to sommelier classes, though not all of them use the word sommelier. They are the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, Institute of Masters of Wine, Court of Master Sommeliers, and International Sommelier Guild.
Wine & Spirit Education Trust
The WSET has four levels. And they also have a network of hundreds of teaching and examination centers across the world. With their courses available online, that makes them one of the most accessible options.
They offer a Level 1 Wine Award that consists of six hours of online study. Their Level 2 Wine Award requires 28 hours of total study time, while the Level 3 Wine Award and Level 4 Diploma in Wines consists of 84 and 500 hours of study time, respectively. Obviously a pretty big jump up from the 3rd to the 4th level. That’s the difference between an award and a diploma.
Institute of Masters of Wine
As mentioned previously, this is a three-stage course of study and culminates in becoming a Master of Wine (MW). This is mostly a self-directed course that focuses on original research and academic production. But it’s still very useful for those learning how to become a sommelier.
Stage 1 is a five-day residential course followed by two non-residential study days. Stage 2 is also a five-day residential seminar that includes tasting sessions and mock exams. To progress out of Stage 2, at least three original research essays must be submitted.
Stage 3, the final stage, is not a course, per say. It’s completely dedicated to researching and writing an original academic paper. You can think of it like a PhD student’s dissertation period.
Court of Master Sommeliers
The CMS offers four certification levels, but three educational opportunities. The Certified and Master Sommelier certifications are given after exams. There are no courses involved with those levels.
The Introductory Sommelier course is a two-day, in-classroom overview of the foundations of wine theory (wine history, regions, and styles), along with an introduction to the Deductive Tasting Method and CMS wine service standards.
The Deductive Tasting Method workshop is an intense, one-day workshop that goes over the CMS’s Deductive Tasting Method. It’s not required for any certification, but it’s darn helpful for all of them. And, finally, the Advanced Sommelier course, the course associated with the level 3 certification, is a three-day, in-depth, classroom exploration of wine theory, tasting, and service.
International Sommelier Guild
The next wine educational organization we’ll go over is the ISG. They offer three relevant wine courses. Each class is available online or in a classroom setting.
The Intermediate Wine Certificate, or IWC, is a foundational overview course that consists of eight classes and takes about 24 hours of study. The Advanced Wine Certificate, or AWC, goes deeper into the study of wine with 16 sessions that takes about 48 hours to complete. And the International Sommelier Guild Member, or ISGM, degree is an intensive 30-session experience that takes about 360 hours to complete.
Other Online Wine Courses
While the following wine education options don’t offer certifications, they’re nevertheless useful. Becoming a sommelier is all about expanding your knowledge. So use these resources in your “how to become a sommelier” adventure.
Now let’s look at just what it takes to earn the CMS certifications.
What’s On the Sommelier Exam?
How hard each CMS sommelier exam is increases with each of the four levels, culminating in the master sommelier exam. Each of the four exams covers the same three topics, but with more depth each time. Wine theory, wine tasting, and wine service are the areas of study. Let’s look at what each entails.
Wine theory is the study of wine regions, history, grapes, and wines themselves. Here are the primary topics within wine theory that the CMS exams test:
- Main wine-producing regions of the world
- Wine characteristics
- Variety of local soils
- Labelling terms
- Quality level structure
- Production and aging techniques
- Sparkling wines
- Fortified wines
- Beer and cider
- Food and wine pairing
Throughout the four levels of CMS wine certification, sommeliers go from an introduction of the CMS Deductive Tasting Method to a complete mastery of it.
Deductive tasting is basically working backwards by isolating characteristics of wine and identifying them on the CMS deductive tasting grid.
The one section that the CMS focuses on in every exam that makes it unique is wine service standards. Other wine education bodies cover this topic, of course, but not with the rigor the CMS does. The primary topics of wine service for which increasing proficiency must be demonstrated are:
- Professional appearance
- Required sommelier tools
- Pre-service setup or mise-en-place
- Standard wine service
- Glassware placement
- Screw cap closures
- Synthetic corks
- Storage and wine cellar lighting
- Purchasing older wines
- Serving temperatures
Becoming a Sommelier with the Help of Wine Movies & Documentaries
There are lots of useful documentaries and movies that cover wine and sommeliers. Pick a sommelier documentary or movie from this list and enjoy. Watch enough of them, and you’ll know more than most of the population. And that counts for something.
- Mondovino, 2004
- Red Obsession, 2013
- Somm, 2013
- Barolo Boys, 2014
- Somm: Into the Bottle, 2015
- Somm 3, 2018
- Our Blood Is Wine, 2018
- The Secret of Santa Vittoria, 1969
- Sideways, 2004
- Bottle Shock, 2008
- You Will Be My Son, 2013
- Back to Burgundy, 2017
- Wine Country, 2019
Watching these films will give you a great perspective on the different aspects of wine and wine’s importance to our culture. And that’ll help you learn. Open a bottle, kick back, and let it wash over you.
That’s How to Become a Sommelier
We’ve covered the definition of the word itself to what you’ll need to know to climb the sommelier mountain. If you can stand such rare air.
The pay’s good. The reputation’s good. And if you’re in love with wine, you’ll be in love with your career. Wine doesn’t have to be your passion, necessarily. Getting a level 1 or level 2 sommelier certification can help accelerate lots of different career trajectories, whether you are a barback, learning how to become a bartender, learning how to run a bar or become a beverage director.
Knowing wine, regardless of what you do with the knowledge, is invaluable in the wine industry.