Think You're an Expert?

While enrolling in wine education courses isn't mandatory in order to take any of the various certification exams, it may be wise to get a few hours of classroom training under your belt. Here are a few things the Culinary Institute of America asks on its Foundation Level I Competency exam:

  • Major varieties of grapes and where they grow
  • Define terroir, clone, scion and rootstock
  • How do harvest decisions impact the style and flavor of the wine?
  • What is the role of barrels in winemaking?
  • Name and give the principles of several classic food and wine matches
  • Describe the importance of a good wineglass and the features of a good wineglass
  • What is the difference between barrel-fermented and tank-fermented wines?
  • Tell them apart in blind tastings
  • Pair a single bottle of wine with several different entrees ordered by guests ­

Sommelier Training and Certification

Unlike becoming a doctor, lawyer or driver of an 18-wheel truck, the path to becoming a sommelier isn't clearly marked. There are no set standards for using the title. Anyone who pours wine can call himself a sommelier. That doesn't mean that any wine lover can just order a white jacket and a tastevin off the Internet and get a job in a fancy restaurant. Most employers will want you to show that you have passed competency examinations administered by one of the many organizations for professional sommeliers. To get to the point of taking the competency exam, a prospective sommelier will need lots of experience with wine or preparation through self-education or through courses in wine.

Several institutions and organizations offer courses for sommeliers. Some can be completed in a few days, while others require months. The Culinary Institute of America offers certification programs for wine professionals -- a foundation level certification and an advanced level -- at its wine center in California's Napa Valley. After passing these exams, a graduate can add the initials C.W.P. for Certified Wine Professional to his or her name. Colorado-based International Wine Guild offers several levels of study and certification for wine professionals. The International Sommelier Guild is one of the few institutions with a diploma program specific to sommeliers. The guild also offers a master's degree program leading to the title of Grand Sommelier.

Certification by the Court of Master Sommeliers, an international body with branches in the United States and Great Britain, is highly regarded. Wine professionals must complete the introductory sommelier course and exam before moving on to the certified sommelier exam that consists of a written exam of 25 questions, a blind tasting of two wines and a service exam. After passing this exam, the sommelier can take the advanced sommelier course and exam, then attempt to procure the master sommelier diploma. Only outstanding graduates who have obtained the master sommelier designation may be invited to full membership in the Court and given license to wear the Court badge. Currently, fewer than 200 people have earned the title Master Sommelier [source: CofM].

Each course and test carries a fee, ranging from about $150 for a beginer course to $800 for the master sommelier exam. Many employers will pay the fees for their sommeliers. While a college degree isn't required before starting training as a sommelier, it is recommended. Studies in business courses and a foreign language or two would certainly be helpful and give the sommelier a leg up on the competition.