Updated: Sep 23, 2020
The Master of Wine (MW) and Master Sommelier (MS) post-nominal titles are the pinnacle wine trade certifications with academic strengths and service being their forte respectively. Of course, this is not the only way to demonstrate expertise or contribution (post-nominal letters of Ph.D. and OBE come to mind). Indeed, those without any wine certifications have arguably had the most impact on the wine industry (e.g., critic Robert M. Parker Jr. and writer Hugh Johnson). After achieving these exalted ranks, their careers are focused on helping others on their own wine journey; they are blessed with knowing that they have positively influenced the lives of many others, even those they have never met. The MW and MS certifications are about mentoring others as well as advancing the world of wine.
Despite scandals, and resignations (Richard Betts, Brian McClintic, and Nate Ready) the top wine trade certifications in the wine world require hard work, even by those with amazing natural abilities. Most of us settle for less and enjoy learning from, if not aspire to become one of those that achieve these MW and MS certifications.
These certifications have quite different mind sets and only 4 people have achieved both:
As of 2019, fewer people currently hold the Master Sommelier credential (165 since 1969) than that of the Master of Wine (382 since 1953) but the scarcity of both titles suggest the difference is due to focus rather than difficulty. The three SOMM documentaries explore the difficulty of the MS exam, the breadth of the wine world, and aspects of critical tasting; they are worth watching more than once for both entertainment and instructional value.
(Remarkably young) people have become Master Sommeliers (Roland Micu in 2012 at 28 years of age, Jack Mason in 2015 at 27 and Alpana Singh in 2003 at 26) or a Master of Wine (Stephen Bennett in 1994 at 25, Neil Hadley in 1993 at 26, Tom Parker in 2018 at 29). Taking inspiration from their passion can inspire those of us beginning our wine journey much later in life.
While the MW and MS certifications are impressive, there are other wine certifications of greater importance for most of those in the wine trade and for wine enthusiasts. I tend to categorize wine certifications as having an academic, service, education, or specialty focus.
Why bother obtaining other wine certifications? Apart from being requisites for more advanced certifications, they exercise your mind, and help us improve our lives. As in many industries, credentials lend credibility to your expertise and commitment and many see credentials important for advancing your career. Perhaps more importantly, wine certification increases your understanding and therefore appreciation of wine, travel, and the world at large. Obviously this applies to enthusiasts as much as to trade professionals, providing the opportunity to enrich the lives of those around us by sharing our passion and hopefully increasing our sense of humility rather than an arrogant demeaning demeanor.
Miquel Hudin has written A guide to what’s good, bad, & questionable in wine titles which discusses many credible academic, service, education and specialty wine certifications. GuildSomm's Navigating Wine Certification in America also includes a discussion of wine programs offered by major culinary schools.
The Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) conveys the MW post-nominal. While the WSET Level 4 Diploma is a prerequisite for MW, the qualification is provided by a different organization, namely the WIne & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) which also provides Level 3, Level 2, and Level 1 awards differentiating between wine, spirits, and sake.
The academic path offers university degrees as well as certifications. UC Davis and Cornell University have particularly well-known viticulture and enology programs. Tim Hanni MW also offers practical wine business education courses.
The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) conveys the Level 4 (Master), Level 3 (Advanced), Level 2 (Certified), and Level 1 (Introductory) sommelier certifications. The International Culinary Center (ICC) offers an Intensive Sommelier Training Program, designed to help you pass the CMS Level 1 and 2 exams. Note that although MS is permitted as a post-nominal, lower levels should be spelled out, not abbreviated on a professional signature. Beginning in 2020 candidates for the Level 3 course must have passed the Level 2 exam on or before October 1, 2019, be currently employed in the hospitality industry, and have worked at least 2 of the last 7 years in a restaurant sales/service position; at least 3 years of experience is required to take the exam. Country-specific sommelier organizations belong to the International Sommelier Association (ASI) or the Worldwide Sommelier Association (WSA). Their members administer education programs leading to the ASI Diploma or WSA Pin sommelier certifications. These sommelier certification programs are well regarded but not as prominent within the United States as certification from the CMS. For example, the Union de la Sommellerie Francaise (UDSF), an ASI member, awards Complementary Mention Sommelier, Professional Sommelier, and UDSF Master Sommelier certificates. The Associazione Italiana Sommelier (AIS), a WSA member, awards Professional Sommelier and ALMA-AIS Master Sommelier certifications. Several organizations provide education that can be used to augment training for the WSET and CMS certifications. Examples include the International Wine & Spirits Guild (provides alternate certification) and GuildSomm (does not provide certification).
The Society for Wine Educators conveys the Certified Wine Educator (CWE) and Certified Spirits Educator (CSE) post-nominals, after first completing the Certified Wine Specialist (CWS) and Certified Spirits Specialist (CSS) certifications respectively. They also offer an entry-level Hopitality/Beverage Specialist Certificate. (HBSC). CWE and CSE candidates must submit evidence of current certification with their state's responsible beverage alcohol service program, the National Restaurant Association's ServSafe Alcohol or Training for Intervention ProcedureS (TiPS) programs. The American Hotel & Lodging Association Educational Institute (AHLEI) also offers many training and certification programs, including the Certified Hospitality Educator (CHE).
Specialty certifications include regional certifications, wine judge certification, and wine management programs. Prominent regional certifications are provided by the Wine Scholar Guild (WSG), Italian Wine Central (IWC), the Spain Wine School, the North American Sommelier Association (NASA), and the San Francisco Wine School (SFWS). The Wine Scholar Guild offers the valuable French Wine Scholar (FWS), Italian Wine Scholar (IWS), and Spanish Wine Scholar (SWS) post-nominals as well as master-level certificate programs and study tours for each wine region in France; technically there are no prerequisites for any course but all are quite intensive. IWC offers the level 1 Discovering Italian Wine certificate program and level 2 Italian Wine Professional (IWP) post-nominal certification; the IWC website is a superb reference available online without charge. The Spanish Wine School offers the Spanish Wine Experience Level 1 and 2 certification with Spanish Wine Educator designation. WSA/NASA offers serveral sommelier-related certification programs including the American Wine Specialist, Italian Wine Specialist, and Spanish Wine Specialist. Note that the IWS and SWS post-nominal letters refer to the WSG programs, not the NASA programs. The California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS) and Northwest Wine Appellation Specialist (NWAS) certificate programs are offered by the SFWS. Other specialty wine certifications include a Wine Judge Certification offered by the American Wine Society and the Certified Wine Professonal (CWP) and Advanced Certified Wine Professional (ACWP) certifications from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). They also offer an Advanced Wine, Beverage, and Hospitality bachelor’s degree concentration and a Master’s Degree in Wine Management.
Most credible wine certification organizations offer their programs through program providers and as online classes (self-study or instructor-led). There are also innumerable wine certificates offered by beverage and culinary schools, industry groups, and beverage companies that provide basic training, essentially bestowing a certificate of participation. Some of these can be helpful to train for more credible certifications but many are primarily marketing exercises. Other certificates, like membership (demi, Doppel, Treble, Quattro, Pentavini, Hexavin) in the Wine Century Club, are purely for entertainment value.
It is important to distinguish a credential (also called a qualification) from a certificate. Some certifications will allow post-nominal letters in your professional signature such as MW, MS, CWE, and FWS. Other certifications are certificate programs that do not offer pins or post-nominal letters such as the Bourgogne Master-Level Certificate from the Wine Scholar Guild. Both types can be useful for advancing serious training and appreciation.
You should never refer to an anticipated or partial accomplishment such as saying you're a candidate for the Master of Wine or you've completed some of the units for a WSET Diploma. You either have the credential or you don't. Don't fret (but correct) this mistake as it happens to the best of us.
Don't confuse certification with a job. There are many people that hold a Certified Sommelier credential that do not have a job as a sommelier. Likewise, there are many sommeliers that do not have a credential, though this situation will likely decline over time.
A consumer may prefer a beverage besides wine (beer, spirits, cocktails, sake, coffee, tea, water) so a sommelier should have expertise in all beverages. Although their training does include other beverages (in the past it also covered cigars!) I've found many sommeliers less than passionate about such recommendations. Fortunately there are certifications for service professionals that address these beverages:
Beer: Cicerone Certification Program offers Level 1 (Certified Beer Server), Level 2 (Certified Cicerone), Level 3 (Advanced Cicerone), and Level 4 (Master Cicerone).
Spirits/Cocktails: The WSET and SWE courses mentioned above are the most well known certifications. There are many other training programs like those from the Mixology Academy and they may be a good fit for bartenders and barristas.
Sake: Sake Education Council offers Level 1 (Certified Sake Professional) and Level 2 (Advanced Sake Professional), and are currently developing a Master Level Program. The Sake Sommelier Academy in London offers Level 1 (Introductory Sake Professonal), Level 2 (Certified Sake Sommelier), Level 3 (Advanced Sake Sommelier), Level 4 (Master Sake Sommelier), and Level 5 (Master of Sake) certifications.
Other: Many schools offer short certification programs in non-alcoholic beverages and appellation-protected foodstuffs like olive oil and cheese. The Specialty Coffee Association and Boot Coffee Campus offer programs leading to an SCA Coffee Skills Diploma. The Tea and Herbal Association of Canada offers a Tea Sommelier certification program.
I've often wondered how to pronounce sommelier. I've asked this simple question of Master Sommeliers, many certified sommeliers, and those with the job sommelier in France and heard different pronunciations so I remain uncertain. My tendency is to say SO-MEL-YEAH like Cameron Douglas MS without the penultimate EE syllable but I've heard enough sommeliers use four syllables that I think either way is OK.