Sitting in school, sampling 8-10 wines per night sounds like a lot of fun doesn’t it? Well it is! I will let you in on a little known secret though, it can also be really tough!
Once upon a time I watched a documentary called SOMM on Netflix (highly recommend it!) In this documentary a group of talented Sommeliers share their journey towards achieving the designation of “Master Sommelier” through the Court of Masters. I was fascinated at the depth of knowledge and dedication these men had towards this pursuit of excellence. The designation certainly does attract a certain personality – mostly the Type A, masochist persona. There is no set text book for this exam, and anything in the world of wine is game for testing theory or tasting knowledge. The title of “Master” is indeed well deserved and earned by the time the designation is earned. Currently there are only 236 people in the world to hold this title.
Now anyone that knows me understands how this would peak my interest. I have always been the type of person to jump at a challenge just to see if I can. The world of wine is a never ending pit of knowledge, and there are some great programs offered through various institutions to teach the novice and professional alike. Thankfully while deciding what my wine education journey would look like, I received some wise advice through the internet and a friend who had studied in the WSET 4 Diploma Program.
Depending on what the desired outcome is for someone who wants to embark upon formal wine education, there are a few programs you can embark on. I was atrracted to the two main internationally recognised paths that you can take through WSET and Court of Masters. The Wine and Spirits Education Trust, based out of London offers a Level 1 Beginner, Level 2 Intermediate, Level 3 Advanced, and Level 4 Diploma Program. The exams are based on the text book, and there is no service element required as part of the program. This was perfect for me coming from a real estate and business development background, as no industry employment is necessary to be successful – just some iron will and great study skills. This is the ideal path for people wanting to pursue careers in wine that involve extended technical knowledge, vs. service of wine. However, technically speaking, you cannot call yourself a Sommelier at the end of this program. That title is reserved for someone who actually manages a wine program. Clear career paths for those who take WSET are Wine Agency Sales Reps, Wine Retail, Wine Writing, and further Wine Research. Typically wine enthusiasts go through levels 1 & 2 to expand their personal knowledge. Level 3 is where things start to get serious for the professional, with blind tasting counting for a large section of the final exam.
The Court of Masters requires extensive industry employment in order to develop a baseline of wine knowledge before entering into their Introductory Sommelier program. Without it, you are setting yourself up for a rough ride, and likely failure. The lack of ‘textbook’ structure in the program makes it a logical choice after pursuing WSET Level 3 if you have service experience. However if you simply want to be or call yourself a Sommelier, many other institutions allow you to write a Sommelier certification program after finishing WSET 2.
The Court of Masters offers the great career flowchart below on their website to illustrate this. Listening to the advice of people who had done both, I learned that CMS Level 1, is more like WSET Level 2.5
Because restaurant service experience is not in my career history, WSET was the logical first path for me to take. I was able to find a course offered in Calgary through James Cluer Master of Wine’s school Fine Vintage. With an extensive personal research background in wine, I opted to skip WSET Level 1, and enrol in a 9 week WSET Level 2 program this past spring. The original course I had signed up for was cancelled, but a currently running program had a space for me. Ever impatient, I opted to dive into the course already in progress. The problem? It was already 3 weeks in… But hey you know, I am always up for a challenge!
I am thankful to say that my hard work paid off! I passed with Distinction achieving 96% on the final exam (I am still kicking myself as to which two I know I got wrong!) I kept a journal of my experience along the way, and will be posting a new blog post detailing it over the next week.
Currently I am studying WSET Level 3 Advanced with my final exam in December.