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What goes into becoming a Sommelier

Meghan Fitzgerald

Sommelier opening a bottle of wine

What is a Sommelier?

A sommelier (pronounced suhm-uhl-yey or saw-muh-lyey), otherwise known as a wine steward, is a professional who specializes in wine as a service and as a science, meaning that he or she is dedicated to both the presentation and the explanation of wine. This expertise is demonstrated primarily in a hospitality setting, i.e. restaurants, tasting rooms, clubs, and event venues, and is displayed, for the most part, for the benefit of patrons and guests.

For the sommelier, wine tasting is not simply a weekend excursion or holiday party, it’s a way of life. The sommelier pursues enological excellence for his or her own unique reasons and no matter who you ask, you will most likely never hear the same origin story twice. However, there are two common factors that are repeatedly cited as sources of inspiration:

Passion and people.

Sommelier showing a bottle

Is a Sommelier an educator or an entertainer?

Though the sommelier is not obligated to work in the hospitality industry, he or she rarely pursues enological knowledge for the sole sake of accruing knowledge.

After all, the best way to learn is to teach.

The sommelier is a type of ‘renaissance (wo)man’ within the world of wine, having the training to recognize and identify any given glass based solely on their own senses and the ability to express that analysis through a practical and accessible explanation.

In other words, the sommelier is a translator of wine for his or her guests.

However, to write, one must first learn to read, and the aspiring wine steward acquires the skill to “read” a given wine through a combination of education and work experience. Being educated in wine and working for the industry does not necessarily establish an individual as a sommelier, but these are advantages for anyone who chooses to pursue the title.

How to become a sommelier

Becoming a sommelier is not an easy process. In order to do it, one must pass numerous sommelier classes and complete the four stages of certification set down by the Court of Master Sommeliers.

sommelier in training practicing wine tasting

Introductory Sommelier Course

To begin, the aspiring sommelier must first pass the Introductory course offered by the Court. This stage is set to accommodate the performances of those with prior hospitality experience in the restaurant and/or wine industry.

Two days are spent covering and reviewing the basics of wine, from the making to the marketing, culminating in a simple pass or fail exam consisting of multiple-choice questions.

However, in the event that the student does pass the Introductory stage, he or she must still complete the Certified stage to be granted the title of ‘sommelier’.

Certified Sommelier Course

This course offers a considerable amount more focus, specifically regarding wine hospitality and the guest experience.

To successfully earn the title of ‘Certified Sommelier’, the student must pass a multiple-choice/short answer exam followed by a blind tasting, which involves wine identification as well as service.

Having finally earned the official title, the ‘Certified Sommelier’ can be satisfied with his or her success, or choose to go onward and confront the Advanced stage offered by the Court.

Sommelier taking notes on a glass of wine

Advanced Sommelier Course

It is recommended that the sommelier planning to pursue this title prepare for at least one year before taking the course. To even be considered, the applicant must first pass a general knowledge test assessing his or her ability to be successful in the course.

This level of the process provides a more in-depth approach to hospitality and a more involved look at wine varietal characteristics and the factors affecting the quality of the wine, such as viticultural practices and winemaking style.

The exam consists of multiple-choice and short answer questions, a blind tasting, and a hospitality evaluation.

Those sommeliers earning the title of ‘Advanced’ have but one stage left to consider, that of Master.

Master Sommelier Course

Similar to the Advanced stage of the process, to even participate in this course, an applicant must first be invited or recommended and subsequently accepted. Candidates are typically veterans of the hospitality industry or have comparable educational credentials.

The exam is taken in three parts, which can be completed within three years to earn the title of ‘Master Sommelier’ (note: this is a different certification than the ‘Master of Wine’).

The course covers the industry in its entirety, testing students on beer and spirits as well as wine, and hospitality from a philosophical as well as business perspective. The three-part exam includes an oral test, a blind tasting, and service evaluation, all of which, again, do not have to be completed during one sitting or even within the same year.

man choosing wine from a wall of wine bottles

How many Master Sommeliers are there?

The title of Master Sommelier is extremely prestigious.

With a pass rate of only 5%, the Master Sommelier test is considered one of the hardest exams in the world.

As a result, very few individuals have successfully reached this prestige. As of today, there are 270 individuals worldwide who have attained the title of Master Sommelier from the Court since its foundation in 1969.

It is worth a note that while various guilds, associations, and alternative certifications do exist for the purpose of cultivating the scholarship and showmanship involved with becoming a Sommelier, the program offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers is the most well-known in the United States and the most practical course to take for the aspiring sommelier working within the hospitality industry.

Sources Include:
Smith, Shawn. Interview. By Meghan Fitzgerald. 25 July 2021.
Court of Master Sommeliers,

Author Bio: Meghan ‘Fitzy’ Fitzgerald is a recent graduate of enology and viticulture from the Institute for Enology and Viticulture in Walla Walla Washington and currently works as a contributing author for the wine marketing industry with a focus in content writing. She continues to write feature pieces for Gold Medal Wine Club as she works toward establishing herself as a professional writer within the wine industry.