Op-Ed: In Defense of Sommelier Certification

In response to an article posted on PUNCH late last month, Dustin Wilson—Master Sommelier and Wine Director at New York's Eleven Madison Park—makes his case for the merit and influence of sommelier certification.

wine tasting sommelier

I distinctly remember the night, about eight years ago, at Frasca in Boulder, Colorado—where I was working as a food runner at the time—when owner and wine director Bobby Stuckey walked into the kitchen and blew my mind with a bottle of Clos St. Hune Riesling from Trimbach. The way he was able to quickly sum up the history and significance of the wine to those of us gathered around to taste it was something I’ll never forget.

A couple of years later, while visiting Schloss Gobelsburg winery in the Kamptal region of Austria, our host, Michael Moosbrugger, walked us through the lineup of wines from the estate. I was sitting next to Rajat Parr, then the wine director for the Mina Group. As we tasted through each, Raj was able, just by smelling and tasting the wine, to describe the vinification process—from picking to aging—without asking a single question. After knowing Raj for some years now, I can vouch for his clairvoyance in regards to tasting and analyzing wine: he has unique abilities.

In my formative years as a sommelier, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by those who never fully pursued the path to sommelier certification, like Raj, and other who chose the academic route, like Bobby. It’s given me a broader perspective on what it means to be a sommelier, as well as a well-rounded understanding of what’s important to the profession—regardless of what path you take.

In my opinion, in order to have a mature profession you need both the structure and standards that certification offers and the sort of openness that allows people to choose a different path.

Regardless of the route you choose to get there, what I know for sure is that you need context to be a good sommelier. And by context I mean that you have to have a knowledge base that’s large enough for you to understand any given wine’s place within the larger world of wine. But I also mean context in the sense that you understand that wine is about enjoyment and, as a sommelier, your job is to create a great experience for the guest.

I wouldn’t argue that certification offers a replacement for this sort of experience. But I will say that by forcing oneself to study—hard—for a long period of time, certification offers young sommeliers the opportunity to gain the context they need to understand wine much faster than they would if they simply relied on the dining room floor as their classroom.

Before the late-1990s, most sommeliers had to work as captains or maître d’s and learn about wine for years before they could land a sommelier position. But the dot-com era changed everything. The economy boomed and restaurants suddenly found themselves with a growing number of clients willing to spend money on fine wines. Demand for sommeliers grew and, as more and more restaurants sought to fill a position that very few were pursuing, unqualified people inevitably landed jobs making wine decisions for guests in high-end restaurants.

In this environment, the establishment of sommelier certification programs like the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) set standards for the profession during a time when there were very few. In this regard, the role of these programs in the growth and establishment of the profession can’t be ignored.

But let me be clear before going any further: You do not need certification to take a sommelier position in a restaurant. And further, to echo the argument Carson Demmond laid out in a recent article on this website called, “The Myth of Sommelier Certification, Debunked,” some of the most renowned sommeliers out there today never pursued certification. The sommeliers she cites—Rajat Parr among them—have the incredible context necessary to be great because they’ve been working as sommeliers in this industry for years, many of them for decades. Through all of their work and experience, they have gained the context necessary to take great care of their guests at the highest level.

I wouldn’t argue that certification offers a replacement for this sort of experience. But I will say that by forcing oneself to study—hard—for a long period of time, certification offers young sommeliers the opportunity to gain the context they need to understand wine much faster than they would if they simply relied on the dining room floor as their classroom.

The merit of certification within a developing community of sommeliers became clear on a recent trip to Stockholm, where the nascent wine scene is growing rapidly. New sommeliers are entering the profession on what seems like a daily basis, and several prominent sommeliers lamented the fact that there is no certification system in place to help set standards early on.

“It would help to have sommelier certification to promote to the profession here,” says Jonas Sandberg, Wine Director of Sturehof and one of the founders of the Swedish Sommelier Guild. “People have been able to build the ‘brand’ of a sommelier through individual accomplishments, but organization would make building that brand easier.”

Again, in order to have a mature profession you need both the structure certification offers and the option to choose an alternate route. And it’s not a matter of one being superior to the other.

I have worked with sommeliers that have made their way into the profession without certification who are smooth as silk on the floor of a restaurant, but end up BS-ing their way through a wine list because they lack wine knowledge beyond what they’re interested in. They instead rely on charm and salesmanship to get by.

Likewise, I’ve spent plenty of time with sommeliers who pursue certification to no end—they dig into the books, study all the regions, memorize the tiniest of details about grapes, producers and soil types, take tests and enter into sommelier competitions—but can’t work a station in a restaurant to save their lives.

These are the two extremes. And these extremes exist in almost every profession.

The majority lies in the grey area in between. Today most “working sommeliers” are both working their way up on the floor of a restaurant and taking exams—whether it be an intermediate course or an advanced diploma—at some point in their careers. To say that there are only two distinct paths (either getting certified or working your way through the ranks) is a simplifying a much more complex community.

I’ve been working as a sommelier for eight years—likely a short amount of time to some and a long amount of time to others. In addition to my time in restaurants, I also spent five years of my life pouring my heart and soul into preparing and taking exams through the CMS. I passed the Master Sommelier exam in 2011. It’s something that I am proud of accomplishing, but I also realize that it is not the end-all. In fact, I don’t wear my pin on the floor at Eleven Madison Park. Not because I’m not proud, but because I, too, would rather be judged on how well I do my job every night than the path I took to get there.

Image reprinted with permission from Secrets of the Sommeliers by Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay, copyright (c) 2010. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. Photograph (c) 2010 Ed Anderson

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Dustin Wilson is the wine director at Eleven Madison Park in New York City.

  • Adrian Reynolds

    I liked the myth debunking article, but I like this one even more…good work.

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  • Jeff Porter

    Dustin – great op-ed! Great explanation of the pursuit, the passion and the hard work it takes to do this. Kudos to you!

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  • Morten Båtbukt

    Well put, but I’d prefer if sommeliers would wear their pin – not for themselves but to promote our profession to those who know nothing of it.

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  • Rick Boufford

    Good articles both this and the debunking the myth of the sommelier this article is written for. To me, as a chef, sommelier, ex-rerstaurant owner and employer, the two most important aspics are learning how to taste and talk wine, and the personal touch. The rest pretty comes naturally in time. So start by learning how to taste and talk wine and then find, work and continue learning to taste and talk wine with a mentor sommelier you respect! Someone who’s already demonstrated their worth in the industry. Whether certified or not, a recommendation from an experience sommelier is worth more than any certification, and in some cases, coupled with some sort of certification makes it all the better!

  • Paul

    Great Article Dustin,
    Let’s face it: you worked hard, but it must be nice to have Bobby Stuckey coaching you–not always the case for some. There are people who invest tons of time and money and are never truly privileged enough to be mentored by a great MS like you. And, it seems that if you don’t bury your head up an MS’s butt, you can learn all of the flash cards in the world and still not be clued in to what it takes to pass the exam. Rather than get sucked into shelling out thousands of dollars only to be given 3-5 minutes of counseling after they told you you failed, take that money (roughly $7k a year) and go spend it on a trip to a great wine region–the program is a scam with very little focus upon helping candidates actually see where they went wrong… “can you tell me what the wines were?” Or, can you show me my graded paper for service, tasting and theory? Why not? No you can’t. Take the $7k and spend that on books, trips and lots of fun bottles of wine–not the court. Fraternity is an understatement. You guys are a click which boxes out people who don’t kiss enough ass to seek mentorship. Such a lame program. Best part is that I recently saw a bunch of MS pepes drinking corked wine…only to have a non-certified wine bad ass come along and say, “The wine is corked guys.”

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