If you’ve ever had the urge to take your wine knowledge from self-proclaimed enthusiast to a more sophisticated level, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re a lot like me a few years ago. Earlier this week I was thrilled to receive the grades from my advanced certificate in wine. It got me thinking back to when this whole journey into the wine industry began. For me, wine education was a dream and a definite career path, but many of my classmates were pursuing the courses for personal edification or a career change. Understanding the many avenues of wine education can be confusing. Most people you meet in the ‘biz are not like the ones you watched in Somm, most of the ones you meet will have been accredited by one of the following certification bodies, although there are others.
Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET)
In Calgary, WSET dominates wine education. The WSET is a London based school recognized worldwide. It’s a comprehensive, four level certification ranging from introductory to a diploma.
- WSET I: The program naturally starts with the basics of wine with a focus on technical tasting, pairing, major varietals, basics of winemaking and service. It can be completed in one day, or over four weeks. Successful candidates pass a short multiple choice exam with a 98% pass rate.
- WSET II: The logical progression from the introductory course giving students more in depth exposure to viticulture, winemaking, tasting and pairing, significant wine producing countries and an exploration of sparkling wine, fortified wine and some spirits. This can be completed in nine weeks or three days, followed by a multiple choice exam.
- WSET III: This is a very respectable qualification, from my perspective and one that a large percentage of Calgary-based wine professionals hold. The advanced course explores countries and regions in depth, advanced technical tasting, labelling laws, spirits, sparkling wine and fortified wine. This course runs over six days or fifteen weeks and successful completion requires passing a blind tasting, a multiple choice and short answer exam.
- WSET Diploma: This is the highest level of qualification available from WSET, only 300 people hold this credential (although expect many more in the next year or two). Top instructors lead this 15 month course over one weekend each month. Students will learn every aspect of wine including grape growing, production, business, spirits, light, sparkling and fortified wines. Students must successfully pass an exam at the end of each of the six units in order to obtain their diploma.
Pros – it’s very accessible to Calgarians (run through the U of C’s downtown campus), the progression is logical and the instructors are industry leaders. Levels I-III are available to online students as well.
Cons – exams are marked in London, England, it took 3 months (to the day, oddly enough) to get my WSET III marks! From a personal perspective I found the advanced course focused a little too heavily on France. Other significant countries received much less attention, which was disappointing as I would like to have learned each country in the same depth.
Would I recommend it? Absolutely. I had a very positive experience with WSET and found I learned a lot, especially in the advanced course. If you’ve ever wanted to learn more or are looking for a career change you’re in good company! Most of our team is accredited by WSET and we’d be happy to chat with you about it if you’re interested or intrigued! Click here for more information.
Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS)
The CMS was established in the 1970’s, their focus is to improve and standardise the knowledge of people in the fine dining industry. They are now an international examining body with quite a prestigious reputation. So what does it take to complete your CMS?
- Intro Sommelier Course: Explores basics of viticulture, vinification, tasting, pairing and major regions over two days of instruction and tasting followed up with a multiple choice exam.
- Advanced Sommelier Course: The advanced course builds on the foundations of the intro course, however, seats are limited and each candidate’s qualifications are reviewed before admittance into the program. Students take 3 days of intensive lecture and tasting followed up with a 3 day examination period. Each student will have to pass a blind tasting, a multiple choice exam, short answer exam and a service exam. They have an average of 30% pass rate.
- Master Sommelier: if you successfully pass the advanced exam you may be a candidate for the MS. If you are accepted there are three parts to the MS exam.
- Part One – Theory: an oral examination
- Part Two – Blind Tasting: candidates must identify six wines in 25 minutes including varietal, country, appellation and vintage
- Part Three – Practical: candidates must give an MS an impeccable wine service
If you successfully pass the theory portion you have 3 years to successfully pass the other two elements – the pass rate? 10%! There are, to my knowledge, only 230 people in the world who have successfully earned this designation.
Pros – world class reputation, if you want to delve into the wine world in a serious way, this is for you. The intro course is an excellent foundation for beginning your formal wine education.
Cons – currently no Calgary courses are being offered, Banff and Victoria are the closest options.
Click here for more information.
International Sommelier Guild (ISG)
The ISG was founded in 1982 with a mission to become a leading provider of great wine and sommelier education. The ISG fundamental levels are an excellent foundation for introductory wine knowledge.
- Fundamentals I: a once per week course that will give you a basic understanding of major varietals, fortified and sparkling wines, and an improved understanding of terminology. Passing a multiple choice is exam is required to advance.
- Fundamentals II: Naturally builds on content from the first level integrating elements of blind tasting, viticulture, vinification and regional laws. This course runs once a week and the exam consists of an essay and blind tasting exam.
- Sommelier Diploma Program: Wine education gets more serious at this point, six months of once per week, eight hour lectures. You’re taught everything from viticulture to cellaring. Successful students require a 70% for a passing grade on a multiple choice, essay, service and pairing exam.
Pros – accessible to all knowledge levels in the early stages
Cons – their 2016 calendar shows no Calgary classes and their website is not user friendly, if you want to access pricing you have to create a personal account, including your SIN number.
Click here for more information on the ISG.
All that being said, your personal exploration into wine is the most important journey you can embark on if you want to gain a better understanding of it. Regardless of if wine courses are in your future or not, if you want to learn, drink wine. Drink lots of wine. Drink different wines, try to never grab the same bottle twice. Taste technically and critically and write notes! By tasting wine you’ll get to know it in an intimate way that textbooks and instructors can never teach you.
– Selena Gaudet