The Myth of Sommelier Certification, Debunked

Despite common belief, "sommelier" is not a certification. It's a job. Carson Demmond explores what it means to be a sommelier and why an exam has nothing to do with it.

somm certification illustration james carpenter

“Sommelier is a qualification, not a job position like receptionist,” wrote one commenter in a lengthy thread on an article on this website titled “The Rise of the American ‘Somm’.”

But why should “sommelier” be any different from “receptionist”? Both are jobs that require their own sets of skills. While a receptionist needs to be familiar with the schedules of staff members and know who to direct clients to based on their questions or needs, a sommelier needs to have intimate knowledge of his or her restaurant’s available wines, beers and spirits to guide the guest toward the beverage that best meets his or her desires. The position also requires people skills, a moderate level of bookkeeping and a ton of dirty work—from loading and unloading heavy cases of wine to clearing plates from tables. The larger the wine program, the more advanced the skill set required; but the same can be said of the receptionist at a United Nations duty station.

That comment struck right at the root of a major misconception regarding what it means to be a sommelier. Another commenter in the same thread even went so far as to liken dining in a restaurant with a sommelier that isn’t certified to flying in a plane with a pilot that isn’t licensed. Seriously?

No one can dispute the need for a certain amount of education and experience in order to proficiently work the floor as a sommelier, but there are many different routes to get there. “Sommelier” isn’t an abstract title or a generic, yet high-brow name for “wine expert”—it’s a job. A restaurant job. And certification is by no means prerequisite to being a good one.

In fact, I would wager that certification as the de facto method of assessing a candidate’s readiness for a job may be the very reason we’re finding many somms performing below industry standards, and several seasoned New York City wine directors I spoke to agreed. They may have a signed document or pin, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have any experience.

Another reason for the great misconception may be because we live in an era in which wine knowledge is seen as social badge of honor. For a diner confronted with a large wine list, the pin represents bona fide evidence that his somm knows more than he does, making him comfortable asking advice. Hardly any other occupation demands that sort of evidence. You wouldn’t ask your tax guy for proof of his degree in applied mathematics; if you get a big refund, you’re happy with the services rendered and that’s the end of the story.

Certification, which involves passing a test on regional wine laws, wine history and production methods, as well as, in some cases, blind tasting and a gauntlet of service technique—some of it painfully antiquated (cigar service, anyone?)—is a relatively new concept in this country. The most widely known certifying body, The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), administered its first Master Sommelier Exam in England in 1969, but its American chapter wasn’t founded until 1986.  And the majority of the other notable certification programs have only been established here within the last 15-20 years.

While dominant in Europe, the academic route has never been fully absorbed here, and I’d argue that this fact is part of what’s made America’s sommelier culture the trendsetting force that it is today. Rather than a slew of wine professionals who have gone through a vocational school, we have folks who drifted into the trade by way of their curiosity and passion for the subjects of both wine and service. With that as their driving force, they’ve thrown themselves into learning on their own terms and often through the experience of working in restaurants.

Unlike certification for doctors or pilots—or any profession where licensing is a legal or moral necessity—certification for sommeliers is not universally regulated. These certifying bodies are independent organizations that are businesses in their own right. And like any business, they need new enrollees to maintain an influx of cash and stay afloat.

So, if interested, anyone could sign up, pay the fees, take a course, pass a test and then—like a caterpillar into a butterfly—magically transform into a sommelier. Most programs, including the CMS, don’t require you to have any restaurant experience before enrolling in a “certifying” level course. And as much as they can be a useful source of education, they don’t determine whether or not you are a sommelier. The fact that you oversee the wine list and wine service in a restaurant alone determines that.

Further, some of the most important wine service skills—those that are based on understanding restaurant ethos, communicating with dining guests and taste memory—simply can’t be learned in a classroom or via exam. That education is cumulative and only grows with experience on the floor. But more than anything, freedom from traditional, homogenized wine education has made drinking out more fun. The more relaxed, freestyle nature of many of today’s most visible sommeliers is helping revolutionize the way we experience wine in restaurants.

Yet there continues to be a fair amount of confusion about what a sommelier is and how one becomes one. Part of it is rooted in the language of some of the certifying bodies, and I can understand how this could be misleading; “Certified Sommelier” is the title the CMS awards to those who pass their Level 2 exam, insinuating, in a way, that anyone who eschews their testing structure isn’t actually a somm.

When I worked on the floor at New York City’s The Modern, guests constantly asked me “What level are you?” assuming that I participated in the CMS program. Other sommeliers, like Matthew Kaner of Bar Covell in Los Angeles gets asked, “weekly, if not more,” where his “pin” is, referring to the little red and gold insignia awarded by the Court of Master Sommeliers.

In 2014, post-SOMM—the independent film that follows several Master Sommelier candidates on a soul-crushing journey to the pin—this misunderstood notion of “sommelier” seems to be proliferating. The movie, although highly entertaining as a voyeuristic look into a small corner of the profession, wasn’t about sommeliers per se, but about, specifically, the Court’s Master Sommelier exam.

It’s more important than ever now for people to know about the divide between the two camps,” says Patrick Cappiello the wine director at NYC’s Pearl & Ash, referring to those who seek to formalize their training (à la Court) and those who simply work their way up through the ranks. Working on the floor of a restaurant—opening and tasting countless bottles per day and logging cellar time under a wine director who can answer questions and help to formulate best practices: that’s a valuable education in its own right. But the divide is predicated on this means of education being seen as somehow inadequate.

An inventory of our great contemporary sommeliers that have foregone a formal certificate—Daniel Johnnes, who oversees the wine programs for the Daniel Boulud group, Rajat Parr (Michael Mina group, Sandhi Wines and co-author of Secrets of the Sommeliers), and Aldo Sohm of Le Bernardin, to name just a few—will tell you that it isn’t paramount to a successful career. Cappiello himself, who never subscribed to a certification program, has created what is arguably the most exciting wine list in New York right now.

Beyond both the confusing nomenclature and the movie SOMM, another reason for the great misconception may be because we live in an era in which wine knowledge is seen as social badge of honor. For a diner confronted with a large wine list, the pin represents bona fide evidence that his somm knows more than he does, making him comfortable asking advice. Hardly any other occupation demands that sort of evidence. You wouldn’t ask your tax guy for proof of his degree in applied mathematics; if you get a big refund, you’re happy with the services rendered and that’s the end of the story. If we can get past the view that the sommelier is a certified “wine expert” and, instead, work toward the reality that the sommelier is the person who compiles the wine list, knows the wines, and can attest to how they’re drinking and how they interact with the cuisine, then the somm-guest interaction would be exceedingly more pleasant. Chances are, this person has just as much expertise, if not more, than the one holding a certificate.

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Carson Demmond was born in Atlanta, Georgia, into a food-centric family. She graduated summa cum laude from Skidmore College with a degree in French literature, having spent half of her college career abroad at Sorbonne-Paris IV and Paris X Nanterre. She served as a sommelier on Belinda Chang's team at The Modern in New York City for three years before taking on the role of Associate Editor and Tastings Director at Wine & Spirits Magazine. She currently peddles Bordeaux, but can oft be found sipping chenin or champagne. She lives in New York City.

FROM AROUND THE WEB
  • Really interesting points you make about the validity of whether or not someone needs to have a certification to be a sommelier. Of course it’s true, absolutely they do not. Perhaps the problem doesn’t have to do with how much knowledge a sommelier has on a topic of wine, but how much she or he is able to provide the best possible experience for a guest. A certification is merely a means for an employer to determine if that person is motivated enough to take an active effort to self-improvement. It is a benchmark that someone knows the basics. Of course anyone can know this information without a stamp of approval, but how do they convince an employer?

    When I started down the path of Advanced level CMS, I did it as a means to achieve a better job position.

  • Jordan Cowe

    I will absolutely agree that the world at large misunderstands the term sommelier. Sommelier is just a job title and is absolutely a skill set that is learned through experience. A sommelier without certification to me is like an artist that never went to fine art school. Probably still extremely good if they’re passionate about it.

    I think however the role of certification is misunderstood. The Court themselves say that while for intro and certified you don’t need to have worked in the industry they suggest a minimum of 3 years. And that is an important point, a lot of people fail the certified level because they’re ill prepared, it’s not easy.

    The way I interpret the courts position and how I feel is that you need to learn the role on your own. The certification programs are there to challenge, test and guide you into becoming a better, more well rounded sommelier.

    Any job has good and bad performers, certification will force them to improve their ability but its the good sommeliers that have the most to gain. A bad uninspired sommelier may likely fail, or will by necessity become a slightly less awful sommelier. A good or great sommelier will however be forced to push themselves above and beyond where they were previously.

    Ultimately I think certification + a talented sommelier are the best combination. It shows they had the passion to push themselves and prove themselves among their peers.

    I think for a public that is so used to bad service, terrible wine advice and wine lists sold to the highest bidder, it’s good to have a symbol of “this person has a good level of knowledge and you should be able to trust them.”

    I would also expect my account to have some form of credential, I’ll drink bad wine but I don’t like to lose money.

  • Christopher Chan

    As in any profession a sommelier’s “experience” typically offers an employer or guest the greatest amount of confidence that the SOMM will satisfy and likely go beyond the basic expectations of a sommelier or wine director’s role. Some professionals may be able to regurgitate massive amounts of information about wine regions, producers or wine history, yet those same people may be not posses the “human skills” to resolve a work challenge or incident. The CMS exams are for those seeking to achieve a level of recognition for their position. It is as much a matter of pride as it is professional diligence in striving to be better as an industry professional and the CMS offers that very opportunity.

    • Excellent point. Human skills; truly caring about the people you are serving is what brings about the best experience. Humble.

  • The Hoff

    “You wouldn’t ask your tax guy for proof of his degree in applied mathematics.” Yes you would ask your CPA(!!!) if their accredidation wasnt emblazoned on their office wall.

  • iEat&DrinkWell

    I feel like I’m being yelled at when there’s so many bold face sentences in one short article. It’s like writing in caps lock.

  • iEat&DrinkWell

    You invoke Daniel Johnnes the way uneducated musicians invoke Jimi Hendrix. Problem is that those musicians aren’t Jimi and Daniel Johnnes has been pouring Grand Cru since most contemporary somms were drinking apple juice from sippy cups.

  • keith

    You can be the best somm in the world without any certification and there are a lot of bad somms with and without certification at the lower levels. However, at the higher levels of certification (speaking specifically about the CMS Advanced and Master certificates), you are pretty much guaranteed to be dealing with a top wine professional… pretty sure there are not too many advanced or especially master somms who are not enthusiastic and deeply immersed in the industry.

    Also, because it is not necessary to be certified at all, it makes a lot more sense to ask your sommelier about his qualifications than it does to ask your tax guy when you go to H&R Block or your pilot when you step onto a plane for his qualifications (pretty sure I have never been on a plane where the pilot learned his trade through hanging around the airport and playing flight simulators on a PC). I understand some of the authors complaints, but this is not a well thought out article… girl probably failed her exam or something.

    Also, she mentions that becoming a good somm requires lots of education outside of the classroom. Maybe she has not spoken with any advanced or master somms, because about 99% of their education comes from outside of the classroom.

    • Diego Meraviglia

      There are a lot of bad doctors who have an MD…so what’s your point ?

      • keith

        What is my point about what diego? if you are referring to the second paragraph, I am not talking about the actual skills of a pilot, tax guy or a doctor (which I probably would not be able to assess anyway at first contact), just their certifications. Maybe you misunderstood the word “qualifications”. replace qualifications with degree or certification if that makes it easier for you to understand… you may not be able to assess a somms abilities either when you first meet them, but knowing that they have certain certifications will at least increase the odds that you are dealing with a professional.

        • Diego Meraviglia

          Maybe we misunderstood each other…because I absolutely agree on your point : “you may not be able to assess a somms abilities either when you first meet them, but knowing that they have certain certifications will at least increase the odds that you are dealing with a professional.”

  • Johhny V

    Carson, what makes Mr. Cappiello’s wine list so exciting?

  • Mitchell Whipple

    YAWN…BORING…trying to dust off this topic for press…come on.

  • Christopher Tanghe

    Carson,

    You have made some valid points here. I wholeheartedly agree that you do not
    need a certification to be a great sommelier. A number of the inspirational
    figures that motivated me to become a Master Sommelier are not in fact
    certified by any organization. Mark DuMez, Rajat Parr, etc. I also agree that
    you need acute social awareness, time on the floor, experience running or
    selling a program, a knack for recycling countless cardboard boxes, breaking
    your way into wooden crates, sweeping skills, computer savvy, bussing tables
    like a ghost, polishing every piece of stemware in the house, mentoring your
    service staff – the necessary qualities of what makes a great sommelier, we can
    also agree, are vast and take an incredible amount of hard work.

    Where I disagree with you is that “the pin” is bad for the
    sommelier field and it’s community. Why do some sommeliers aspire to achieve the various levels of “the pin?” For the same reasons that the non “pin” sommeliers study wine regions, producers, vintages, etc. Guest experience! Every sommelier, pin or not, worth their salt wants to become better at what they do to create an experience that will keep their guests coming back. We are nothing without our guests.

    So what is wrong with someone who wants to push themselves by taking a test to see how far they’ve come and where they can improve? Or an organization that sets a high bar and provides these sommeliers with feedback and mentorship to be better?

    There is no need for this to create a divide within our community into “two camps.” There are different paths to be taken to become a better sommelier, some involve tests and pins while others do not. There are ways to success along both and we should respect and appreciate each other’s efforts and contributions.

    Lastly, should you or James Carpenter need any more photos
    to use for future articles I’m happy to provide consent with a simple inquiry.

    https://www.facebook.com/christopher.tanghe

    • Lauren Castro

      Well said as always Mr. Tanghe

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  • Evan Saviolidis

    Having taught Sommelier for over a decade, it is my belief a formal education is required. That being said, there are many supremely talented Sommeliers who have no education, but have worked their way up the restaurant chain and have proven their abilities, and for that they have my respect and friendship. My main issue is someone who goes for their Sommelier certification just so they have it to put on their resume.

    Until someone has done wine service on a busy Saturday night (flipping tables 3 or 4 times), created a wine program, trained their staff, done a weekly inventory, worked through sickness, created a PO, received uncountable cases of wine, cut a cheque, gone to tasting events to purchase, polished 1000 glasses, have tasted and created food and wine pairings with their chef, help wash dishes with their dish team, stocked an entire cellar, set up tables for serviceclosed a restaurant at 2am, bonded with their co-workers at 2:15 over drink and food at the local joint, should not beat their chest with pride and call themselves Sommeliers. Just saying.

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  • Connor

    Great piece, and fully agree with most… but is anyone else enjoying that this article– which more or less aims to “debunk” the certification myth of
    somms– ends with a paragraph of qualifications by our summa cum laude lit-major who has served as associate editor etc. etc… or is that just me?

  • Elizabeth Schneider

    Carson,

    I think this is a great, well-articulated article and one that I hope makes it out beyond industry people.

    There’s another point I’d add, which is that the idea of certification is so new relative to the world of wine. Even 20 or 25 years ago, expertise was based on experience, not on exams.

    In a subject like wine, a combination of interest/study and tasting is what makes you an expert. If that’s not true, then the first Master Sommelier or Master of Wine would be the first wine knowledgeable person in history we should trust, right? Such crap.

    And to go a step further on what you mentioned regarding business: the certification bodies are businesses and they have done an amazing job of marketing their programs to young sommeliers/wine interested people who drink the Kool Aid and then believe that taking exams (which are increasingly more costly and more difficult to pass, hence requiring retakes –cha-ching!) is the only way to get ahead. I worry that as employers use certification as a criterion that we may lose great people who don’t want to buy into the pyramid scheme of certifications.

    Wine is a second act for me, so maybe I come from another perspective but I took certification exams only to give me structure for learning. Once I got the basics, I took it from there (I have an MBA so I already have a Masters degree!). I’m a wine writer/podcaster so I don’t need a pin to do what I do but even if I was in service I don’t know I’d buy into this world. For me, even though I have a CS pin, I don’t need it to make me feel like I know what I’m talking about wine or explain it to others.

    I hope restaurants take a broader look at experience before writing someone off because they don’t have a pin. If they start to take a narrow view it would be a huge disservice to the history of wine, which has always been made up of experts that needed no certifications to make them awesome at their jobs.

    Thanks for a great piece,
    Elizabeth Schneider (Wine for Normal People)

    • Laura Maniec

      Carson,

      I appreciate your opinion on this topic and while I agree that having a certification does not guarantee that you are a great sommelier, I would argue that NOT having a title does not guarantee it either. The point being everyone has a choice whether to pursue the accreditation or not. I chose to pursue it because I wanted to push myself to study and to have goals with deadlines and specific exams that would test my skills and more importantly because I wanted to get better every day. It is similar to the way a person would choose to run a marathon because they wanted to be fit and would have the benefit of camaraderie amongst the other runners they trained with. We are not saying that people that take exams are better than those that choose not to, any more than a marathoner would say that the only real athletes are people that commit to the 26.3 miles; the choice is up to the individual.
      The Court of Master Sommeliers is an organization that aspires to increase the quality of wine service and education in restaurants and to elevate the sommelier as a profession, I think the CMS has done a great job of this in the US and I hope that the title inspires the individual to want to be in our industry and the public to want to know more about the profession whether they chose to be involved with the organization.

      Being a business owner as well as a MS, I don’t strictly hire Master Sommelier candidates. However i do have a significant amount of people that work with me that are involved at various levels and seeing the excitement in their eyes when they pass the various exams is as inspiring as seeing them study. I think my business and the guest experience benefits from the education and certification that the CMS provides. The “certified sommelier isn’t a title but just means the candidate passed the requirements of the certified exam. I am sure you can find “certified sommeliers” you would never hire as well as sommeliers who don’t care about the program that you wouldn’t hire.

      My qualifications don’t define me as a professional but I am VERY proud of them because I learned a lot along the way.

      Respectfully,
      Laura

  • Johhny V

    “She graduated summa cum laude from Skidmore College with a degree in
    French literature…”

    That is an awful lot of unnecessary formal education for a WRITER. You know you can just pick up books about writing, read books in general, and write. No need to pay for all that education.

    • Nope

      Is Skidmore a real college?

  • Shaolin Sommelier

    The author is missing a key argument.

    You don’t need a certification to practice wine service. Instead, practitioners are all too often relegated to learning through on-the-job training. To illustrate, we’ve always had doctors, but it wasn’t until medicine became a discipline that we came to expect much more. Only when the trade became codified – taught, practiced and improved upon – did we significantly raise the level of performance. Of course, few could now conceive of sending a surgeon into an operating room without proven levels of performance.

    Somms don’t perform hard science. But without theory it’s difficult to make sense of certain situations. Theory helps you see patterns and ask the right questions. Practical experience may help you help cope with a well-defined situation, but few of the important situations arrive precisely labelled. Mastery of wine — a true Sommelier — comes from understanding both theory and practice.

    • Diego Meraviglia

      I COULDN’T AGREE MORE !

  • Shayn Bjornholm

    Carson,

    What is the point of this article? Why did you write it? In attempting to debunk this said myth (whose myth is it, by the way?), however solid or fantastical, what do you hope for?

    At least part of your article seems a condemnation against, or at the very least a strong questioning of, sommelier certification as the only proof of sommelier ability. Fantastic topic! I wish some of the observations you make had been taken up with said certifying bodies (admission: I currently work for the one you most cite, as Examination Director for the Court of Master Sommeliers) before broad, divisive, acidic and unsubstantiated claims were re-re-re-re-re-re-tread into blog print. Some of this is outright defamatory to both “sides” you are attempting to establish (having had the astounding pleasure of being served by Patrick, I can’t imagine his quote was meant in the vein presented) and does little to progress a fair discussion on the need, value or accuracy in sommelier certifications and their communication to guests. If you had asked, you may have discovered a greater good than your article observes: the (shared?) passion in educating and examining bodies to help build a better sommelier profession via considered training, basic certifiable standards and heartfelt mentoring. Not to mention the rising tide of beverage service standards at least somewhat positively influenced by these organizations.

    Your site looks to be a fun, beautifully designed, passionate investigation of beverages’ place in the world of gastronomy. Good on you! I don’t need my bloggers to be neutral – state your opinions as strongly as you can. But, you will lose this big-enough-beverage-lover-that-I-became-an-overworked-and-underpaid-but-ridiculously-happy-beverage-service-professional as a reader if you continue writing pieces like this. Should you think my reaction is because you hurt my feelings and made me want to defend the certifications I support in vocation, heart and mind as one possible route to being a better sommelier, you would be misguided. No, I just like my blogs’ perspective to be better researched, more considered and provocative without being destructive.

    So, I ask again, what was the point?

    Sincerely,

    Shayn Bjornholm, MS

  • Kevin Weeks

    Linkbait. Objective achieved.

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  • Jeff Hagley

    Great article! As one who worked and ran beverage programs, I have seen a lot of transition and awareness of certification by many issuing authorities. In the past five years, people’s “level” were highly discussed but I was often meeting people who felt that getting to a higher level instantly meant that they were better able to perform the job. Is a server with level 2 certification a better server than one with level 1 certification? Most Sommeliers began as servers as well. So are Sommeliers with higher rankings doing their jobs better than those with lower rankings?

    Self study and growth is important and the Court provides the avenue for someone to do that. But, with that being said, many of what the Court covers in it’s studies are raw facts about wine, service and blind tasting. It does not cover a lot of tools and techniques one uses to function in wine management. It also does not prepare one major area of managing a wine program, how to educate your staff and grow them as people as well.

    I agree with Carson, and I am a little surprised and embarrassed by the negative comments posted by some of you.

  • Lou Vargo

    Two points:

    First: Of course no certification is a certainty of one being qualified to do a job well…tell me that there is not a single board certified doctor, psychologist, CPA that sucks and I will throw the bull*&^% flag. But the chances are greater that they know what they are talking about if they ARE certified. There are exceptions to everything. Its part of the nature of the human condition. I would be willing to bet that not all French Lit majors are “experts” in French Literature. I would, however, rather have a French Lit major teach my kid French than a German Lit major, because chances are the French Lit major know a bit more about French Lit.

    Second: Moral Necessity? Yes, of course, unlike doctors and pilots, no one will die if a $300 bottle of Rubicon is “sold” to someone that wanted a $100 Bordeaux. And no one will be damaged for life for being “sold” a “Featured Wine” for 40 bucks because the somm knows they’ve got 3 cases to get rid of in the cellar. We do not hold life and death in our hands. But I have seen somms “sell” wine to guests on the dining room floor that the guest really didn’t want. Is that not immoral?

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  • Diego Meraviglia

    Maybe you should go and read the history of the SOMMELIER, how it was born and how they trained for it…before writing such nonsense.

    Although a very “liberal” point of view, it does not alter the irrefutable fact that for a whole series of job positions in the world, you are required and should have a specific training/qualification for it. See pilot, doctor, lawyer, notary public, beautician…and I could go on for 3 pages…

    So why are Somms any different ? I’ll tell you why…because many FAIL the exams due to how demanding and difficult the requirements are and then go out on a whim like this article to justify why they “really don’t need the title anyway”.

    Until we keep viewing things under this perspective, the restaurant scene in the USA will never be up to par overall with the quality of service we find in Europe and many other places in the world….like servers in LA who are all actors (hey, you don;t need a qualification to be a server…)…and indeed service in Los Angeles on average sucks big time.

    Well done.

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  • Carson Demmond

    Hi all. Back in town and ready to handle some of your questions about the piece. I want to be totally transparent in where I was coming from, since it seems that some folks read some pretty crazy accusations into it that weren’t actually there.

    Christopher, my intention was not to “create” a divide – but simply to acknowledge that the two camps exist – and to raise awareness at the
    guest level that not all sommeliers follow the same path. The point was to
    start the discussion, and I seem to have been successful in that respect. (Also, I had no idea they were going to use your photograph for the illustration, but I do think it turned out pretty rad.)

    Most of those who have commented here have agreed with my central
    argument, which is that certification is not a requirement to 1) be a sommelier and 2) to be a great sommelier. But nowhere did I position myself as ‘anti-education’; I’m quite the opposite actually – in wine and in life. I simply wanted to shed light on the great education that happens in restaurants themselves and through experience and on the fact that we benefit from the diversity that the many different somm trajectories offer us, which would be squelched by expecting all sommeliers to follow a same, centralized school of thought. Of course the Court was one organization that I cited, but it’s not the only one out there. I think Andrew Bell has done some great work through the ASA that deserves more recognition; that program is at a disadvantage due to limited geographical availability and to the fact that it doesn’t have ownership rights over the words “certified” and “master” when it comes to sommelierie. Still, such programs are not the only route to wine education. Someone also rightly stated here that the Court’s program is 90% self-study (effectively more of a testing program than an education program), which actually reinforces my point – most of us are hitting the books anyway; not everybody needs or wants the signed document attesting to it.

    Being a talented sommelier is not contingent on having certification. The biggest disservice to the dining public would be for restaurant employers to use the pin as the sole gauge of hirability, excluding a whole group of wine professionals who are, in fact, qualified but simply don’t want to buy in to the system. Most of you have agreed with this, at least.
    And Laura, of course I was not arguing that NOT having a title guarantees one is a great sommelier or that those with a title feel a sense of being “better” than those who choose not to. But I think it is important for the public to be aware that this is an individual choice and not a requirement and to leave room for the possibility that someone who opts out of certification can be as knowledgeable if not more than someone who has it – as there are plenty such sommeliers out there. I have 100% respect for MSs – most particularly you and Dustin Wilson, who have used the title to continue to work on the floor and to mentor a new generation of sommeliers. But the MS is not the ONLY measure of mastery, and while this may be obvious to us, there are many people who think it is (as observed in the comment thread I referenced).

    And if there’s any one thing I hoped people would take away from the piece it’s that ‘sommelier’ is a job.

  • Carson Demmond

    Oh! And another cool thing about wine programs in this country that I’ve noticed since I started working for a company that works with French sommeliers in France and U.S. sommeliers in New York is that as a whole, we (American somms) are MUCH more demanding when it comes to information from wineries and suppliers. That is, we ask more questions and want to know the minutae of vineyard practices and vintage variation and technical details. We are incredibly driven to learning more… whether certified or no.

  • Somm

    Let me remind all of you that the one person who changed wine drinking culture in the US and beyond is Robert Parker, who has NO credentials other than that he is a lawyer.

    Another well regarded wine critic, Stephen Tanzer, does not have formal wine credentials either. And there are many others.

    Years ago, it was VERY important for WOMEN to have a certification. Otherwise, they had a harder time than a man to achieve credibility as a sommelier. Nowadays, things have changed for the good and you will see somms who are women, young and of color, young men and middle aged women (good riddance to the elderly MALE”wine waiter” wearing a tastevin and sneering at a diner’s inadequate knowledge of wine).

    As a former sommeliere at the what used to be New York’s French Cullinary Institute, I know wherefore I speak.

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  • CynthiaM

    WOW! How much you do not know about being a Sommelier. Here in the US it may just be a title, in Europe it is a career. For some unknown reason here in America, we have the tendency to put down anything that you not only have to have passion for, but things that are not the mainstream. To be put above others for your accolades in a certain business to me is amazing. Because there are those who wouldn’t know the difference between a VW Bug to a Lamborghini well folks this just speaks to how small, jealous, and Provencal we are.

  • joseph salerno

    I have done wine service on a busy Saturday night (flipping tables 3 or 4 times), created a wine program, created ongoing training with my staff, do a weekly inventory, work through sickness, created POs, received uncountable cases of wine, cut a cheque, gone to tasting events to purchase, polished a thousand glasses, tasted and created food and wine pairings with my chef, helped wash dishes with my dishwashers, stocked an entire cellar, set up tables for service, closed a restaurant at 2am and bonded with my co-workers at 2:15 over drink and food…

    and I am not certified by the court.

    Can I pretty please get some respect now? Will you please stop asking if I’m certified? I was given my job by a master sommelier who put her faith in me as a responsible wine steward and I work everyday to better myself, my profession, and to educate my guests, all so that I can come to work to hear that dreadful question “are you certified?” And if you think it’s because I’ve failed an exam, you’re absolutely wrong. I haven’t taken it.

    Thank you Carson for writing this article. You read my mind and I see your points. I see all the points made in the comments, but she is correct in that we are still a working class people and want to continue to do our jobs without being questioned by every customer with an empty glass in front of them.

    The only sommelier I would ask if he was certified was one who approached me at McDonald’s.

    Good god

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  • Rob Russell

    As a professional in another field…real estate appraisal…..I find similarities to the Court of Master Sommeliers backlash you distribute in this rambling non conclusive article. In my field, we get the same bunk from state regulated appraisers comparing their abilities with designated professionals, MAIs like myself. It is all sour grapes….pun intended. I recently took the Introductory Court of Master Sommeliers test. It was as challenging as anything that three college degrees and numerous Appraisal Institute courses ever served up….same deal on the pun…..If education is so bad, why do you have one? While a sommelier admittedly can be an expert on the wine list in his restaurant or store. A Court of Master Sommeliers educated sommelier is an expert in all facets of wine…..Big difference…..We know the difference between the left and right bank of Bordeaux…and by God we know what schist is too!

  • Stefano Buttò

    I think this is the point of this article.
    In Italy, if you want to become a “Lawyer” you first have to become a “Doctor of Law” (normally five years of Law School), then you have to do at least two years of apprenticeship/experience in a Law-firm, under the Supervision of a senior Lawyer, go to a minimum number of appearings in Court and then you can take the Bar.

    Different story if you want to become a Judge: “Doctor of Law” again to begin with, and then a different path that includes a lot of practice related to Judge’s duties.

    Applied to wine: if you know everything about the wines and regions of the planet you are a great “Doctor of Wine” (a certification will help your credentials), you can consult, teach classes, write about it, but you are not a Sommelier.
    If you also learn and master the tasting skills you will be a “Master of Tasting”, a “Wine Professional” and can be a wine critic, a buyer or a judge at competitions; still not a Somm.
    If on top of all this you learn the Service/Pairing and practice it as part of your job description until you “really” master it (months?!), then you are a Sommelier (another certification will help your credentials); Do you also know how to design and run a wine program? Control inventory? Run/read Sales reports? Well, in this case your job can be the “Wine Director”.

  • Josh Dodd Avera

    Go pass your Certified Exam and get back to me. The Court is weeding people out and Certified is basically what the advanced used to be, except the wines are fairly basic. If you graduate from ICC also, as I did, Master Sommeliers have already offered us jobs in the Bay Area, so all your points reek of envy. Put yourself out there and get out from behind the keyboard.

    Like M.S. Reggie Narito said, most people talk a big game, but don’t have the courage to even take this exam. If you can easily pass the Service potion of Sparking Service for 4 guests, while having 20-30 extremely obscure questions about food, wine, liqueurs, scotch regions, champagne regions, small champagne producers all while continuing in the only the style of the British Royal Navy in 12 minutes, you’re more than prepared to handle most restaurant environments.

    We have tons of wine “servers” come in and completely botch, either the service/theory portion of the exam. Your rant is bitter and uninformed. These Master, Advanced, and even Certified Sommeliers don’t stroll the floor at Michelin Star restaurants because they’re not very good at what they do and I would guarantee any of them would bury you in wine knowledge or service.

    Maybe you need to go to London and take the Masters of Wine, since you like to “write” so much and don’t need to perform any service whatsoever. Also, ICC covers all the Wine Program Management stuff, preparing wine menus, pairing food/wines, stocking inventory, etc. Business school was a breeze compared to their program. Educate yourself instead of posting foolish stuff, which you know absolutely zero about.

    How many Master Sommeliers do you actually, personally know? We were taught by the Master Sommelier at The French Laundry, Dennis Kelly. Also so many other Masters who run Michelin Star Restaurants Eric Entrain from Alexanders, Alan Murray from Jardinere in SF, Sur Lucero from The French Laundry, Matt Stamp who runs the entire Guild of Sommeliers Website.

    If you don’t think The French Laundry has the absolute best cuisine, service, wine/liquor menu there is in North America, you can’t be helped.

  • Rick Boufford

    I post today, 2 years after this article is written because I’m kind of tired of answering the question “where did you get your certification from?” It’s not I mind answering the question, it’s the dejected look they get when, although my reputation is well known and respected in the industry, they can’t seem to understand why I don’t have a pin… I tell them I personally learned from industry pros and mentors in numerous capacities. Restaurant sommeliers, wine salesman, winery owners, winemakers and also by crawling on my hands and knees, punching down caps etc, and dinning through numerous wine regions throughout most all of Europe, the Americas, and other new world regions. For me, a great sommelier is the one who knows how to taste and talk wine to any and all no matter what the knowledge of the other person might be. And although a sommelier’s job is to sell wine, it shouldn’t ever seem that way, it should be a shared experience to be enjoyed!