This is your One-Stop Guide to Wine Courses.
Here, I address the pros and cons of the most popular wine courses out there: the Wine and Spirit Education Trust or WSET, the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW), Wine Scholar Guild or (WSG), the International Sommelier Guild (ISG), the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers (CAPS) and the Society of Wine Educators.
Below details the course outlines, how the exams are structured as well as what supplemental course materials each school provides. I’ll also share the types of people that excel in each program and what kind of jobs you can get after you finish.
And if you’re here because you’re about to take your first ever wine course, you may want to read my post on the 5 Most Important Things You Should Know Before Taking A Wine Course beforehand.
I leave no stone unturned in my analysis. I hope that this post will help you budget, focus your studies and spend your money wisely. I wish this information was out there when I started taking wine courses!
What’s the difference between the sommelier schools and other wine schools?
There is a difference between sommelier schools and other wine schools!
Sommelier schools have a strong service component to the exam where they must open bottles of wine while making wine and food pairing suggestions and cocktail recommendations – all perhaps while dealing with a cranky customer! Many answers are provided orally for sommelier blind tastings and exams. Part of your exam will be in a simulated restaurant.
Other wine schools, like WSET and WSG don’t have the practical service component where they open wine bottles, for example. Instead, they are more traditional in their approach to examinations (answers are always written).
WSET and WSG are schools that teach wine education but are not sommelier schools.
Court of Master Sommeliers, the International Sommelier Guild and any school with the word ‘sommelier’ in it are sommelier schools. Their training is specific to working in restaurants.
Of course, we’ve included both types of schools in this One-Stop Guide to Wine Courses
Your One-Stop Guide to Wine Courses
Go ahead and click on a link below which will take you directly to the individual school you are thinking of attending. Otherwise, browse all of them starting with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust.
Your One-Stop Guide to Wine Courses – content:
- the Wine and Spirit Education Trust – WSET
- the International Masters of Wine – IMW
- the Wine Scholar Guild – WSG
- the Society of Wine Educators – SWE
Your One-Stop Guide to Sommelier Wine Courses – content:
Most established wine school and the most widely recognized!
WSET in a nutshell:
WSET is the most widely recognized wine certification offered in over 70 countries and in many languages. It offers in-person classes, specialized textbooks for each level and assessment guides. Because of this students have a clear idea of what is expected of them in exams and research papers.
WSET is considered the prerequisite certification to prepare for entry into the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW). For these reasons, WSET makes it to the top of my list in this One-Stop Guide for Wine Courses.
Is WSET for you?
- considered the wine course meant for people in all aspects of the wine trade
- WSET is inclusive so it’s also meant for people who just want to know more about wine too. Both Level 1 and 2 are for beginners and hobbyists. You can start your wine studies at either Level 1 or 2.
- One of the best courses out there if you require guidelines and how-tos to be successful in your studies. The Candidate Assessment Guides aid students on what is expected of them for passing the higher level exams and writing the research papers. Levels 1-3 have textbooks. Level 4 has books for guidance explaining what you need to research. Either way, you can be sure if it’s not in the books, it won’t be on your exam.
- WSET is meant for traditional learners who like classroom settings and have excellent writing skills (especially for the Level 4 exams). In fact, if you can’t write an essay and argue effectively, don’t take WSET.
- if you like detail on the growing of grapes (viticulture) and the making of wine (vinification), stick around for Levels 3 and 4
- if you enjoy marketing and the business of wine
WSET is not for you if…
- you don’t like data about wine markets (Levels 3+4)
- you can’t write well (Levels 3+4)
- if business and economics isn’t your bag (Level 4)
- but Levels 1 and 2 are fine for all types!
- you want to practice how to open bottles of wine and fine-tune your service skills (then you need a sommelier course)
What jobs can I get after taking WSET courses?
- Level 1 and 2 are great for hobbyists. The Level 3 Advanced is a great accolade to have if you are a restaurant, hospitality manager or a retail store clerk. After completing the Level 4 Diploma you are ready to be a buyer for a supermarket chain, a marketing / account manager for a wine related business or run a wine program in a restaurant
- WSET is fantastic for those working in Food & Beverage departments in major hotel chains; Over 70 countries have certified WSET courses.
- many graduates are wine judges and wine journalists
- after completing you Level 4 DipWSET, you can register for the Educator’s program to become a wine instructor
WSET Course delivery
- mostly in-person training with an instructor
- happily since Covid, you can now take courses online
- therefore, there is also a way for students- whose courses are interupted by closures – to take examinations online (exception is for the blind tasting components which must be done in-person)
- Unfortunately, beer is not covered. But in 2020, WSET announced beer Level 1 and 2 courses are coming- so look for it
- they offer Levels 1 and 2 in both sake and spirits but most courses are in wine:
- Level 1 and Level 2 is for people who have little to no experience with wine. You can skip Level 1 and start with Level 2. Pull up your sleeves and get ready to work in Level 2!
- WSET covers viticulture, vinification, climate and how these things affect the flavour profile of the wine. Also, Levels 3 and 4 detail how producers choose certain viticultural and winemaking techniques for wines destined for different price categories.
- Further, this wine course focuses on the largest export markets for wine. Which means the largest wine producers: France, Italy and Spain are given more detail in the course and weight in the exam compared to other regions. This is pretty much the same for CMS and ISG too.
- What goes into the cost of a bottle is a key theme
- The exam and course is about wine and wine alone. However, there are separate courses and exams for spirits and sake. Finally, there is a limited amount of questions dedicated to service. Service questions are in the multiple choice section and not something you do as a practical for the exam.
- Starting with Level 1 and 2 – exams are multiple choice only with some tricky questions. Level 2 is 5x harder than Level 1.
- Moving up, the Level 3 Advanced is 5x harder than Level 2. You will blind taste 2 wines, answer multiple choice questions and write short essay questions. At this point, you must have a solid command of spelling, grammar and punctuation.
- There are six units in Level 4 Diploma also known as DipWSET. Each unit follows with an exam.
- Unit 1 – master viticulture and vinification followed by 1.5 hour exam of open-ended questions.
- Unit 2 – study the business of wine – followed by 1-hour exam of open-ended questions.
- Unit 3 – Wines of the World – considered the toughest and most stressful part of the Diploma and carries 50% of the grades for the entire course. It consists of 2 exams. In the theory exam, where you write essays for 3 hours and 20 mintutes. On another day, you have the blind tasting of 12 wines which you have 3 hours to do. 3 hours to blind taste 12 wines may seem like a long time. However, the point in WSET (as opposed to the sommelier schools) is not simply just to identify the wine. Instead, you must taste a flight of 3 wines, and answer a specific essay question about them. Skills at forming solid arguments to support your case is paramount.
- Unit 4 – Sparkling wines – blind tasting of 3 wines and open-response questions for 1.5 hours.
- Unit 5 – Fortified wines – blind tasting of 3 wines and open-response questions for 1.5 hours.
- Unit 6 – Independent Research Paper – WSET releases 2 topics/ year. You choose one and write a 3000 word essay on it
WSET Flashcards, practice exams…
- No. WSET is very protective of their past examination papers. You will never get them back. Furthermore, they do not offer practice examinations or flashcards. If you do get this extra help, it’s at the behest of your instructor.
- Fortunately, there are some third party groups who have filled in this void.
- Truthfully, if you do receive practice exams, questions or other, it’s at the behest of your instructor so thank them for putting in that extra work
- However, one respondent told me that they wrote an essay question and had it sent to London for marking as prepraration for the Diploma Level 4. My class didn’t get that.
WSET Blind tastings
- one of the best thing about WSET is the classroom instruction where you blind taste wines in a group
- of course, online classes won’t have that option
- fortunately however, online classes offered in Europe generally have wine samples sent to students
- yet sadly, only some places in some US states have this. This is all due to difficult state liquor laws and has nothing to do with WSET
- disappointingly in Canada, I don’t know anyone who is sending out wine samples for online courses 😔 (if anyone knows someone in Alberta or Ontario who will bottle wine samples, PLEASE let me know!)
- WSET is quite different from the sommelier schools in that the list of wines you may get in your blind tasting exam is much more vast. You are expected to blind taste and recognize the inexpensive plonk alongside the high quality classic wines from regions.
- However, as inexpensive wines do not show their characteristics as obviously as classic, premium wines, you can still pass if you wrongly identify those wines. However, you must recognize that the quality, concentration and length is not there and therefore, inexpensive viticultural and winemaking techniques were used to make it. You must also therefore, predict the accurate price range of the wine.
- For classic, premium wines – you need to be able to identify more accurately the grape variety(ies), region, vintage, etc.
Wine and food pairing in WSET
- Level 1 and 2 has a wine and food pairing component where you learn wine pairing theory. It’s a decent attempt but I’ll admit I’m not into the new way they teach it (I believe they are implementing Tim Hanni MW’s research presented in his book, ‘Why you like the wines you like’.) The course material is good because it recognizes that people have different tasting experiences based on their culture and other factors (which is something most sommeliers don’t acknowledge). But I wish they didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater because the old food and wine pairing adages are still very useful.
- Anyhoo, in level 1 you will have a practical exercise where you taste elements of food with 6 different wines. Students really enjoy this class as it’s extremely practical.
- Later, wine pairings are mentioned and you have to know them. But it’s quickly brushed over.
Did you take an online wine course with WSET? Let us know in the comments if received wine samples. How was the process of writing an online wine exam?
- the most recognized wine school throughout the world. Courses are offered in over 70 different countries
- this is the ONLY school that allows students from other schools to enter in at a higher level – appropriate to their knowledge. All other schools force you to pay for exams starting at Level 1. It doesn’t matter if you’ve completed your Masters of Wine already, you must start at Level 1.
- you know exactly what to expect on WSET exams: there is a ‘Candidate Guide’ provided for you as well as textbooks. If it’s not listed in the guide, or in the textbooks it won’t be on the exam
- as there is a centralized head office with full-time staff, there are established and documented processes for students to make complaints – all schools certified to teach WSET are aware of these. Each school that offers WSET must also have their school’s policies written on their websites so the students can access them
- when you contact WSET head office in London, someone will get back to you within 3 days – it’s company policy
- these last 2 points may not sound like a big deal to most readers, but it really is! When you read the scandals that happened with CMS later on in this post, those situations could not happen with WSET. And if you read further about ISG, you’ll hear how no one in head office will ever return your phone calls or emails. That’s not to say, I don’t think there’s any way that WSET can improve. But I have to tip my hat to them for having their processes written down. Furthermore, all schools are obligated under contract to implement them in their business plans and follow them. (CMS has since included policies in their ‘Resources’ section after the the two major scandals broke out)
- I should note – the WSET website does not list their policies either – it’s up to the individual schools to keep their policies up to date. You can check out mine by clicking here. Basically, I have 18 written sections dealing with the policies of SommWine in regards to WSET students. This was not my idea. WSET sent me a list of things I needed to cover while complying with local laws. I had to submit this to them to be approved to offer their courses.
- … Of course, then I had to check to see if my colleagues had done the same. I checked 2 schools. One has their policies at the bottom of their site and it’s even more detailed than mine. The other school offering WSET courses didn’t include polices – which is against the contract they signed with WSET. I digress.
- wine and food pairing component is there, but I wish there was more focus on this in the higher levels
- One respondent felt that for learners from other countries and cultures, it is difficult to learn how to answer the kinds of questions that WSET asks. I couldn’t agree more! It was difficult for me as well and English is my first language.
- To boot, the material in textbooks and guides is often presented in confusing ways for students. Better use of information utilizing boxes, subheadings, and better word choice could make studying much simpler for learners. The same goes for the odd way they ask their essay questions. I reached out to English WSET educators to see if this is a British style of writing, but I didn’t hear back
- As courses are the same throughout the world, the business of wine part of their curriculum isn’t focused on your market. It gives you a broad overview on things to consider in the costs that go into a bottle such as labelling, costs of air-conditioned trucks, and taxes. But they can’t go into specifics of how wine is taxed where you live. Nor can they dive into challenges with importing and exporting wine to and from your region. Still, if you are wanting to start an import business, WSET will help you figure these things out as they address the overarching themes.
- WSET has recently launched their courses in Mandarin for Chinese students. My sources tell me the translations aren’t great (Gosh, they have different fruits than we do, so it’s not as simple as just translating). However, kudos to WSET for taking this on. We’ll look to future releases of the Mandarin book as I’m sure the translation will improve with experience and input from Mandarin learners and schools.
If you have experience with WSET textbooks in languages other than English, please share with us in the comments below! What do you think of the books and translations?
With a passing rate of only 10%, there are only 409 Masters of Wine’s in the World.
Institute of Masters of Wine in a nutshell:
For who have completed the WSET Diploma Level 4, getting your Masters of Wine title from IMW is the last step. It has a three-part examination, comprising theory and practical components and a research paper. The theory papers touch on a comprehensive range of topics. These include viticulture, vinification, the business of wine and current trends in the wine industry. Since this is one of the most difficult and most revered wine programs in the world, it just had to be in your one-stop guide for wine courses.
Is the Institute of Masters of Wine for you?
- if you have successfully completed the WSET Diploma Level 4, there’s only one challenge left for you to achieve, then register for the MW program.
- do you work in the broader wine industry. The MW is for people in all aspects of the wine trade
- are you are interested in viticulture, vinification, bulk wine production as well as fine wine production and marketing and business aspects of the industry.
- You should be currently employed in the wine industry. You will also need a reference by a current Master of Wine or someone else who is very influential in wine.
- if you love the idea of travelling around the world for wine tastings where you meet other certified nerds.
The Institute of Masters of Wine is NOT for you if…
- you don’t already have your WSET Diploma
- you don’t have money to invest in another wine course you are probably going to fail many times. Passing rate is about 10%. I’ll say it is less cost prohibitive if you live in a European country since France, Italy and Spain – the three largest wine producing nations are on your doorstep. Either way, at this point, tons of travelling to wine growing regions is expected.
- you don’t want to travel around the world for wine tastings with other high-level nerds
- you want to learn how to open and pour bottles of wine with elegance (that’s the sommelier schools)
What jobs can I get after gaining the MW?
- Really, the Diploma is enough to provide you with ample career opportunities.
- But…bragging rights, and understanding wine marketing and how to plant a vineyard will help you start your own consulting business or start a winery of your own
- In fact, most of the MW’s I know have ample consulting work in addition to their day jobs.
- Moreover, you won’t have to look for work, they’ll come to you!
- or become a Wine Education Director for a large hotel, restaurant or retail chain
MW Course delivery
- The shortest time this can take is 3 years. But you only have a maximum of 7 chances to pass the Stage II exam to pass.
- Of course, there’s no course. Indeed, to make it this way you must be very diligent in creating your own high-level tasting groups with like-minded wine souls as well as a sticking to a studying schedule
- 1st step – Get a reference letter from an MW or another influential person in wine. A good source shared that this letter needs to be good. So when a person accepts the job of writing a reference for you, make it clear that you can hire someone to fix grammar or help with phrasing. Then if it sucks, you can get someone to rewrite it on behalf of your reference and have it resigned. Do it! I know people who were denied on the first try because of a poorly written letter.
- to their credit, the IMW has raised the standards for its applicants as previously they would accept many more students only to watch them fail – those masochists!
- Although WSET is the pre-requisite to IMW, how the two schools approach the blind tasting is totally different from one another. Students will need to become versed in this new approach.
- Stage 1 – 5-day in-person seminar followed by 4 non-residential course days. See SommWine’s Tip below. You will have to submit at least 6
pieces of work throughout the year. At the end, you will have one 12-wine blind tasting and write 2 theoretical essays for marking. If you pass this, you move onto Stage II. Moreover, the feedback from Stage I – which is your sort of practice – is what you hang onto and work on for the next year to prepare you for Stage II. Stage II is where you write the first part of the actual examination that counts.
- Stage II – 5-day in-person seminar followed by 4 non-residential course days. You will have to submit at least 6 pieces of work throughout the year. Then you have to sit the 36-wine blind tasting and write papers on those. See more under Exams.
- Stage III – is a paper and makes up the second part of your exam. See more under Exams.
- The IMW website only lists London, San Francisco and Adelaide as places where you can sit your Stage 1 and Stage 2. However, I know there are other places available. So if you are enrolling, make sure you are aware of all of the available locations.
- For example, Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, Washington is now hosting courses (since 2019). The Weinakademie in Rust, Austria also hosts Stage 1.
- Since both Chateau Ste. Michelle and the Weinakademie host Stage 1 in January – six months before the other locations, it’s a great way to get a head start on your studies!
- the first exam that counts towards your final grade is the Stage 2 – identify three 12-wine flights answering theoretical questions in essay form addressing variety, origin, commercial appeal, winemaking, viticulture, quality and style. Yup, that’s right. You have 36 wines to identify for your exam which is why this is included in Your One-Stop Guide to Wine Courses!
- I don’t need to tell you that blind tasting 36 wines (in 3 sets of 12 wines = 36) and writing papers on them is excruciating during the Stage II exam. I’ve participated in MW practice examinations. Here’s my advice: you must identify each wine within 1.5 minutes. Doing this will (hopefully) leave you enough time to address the question and write the essay. You write one essay for each 12-wine flight. Therefore, figure out an extreme shorthand for writing a tasting note. A diagram, for example, which places the structural elements in dots on it is an idea.
- Read the question. Then, quickly taste all 12 wines in the flight. Don’t worry if you can’t immediately identify all of them. Then look at the question again because there’s often hints that will eliminate some of your ‘educated’ guesses of the wines.
- It’s also gruelling on your fingers to write clearly for that long. So practice and I mean it!
- The IMW introduced a computer program (circa 2018) that allows students to type answers – which crashed for half of the students in the exam. After speaking with a colleague who attended this exam, my assumptions proved correct. It was the Mac computers that crashed. Anyone who used a PC was fine. If you have a Mac, make sure this gets fixed before the big day and you are crushed by technology. Or borrow a PC, or handwrite your answers.
- You only have 7 chances to pass Stage II. After that, IMW will not accept admission fees from you.
- After you pass Stage II, the student enters Stage III
- Stage III is a piece of work on a topic the student chooses. The final result is a paper between 6000-10000 words and it must be original work or research of a topic.
IMW Flashcards, practice exams…
- Again, there’s no course. So clearly they don’t supply flashcards. Indeed, to make it, you must be very diligent in creating your own high-level tasting groups with like-minded wine souls.
- However, IMW publishes all previous examinations on their website which is absolutely AMAZING and so useful.
Institute of Masters of Wine Pros
- The IMW is great because you can research previous examinations online on their site. Therefore, you can practice the theory and even purchase the wines to understand what the examiner is looking for. Neither WSET or CMS is this open about previous exam papers and I say wholeheartedly, ‘Bravo!’
Institute of Masters of Wine Cons
- In a nutshell, the money adds up so if you are going to commit to this – you’d better COMMIT so you can pass and get over paying the admission fees, travel fees and wine fees
Most detailed wine courses and best historical context ! This school also offers wine-study trips that are high in demand.
Wine Scholar Guild in a nutshell:
These are specialized online courses providing a magnifying lens view on specific subregions or countries. There are 3 courses to choose from: either France, Italy or Spain. After that, you may register for an even more detailed look at the individual subregions within them. I recommend you take a course from another school before taking a course here.
Is WSG for you?
- These courses are especially useful for those taking high level exams in other courses (WSET, CMS, ISG). It gives you so much detail! It makes France, Italy and Spain a breeze in your other high level exams – WSG just had to be included in your one-stop guide for wine courses!
- Therefore, courses are only about regions in France, Italy and Spain – so if your cool with that, these courses are for you
- Brilliantly, if you want to learn a specific region (like Champagne) and don’t want to know about the entire world of wine, WSG is for you!
- if blind tasting wines for exams terrifies you, this could be for you as most courses are only online
- if you are a history buff and love historical context, WSG is for you
- if you LOVE enjoying the local foods of France, Italy and Spain and knowing how they developed historically in the region.
WST is NOT for you if…
- you are a novice in wine
- you haven’t completed an introductory wine course with another school (WSET Level 2, CMS Level 1 or ISG Level 1) before taking The French Wine Scholar (FWS), Italian Wine Scholar (IWS) or Spanish Wine Scholar (SWS).
- Although, it looks like WSG is moving to change this as they have now added an IWS prep course for people who have little to no previous experience in wine.
- you require the comradery of in-person classes
- you are not interested in the Old World Regions of France, Italy and Spain
What jobs can I get after taking a course in WSG?
- Really, these are not courses you take to get a job. However, if you were running a wine list in an Italian, French or Spanish restaurant, these courses could really set you up for success.
Wine Scholar Guild Course delivery
- courses are mostly online although there are some approved program providers that offer in-person courses – check their website link above for more info
- Broadly, students start with a region; choose either the French Wine Scholar (FWS), or Italian Wine. Scholar (IWS), or Spanish Wine Scholar (SWS) course
- After receiving certification in one of the above, you may then take a Master Level course on an individual region (such as Champagne Master Level)
- Generally, it is recommended that you have at least a WSET Level 1 or 2 or CMS Level 1 before you take an FWS, IWS or SWS course.
- In truth, Master Level courses are more detailed than what you need to know for WSET Level 4 Diploma or for the CMS Advanced. In fact, some of my DipWSET (Level 4) fellow students enrolled in the FWS during our diploma studies so they would have a better grasp of the country for their WSET exam
- Wonderfully, the site offers wine study tours – book early because they sell out fast! These trips are highly recommended from multiple sources.
- there are 2 formats for courses:
- you can take part in a set schedule in an instructor-led course.
- Or for those that are self-motivated, you can choose to learn at your own pace and take the exam at your convenience.
Wine Scholar Guild Exams
- These courses are for people who want serious detail in their courses and love historical context of regions
- exams are mostly online unless you are in an area where there are some in-person classes
- For the FWS, IWS and SWS – the exams are all multiple choice. But don’t make the mistake of thinking these exams are easy! They are quite comprehensive and trickier than you’d think!
- For the Master Level courses, exams include multiple choice, map questions, and 4 essay questions.
Wine Scholar Guild Flashcards, practice exams…
- No, but they do have excellent maps and diagrams as visual aids in the course and on their website (if you pay for the yearly membership)
- If you do pay for their yearly membership, you get access to a library of pre-recorded online webinars as well
WSG Wine and food pairing
- WSG courses don’t explain the theory behind why wines go with food, but they are very detailed about the regional cuisines and specialties of the regions
- again, the historical context of WSG is beautiful and it applies equally to their descriptions of foods that have developed in each place over time
- so although they don’t mention ‘why’ the foods go with the wine, make note of, ‘if it grows together, it goes together’ mantra of wine and food pairing
- detail, detail, detail
- history buffs will love these courses as they discuss the formative moments of each region in a storytelling way. It’s not the timeline-boring way of writing history. Their writing is good.
- If you don’t want to take a course, you can pay for a yearly membership to their website which gives you access to webinars and fantastic maps and diagrams of wine facts. Memberships are yearly. Course fees are on top of memberships
- everything from webinars to wine travel study trips are hosted by the top echelon of wine gurus of the world! I mean it. All of the people whose books I drool over work in some capacity at Wine Scholar Guild
- the money adds up quickly buying courses on every region of the world. Perhaps your money is better spent at WSET or CMS which covers the entire world… or not!
- Unless you travel on a wine study trip, none of these courses include wine.
- theory behind why wine and food pairing works or doesn’t work is not part of the curriculum
Most accessible courses for those just starting out and the only school which provides practice exams and flashcards !
Society of Wine Educators and their Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) in a nutshell:
I had to put this on your one-stop guide for wine courses because I know quite a few bartenders who wrote the spirits and beverage specialist exams. The school offers just a level 1 for all of their exams and is an accessible way to begin your wine journey.
If you are an active member that has access to the Society of Wine Educators' members' website, please share the other services that the school offers. I didn't have enough respondents from this school to provide information about the benefits of the website.
Is the Society of Wine Educators’ CSW for me?
- great introduction to wine especially for those who just want to get their toes wet
- great if you need to exercise your brain and don’t want to bother with an in-person exam or a written exam with essays – everything is multiple choice
The Society of Wine Educators is not for me if…
- you are already enrolled in CMS, ISG or WSET as those courses cover everything that will be in the CSW more
Wine and food pairing in the CSW
- no idea
What jobs can I get after taking the CSW exam?
- not detailed enough for a job per se
- most people who take this have careers in other fields and simply want to see what wine is all about
- some people who take this are already working as a bartender or server and want to have some extra letters to put after their name on their resume. According to those sources, these exams are easier than the intro CMS and WSET levels but, sources were slim for this course so if you have some information to share, do it in the comments. It could really help someone who’s reading this post!
Course delivery of CSW
- there are 2 ways to access courses – either through paying for the individual certification or by becoming a Professional Member of the Society for Wine Educators for $135 US/ year. The website says you must be a member of the wine trade or a serious wine hobbyist but I don’t know if they bother to screen people for their level of seriousness if they’re a wine hobbyist.
- all books and practice guides are purchased with a click through Amazon
- there’s just ‘one level’ or one examination but the school offers other ‘one-level’ topics such as
- Certified Specialist in Spirits (CSS)
- Hospitality/Beverage Specialist Certificate (HBSC)
- and certified educator examinations (I won’t go into detail for the educator programs but one respondent told me that the CMS exams are the necessary pre-requisite to becoming an educator with this school
- one exam for each certification whether it be in bartending, spirits or the CSW – the Certified Specialist in Wine
CSW Flashcards, practice exams…
- YES!! This is the only school that provides practice exams and flashcards – you just purchase them through Amazon. Brilliant, just brilliant!
- they also provide digital maps – sooo coool!
- most accessible textbooks, flashcards, digital wine maps, and practice tests. I wish the Society of Wine Educators would rub off on all of the other schools and show them that this is how it’s done.
- most of these sources are a click away through Amazon with the choice to either purchase digitalized version through Kindle or actual paper books (which are reasonably priced)
- there’s just one level and it’s all online
- as a non-yearly membership subscriber, I don’t have access to their website to see if it’s worth the $135 per year
- no in-person wine tastings to calibrate your palate
- no in-person training to teach you how to open bottles with grace
- lack of interaction with other people in the wine trade means you will miss out on that next-level of knowing how wine skills translate to the real world
If you are a Professional Member of the Society of Wine Educators, please share what the benefits are of becoming a member in the comments below!
Now, I’ll discuss the schools that prepare you to work in high end restaurants…
Your One-Stop Guide to Wine Sommelier Courses
Court of Master Sommeliers in a nutshell:
The Court Master of Sommeliers started in the UK and has a sister-partner for the Americas which is based in the US. The school is considered a benchmark for sommeliers/ sommelieres who work in restaurants. There are 4 levels and the final examination is the coveted Master Sommelier exam of which there are only 269 in the world (and only a 10% pass rate).
Specific exams to test people to work in restaurants. The CMS is considered the benchmark qualification for running high-end wine programs delivering the highest standards of service!
Is CMS the course for me?
- If you want to be a certified sommelier and plan to run a wine program this is for you!
- you must excel at independent study in order to be successful as there are no in-person courses, webinars or even a course guideline to aid your study (Or, you take courses in other schools to prepare you for the CMS exams)
- Although, the website the Guild of Sommeliers was built to fill in this void. You pay a yearly membership and then can pay-per-viewing of other webinars and pre-recordings on select topics
- You must already be working in a restaurant when you enrol in the CMS. Your floor experience will help you pass the exams.
- if the world of fine wine excites you! Students in the CMS program gain intimate knowledge of only the best wine producers of the world!
- you want to pull even the most stubborn or crumbly, old corks from bottles with elegance and grace – your classmates will all offer experience and advice for service tasks
The CMS course is not for me…
- if you don’t work in a restaurant
- if you would rather have blind tastings that include inexpensive wines or where a broader scope of wines is included
- if you are not disciplined to take charge of your study plan and implement it
- if you don’t love service – this is a major part of the exam
- if you don’t want to learn about every other beverage within a restaurant – by the Master Sommelier level, you must know about cigars, coffee, tea, sake, beer, cocktails, spirits and the world of wine
What jobs can I get after completing the CMS?
- this course is specifically designed for you to run a fine-wine program in a restaurant (with a CMS Advanced)
- By the time you get to the final level – the coveted Master Sommelier title – you can be a brand ambassador for a Champagne house and be hired for speaking events (but, only 10% of people who take the exam pass)
- however if you do pass the MS, expect your salary to double to $160 000 US / year (I got that from Wikipedia, but I believe it!)
CMS Course delivery
There are 4 Levels:
there’s an optional Deductive Tasting Analysis Course but this is not a level
- The Level 1 Introductory Sommelier Course, comes with a pdf booklet covering the themes of the 2-day course immediately followed by the exam.
- But by the Level 2 Certified Sommelier Exam, there are websites as source material and 12 recommended books. Now here’s where the program loses points – there is no curriculum (with limited exceptions). Of those 12 recommended books, many of them are genuine encyclopedias with 1000’s of pages. There’s also no course days in the certified so student’s must figure out what they need to study on their own. That’s likely why many students will take courses with other schools first before transferring the skills they learned there to writing the CMS exams.
- Then the Advanced Sommelier Certification for North American students offers a 3-day course which you may attend only once. You have to have a minimum of 2-years experience in a restaurant to apply (so that you have a minimum of 3-years experience by your exam date). After attending the course, you have to wait 1 full year before applying to sit the exam. North American and EU students have different policies for applying. However, the link on their site is down so I can’t speak to what these are.
- Finally, you may move on to the Master Sommelier Exam. No course is offered because at this point… you can do anything by yourself! Again, the website notes that the application policies for students in North American versus those in Europe are different. But the link doesn’t work and I cannot comment further on this. If you are a CMS student for Advanced or MS, would you let us know in the comments below what country you live in and any details of the application process that would be useful for people reading this post. Thank you!!
Court of Master Sommeliers Exams
- The Introductory Sommelier Course is a multiple choice exam
- The Certified Sommelier Exam consists of 3 parts.
- The blind tasting is of 4 wines (2 white, 2 red).
- The theory exam is 45 questions that need to be finished within 35 minutes. Multiple Choice, short answer, math and matching questions are included.
- The service is in a simulated restaurant where you have to open bottles of wine, give cocktail recommendations and wine and food pairing suggestions under pressure. Fine-dining dress code is expected.
- The Advanced Sommelier exam takes 3 days. You must currently be working in the restaurant, hospitality or beverage industry and have a minimum of 3 years of recent experience. The minimum passing score is 60% and you have to achieve that minimum in each of the exam areas:
- theory (written)
- blind tasting (verbal) of 6 wines
- salesmanship/ service (practical)
- The Master Sommelier has the same format as the advanced above. However, you must sit the theoretical section first. If you pass, you will be invited to sit the tasting and service part of the exam which must be completed within 3 years in order to gain the MS. You must pass each portion by 75% in order to achieve the MS
- theory – 50 minutes of questions you answer orally on grape varieties, regions, wine laws, and winemaking
- blind tasting of 6 wines – identify grape variety(ies), region and vintage within 25 minutes
- practical – serve tables and handle service which now covers cigars, tea, coffee, sake and beer
Court of Master Sommeliers Flashcards, practice exams…
- Nope, nadda, zilch, zero
CMS Wine and food pairing
- very detailed about regional cuisines and food pairings. Allow me to be clear, you don’t get to taste these wine and food combinations together in classes, but food and wine pairing fundamentals is a strong point for sommelier courses
- the best advantage in sommelier courses, is everyone else in the class works in a restaurant too. Therefore, the sharing of information about successful wine and food pairing combinations is key to learners’ success in this area
- Furthermore, the CMS and the Guild of Sommeliers (it’s affiliated membership-based website) offers tickets for dinners and wine tastings in various cities throughout North America
The Court of Master Sommeliers Pros
- I feel that a benefit to the CMS is how they want their graduates to ‘communicate’ wine to people. Romancing grape varieties and regions is an expected outcome and I feel they do this better than WSET. However, as one respondent who has taken courses in both said, “It’s not the CMS program that teaches this, it’s the experience gained with connecting with others who are exclusively working the floors of restaurants.” Still, there couldn’t be a One-Stop Guide to Wine Courses that didn’t include the CMS.
- the list of ‘blindable’ wines of the CMS wine ‘grid’ is limited compared to that of the diploma Level 4 WSET and the MW program. Moreover, you will only have the top examples of wines in each category. I feel that premium wines have more identifiable traits than inexpensive wines meant for mass consumption. This makes the blind tasting tests (somewhat) easier as there are fewer options of what the wine could be and the traits are more obvious. The MW exam, on the other hand, contains both premium examples and inexpensive basic wines. (This is entirely my opinion and by no means does it mean that blind tasting in the CMS is easy!)
- despite not having a curriculum, the website the Guild of Sommeliers has developed with the CMS program in mind. It offers yearly rates and access to information on all wine regions, webinars, and blog posts. The site further has a fantastic social component for connecting with other somms where you live.
- despite the expulsion of 6 of it’s leading Master Sommeliers in the recent sex scandal, many respondents expressed excitement and hopefulness with the new CEO Emily Wines now at the helm
The Court of Master Sommeliers Cons
- this is not necessarily a ‘con’ however many of the respondents (who have attempted the MS) said that it’s not just that the exam is difficult, it’s how little time you have to think about your answers. Recall must be immediate in order to complete the questions. One respondent recalled an ‘easy, give-away question’ asking him to list 10 producers from Chablis. He blanked and as soon as he left the room, names of producers came flooding into his head!
- only Level 1 has a curriculum and after that, you are on your own!
- This school will not accept students who transfer from ANY other schools. Even if you have a similar accreditation from another sommelier school, you have to start at the Introductory exam and move up – this costs moolah
- This school has been hit with 2 major scandals recently:
- The first was in 2018 when the board rescinded the MS titles of 24 of it’s graduates because an MS leaked information about 2 of the blind wines to 2 students. The investigation was conducted behind closed doors and was not done by an outside, independent group. I’ll let you read the Wikipedia entry on this which explains in detail how this uncovered the likely possibility that current MS’s had also cheated in previous years with no repercussions. Only 3 of the 24 have been able to regain their titles thus far and some, disheartened by the failures of the school’s handling of the situation, have given up. (The courses are exorbitantly expensive and time consuming). The 22 students requested a more detailed investigation where they would offer up their phones and computers to prove that they had not received the email and cheated. Unfortunately, the school refused giving the appearance that it’s because the Masters were hiding other serious issues brought to light during the investigation. One student decided to join the MW program instead.
- The school has just gone through another major sex scandal in 2020 written here in the New York Times. Many women have dropped out of the organization for the intense sexual harassment and just dodgy behaviour from the Masters who are also their examiners. Some allegedly traded tickets to sommelier events and access to insider information about the exam for sex. This is perhaps the double-edged sword of not having a curriculum and where the examination is oral, behind closed doors and secretive. As one respondent (who prefers to remain anonymous) said about the CMS, “We flock to them [the Master Sommeliers] for their knowledge because they themselves are the [course] material.”
- although 2 respondents attested to the dreadfully poor behaviour of visiting Masters, many respondents expressed excitement and hopefulness with the new CEO Emily Wines now at the helm
For Canadian students...
although there is a Court of Master Sommeliers in both Europe and the Americas, the Americas division only links to course offerings in the US. I know some of my WSET students in Whistler were taking CMS through their work in Canada. But I have no idea where to refer you to find accredited instructors here.
If you know how Canadian students can gain access to CMS, please mention it in the comments!
Courses training people to work in restaurants that supply their own textbooks and curriculum !
International Sommelier Guild in a nutshell:
The International Sommelier Guild offers a solution for students who are not self-directed enough to create their own study plans in order to pass the CMS. In-person classroom training, detailed curriculum and textbooks provided by the school means ISG has to be on Your One-Stop Guide to Wine Courses.
Is the International Sommelier Guild for me?
- As a sommelier course, ISG is great if you want to manage a fine-wine program
- some people I know (who understandably) lack the self-discipline to pass the CMS exams on their own, took these courses first because they have a curriculum and textbooks- then wrote the equivalent CMS exams
- or, I know plenty of people who passed the Sommelier Diploma (Level 3) with ISG and then transferred directly to WSET Diploma Level 4.
International Sommelier Guild is not for me if…
- you don’t work in a restaurant as that is a prerequisite for taking ISG
- you don’t want to run a specialized wine program in a restaurant
- as opposed to learning how to sell individual wines, you would rather learn the big picture world economics of wine (then do WSET)
- you work in an international hotel chain and require certification that is recognized more globally (CMS and WSET are better for this)
- if it matters to you that this school might not be around in the future (see more below)
What jobs can I get after taking ISG?
- trains sommeliers to fine-tune service delivery to work in restaurants
- specifically for fine-dining or Michelin star restaurants with exceedingly high levels of service and premium wines
- However in Level 4, you finish with a cross-disciplinary degree in eonology, nutrition and business management. I wasn’t able to find anyone who has completed this level so if that’s you… tell us about it in the comments!
- also great if you are planning on moving into other aspects of the wine trade such as a winery, or wine shop
Course delivery of ISG
- you can sign up for in-person classes, online classes or a ‘Live on Line’ which I assume is an online course with live webinars – anyone?
- this is the only sommelier course where textbooks are provided for each level.
- Level 1 Intermediate Wine Certificate – learn wine, wine laws, fortified and sparkling wines, food and wine pairing theory
- Level 2 Advanced Wine Certificate – greater depth and add beer and spirits, more food and wine pairing, and the proper storage of wine.
- Level 3 Sommelier Diploma – includes a 2500-page textbook with audiofiles for proper pronunciation of wine regions and varieties as well as 3D maps 😲 🤓. In addition to the world of wine, you must also be aware of EU food laws and global cuisines as well as service and sales techniques.
- Level 4 ISGM Sommelier – the website says this is a well-rounded degree including full enology, wine business, nutrition, and sommellerie degree all together. I only know people who have taken up to Level 3 so I have no first-hand experience with the higher levels of this program. I wonder how many places this is offered in. Anyone?
- Level 5 ISGM Degree – write a 10,000 word dissertation for peer review within 6 months of completing the Level 4
International Sommelier Guild Exams
- Level 1 Intermediate Wine Certificate – multiple choice must pass with a minimum of 60% to move to the next level
- Level 2 Advanced Wine Certificate– is a 4-hour exam consisting of 100 multiple choice (90 minutes), 6 short essays (180 min) and blind taste 2 wines (30 min). You must pass with a minimum of 70% in each section in order to move to the next level
- Level 3 Sommelier Diploma– 200 multiple choice, 9 essays and 20 blind wines and spirits. Here you are tested on your service skills and must justify recommended wine pairings. You must pass with a minimum of 70% in each section of the exam in order to move on
- Level 4 ISGM Sommelier – I don’t know anyone who has gone this far. But the website mentions oenology, nutrition and wine business management
- Level 5 ISGM Sommelier Degree – after graduating from Level 4, you are invited to write a research paper and dissertation within 6 months. This will be peer reviewed. 10,000 words.
Flashcards, practice exams with ISG…
- No, but the textbooks and curriculum are detailed so… make your own! This isn’t kindergarten.
ISG Wine and food pairing
- Yes, yes, YES!!
- starting with Level 1, you will learn the theory of food and wine pairing,
- by Level 3, you will write wine pairings for a 5 course menu and are required to learn EU food regulations
- you will also need to justify wine recommendations in the service part of the exam
- this doesn’t mean that you will get to taste food with the wine in class… unfortunately. It does mean that your instructor will be sharing their favourite wine and food pairings with you and encourage you to seek out and share your own with the class!
International Sommelier Guild Pros
- course curriculum and textbooks are truly fantastic – notice that the Level 3 Sommelier Diploma comes with an audiobook for proper pronunciation of terms and 3D maps – oooooeee!
- it’s one of the only sommelier schools that offers classroom instruction AND provides the books so you know where you stand when you go to write the exams
- I know quite a few students who took these courses to prepare them for the CMS exams (because the CMS courses have no guide for students but tend to be better known than ISG)
- the training for describing wines is great for creative types who love romancing the product
International Sommelier Guild Cons
- this school has largely been banned in British Columbia, Alberta, and Manitoba as it keeps almost going bankcrupt resulting in teachers not getting paid
- if you need some admin (like a copy of a receipt or something) no one in head office will ever call or email back
- I double checked on the above by writing to ISG from one of the emails listed on their website. I asked them to put me in contact with the person teaching their ISG course in Vancouver in February. I was sincerely hoping I would be wrong and that I would get to speak to a current instructor to better represent their courses for this post. No one got back to me and this is truly a shame for the poor soul / educator in Vancouver. This is particularly sad because it is highly likely that I know this person well, that their ISG course is top-notch and yet I am unable to represent them better here.
Best Acronym – CAPS !
CAPS/ ACSP isn't yet a course so it doesn't quite fit in here like the rest of the established schools do. However, I'm Canadian and CAPS is the certifying body for sommeliers in this country. It's recognized by ASI - the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale who is headquartered in France and overseees sommelier certifying branches in over 60 countries.
Most sommeliers in Canada are currently certified through either CMS or ISG and then become a member of CAPS. Generally, CAPS also recognizes the WSET Diploma Level 4 as sufficient for membership (although technically, WSET is not a sommelier school).
CAPS in a nutshell:
2 years ago, I was working with the guy tasked with writing a national course program for CAPS. So far, this hasn’t been completed. My colleague who just recently became the president of the Manitoba Chapter, Sean C. Dolenuck confirmed that it’s in the works.
For now, there’s not much to comment on as I haven’t yet seen the course curriculum nor does CAPS only recognize a singular standardized program throughout the country.
For now, each chapter in participating regions has its own link on the CAPS website. So in Manitoba for example, members must pass WSET Level 3 first (although WSET is not a sommelier school). After passing, there is a link to a local sommelier school to follow your WSET 3 with a CAPS-approved certification.
The current President of the Manitoba chapter, Sean C Dolenuck took a different route. He recieved his ISG Level 1 in Alberta and ISG Level 2 in Winnepeg. After that, he transferred to the Professional Sommelier program on the CAPS’ website.
The point is, there are many roads to the same destination when it comes to wine studies.
The Best Thing about CAPS
In my view, the greatest CAPS contribution are the regional competitions. In my last year working in restaurants, I competed in the event in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Winners go on to compete in the Nationals. The national competition is in both French and English and competitors must be able to complete the service and tasting component in both languages. This tends to mean that the Quebecois candidate always wins!
And perhaps deservedly so, the sommelier training in Quebec is really hard to get into and runs full days Monday to Friday making it the most intensive in-person training I’m aware of.
The National Winner takes home $40,000 in prizes, $5000 in wine and $10,000 in cash. They may then go on to compete for the Worlds Best Sommelier Competition hosted in a different country by ASI every three years.
If you have taken a CAPS course or are a member, I'd love to hear the cross-country experiences in the comments below!
With so many wine courses out there, it can be really difficult to choose where to put your money.
All of these schools offer so much for learners, but the style of learner you are will impact which school you thrive in. Furthermore, what your goals are will also affect that decision. I truly hope you found Your One-Stop Guide to Wine Courses helpful.
I’ll admit… if I had unlimited funds, I’d take them all!
Hi there! I’m a DipWSET alumni and a WSET educator. I run a wine school in Whistler called SommWine. I have also passed the Level 1 and Level 2 Advanced with the International Sommelier Guild. So this post shared my experiences of those schools. However, I also reached out to many people (friends, students, colleagues and social media followers) to help me fill in the gaps of my knowledge. I welcome your comments at the bottom to help all wine students find the right course for them!
*** Special thanks to some of my twitter followers who took the time to write and share their experiences in wine schools. I’ll mention these great wine tweeps here. You can reach out to them on Twitter!
@MegandMerlot @TimtheWineGuy @Christy_Frank @jjhorsey10 @wsetlondonwine @sommfitz @liam3494 @fullygodwin @londonfare @LizGabayMW @sybaricious @DanitzaVinka @sarah_may_g @unravelingwine @thecitywino