What is a Somm?

I often get asked at my events how to pronounce “Sommelier”. I answer (“sum-ah-lee-ay”), but let people know it’s acceptable to just say “Somm.” The follow-up questions are usually “How do you become a Somm? What is involved?”

You may be surprised to know that no one organization controls this and that there is disagreement in the industry about who can call him/herself a “Somm”. The term is essentially a rough translation of a French term for wine steward.

I’m going to outline some of the better known methods for becoming a Somm, but because the best known ways to achieve that designation are in competition with each other and have developed independently, there is no one way, and certainly no “right” way to get there. I’ll also address the issue of who can call him/herself a Somm and how I became a Somm.

Interest in the “profession” (and I lose that word loosely) increased dramatically with the release of the documentary movie “Somm” in 2013. That movie was based on one particular method of certification through a trade organization called “The Court of Master Sommeliers” (“The Court” for short). In Somm, four male candidates studying for the Master Sommelier designation were followed for a period of weeks as they readied themselves for the exam. At the end of Somm, you learn that only two of the four candidates in the movie passed the Master Somm exam (I won’t spoil the end for those of you who haven’t seen it). It is a compelling and interesting movie that tugs at your emotions as you begin to empathize with these men and their spouses/partners, and what they have all sacrificed to make the time to prepare for this very difficult exam. I came away from that movie awed by the talents of the men in the movie, and motivated to challenge myself in that same way.

Some people who pursue formal wine studies really want the Certified Sommelier designation, and only one organization offers that certification: The Court. However, there is another well-known organization, Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) that offers several levels of certification leading to the Master of Wine designation. I will discuss both organizations, below.


The Court of Master Sommeliers


What the movie Somm didn’t really dwell on or explain well is that within The Court’s system of certification, there are four levels, but only three that lead to a certification: Level II Certified, Advanced, and Master. All four men in the movie had already achieved the level of Advanced Sommelier and were attempting to pass the Master Sommelier exam. If one passes the Master exam, one is allowed to use the designation “M.S.” after one’s name. As of the date I wrote this, The Court’s website stated there are 124 men and 23 women Master Somm’s in the America’s chapter of The Court and 230 worldwide. The Master Somm exam is notoriously, and inexplicably (to me) difficult to pass. Many candidates fail one or more of the three portions of the exam many times before finally passing (theory, blind tasting, mock service). The Court has received a fair amount of criticism for this as the pass rate seems to defy anything close to what would be expected in a normal bell curve for exam results.

The Court makes it clear in their materials that any student must start out with the introductory course (which is required before you can register for the Level II Certified Exam). The Intro course is taught by those with the Master Somm designation. The Court also makes it clear that taking and passing the Intro course does not mean you can call yourself a Certified Sommelier, nor are you allowed to use “C.S.” after your name simply from passing the Intro course. The Intro course is two full days of studying and tasting with a 70 question theory exam at the end of day 2. The exam requires a 60% pass rate – pretty easy. Once you have taken Intro and passed it, you can then register for the Level II Certified Exam. You must take the Level II exam within three years of passing the Intro course or you will have to re-take the Intro course.

There is no class for the Level II Certified Exam, which is something that set this course of study apart from WSET. The best way to study for the Level II exam in my opinion is to join The Guild of Sommeliers for a $100 annual fee and use the comprehensive study materials, videos and maps available on the website. It also helps to have a comprehensive book for additional study such as The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia (what I used).

The Level II Certified Exam is a one-day experience that has three distinct exam portions: theory, blind tasting, and mock restaurant service. Each portion must be passed at 60%. The theory exam is a combination of multiple choice, matching, and short answer questions. Candidates are expected to have a working knowledge of food pairing, proper wine storage, spirits, cocktails and beer as well as wine-making worldwide. The blind taste test includes one white wine, one red wine and students have 15 minutes for this exam. (In the Master level exam, three whites and three reds are blind tasted, with 4 minutes 10 seconds for each wine.) The mock restaurant service usually requires the candidate to demonstrate that s/he can correctly take an order for champagne, present the bottle to the host, open the bottle correctly, and serve it according to The Court’s guidelines. All this occurs while the examiner is questioning the candidate about food pairing and cocktails, and perhaps other service related questions. The service portion is designed to test whether the candidate can provide good service under pressure.

Candidates are never provided with their test materials for review after the exam. They are simply told whether they passed. They might be given information on areas where they need to study more intensely, but that’s it. Candidates also never know whether they correctly identified the white and red wines. (This is true for all levels of The Court’s exams.) For the blind tasting portion of the exam, The Court is interested in whether the candidate was able to correctly use what is known as a “deductive tasting grid” to describe the color, clarity, nose and flavors on the palate before arriving first at a preliminary conclusion as to the wine’s possible identity, then at a final conclusion in which the student must definitively state the grape variety, the vintage, and the grape growing region. Once one has passed the Level II Certified exam, one receives a pin, a certificate, and is allowed to use the designation “C.S.” after one’s name.

It is highly recommended that anyone studying for the Level II Certified exam get into a blind tasting group. The Court also offers a workshop on the deductive tasting grid that looks like a good course, although I didn’t take it. It wasn’t offered when I was studying with The Court. Using a deductive tasting grid when blind tasting is a crucial component of learning how to blind taste. Besides, it’s fun!

The Advanced Exam and Master Sommelier exam requirements can be obtained on The Court’s website, along with information about the Introductory and Level II Certified exam.


Wine & Spirits Education Trust


Another well-known trade organization that offers several levels of study leading to certification is WSET. This is a London-based organization. Many U.S. education organizations have become certified to offer WSET courses. I took my course, the Level 3 Award, through a San Francisco school, The Grape Experience. The WSET global website states they offer nine certifications, but if you want to focus just on wine, you choose the wine courses (not spirits courses). Level 1 is a very basic introduction to wine. There is no requirement to complete Level 1 before enrolling in Level 2. If it were me giving advice to someone that wanted a course of study rather than just a basic introduction, I would start with Level 2 which requires 28 hours of study, and an exam, then go into Level 3. The Level 3 Award requires 84 hours of study time, followed by a written exam and blind tasting exam. Level 3 used to include spirits and beer but those topics have now been separated into a different set of courses. The Level 3 Award class is not taught by those with a Master of Wine designation. This is an area where WSET differs significantly from The Court – The Court’s classes are always taught by those with a Master Somm designation. As with The Court, WSET does not give students their exam materials back afterward – you are simply told whether you passed.

WSET offers courses on-line and in the classroom. Following the Level 3 Award, one can enroll for the WSET diploma which has six study units. The final achievement through WSET is the Master of Wine designation. One can use the letters “M.W” after his/her name should one achieve this level of certification.


How Does One Choose A Course of Study?

Often, the answer to this question is focused on whether the student wishes to work in a restaurant. I have read several articles in which those who wish to work in a restaurant as a Sommelier are advised to study and obtain certification from The Court of Master Sommeliers. I have also read articles that guide students who aren’t necessarily interested in restaurant careers to pursue studies through WSET or some other organization, because many people feel The Court is so heavily focused on service.

Because I didn’t start my wine career in either The Court or WSET, I come at this from a different perspective. Now that I have three certifications from three different organizations, I would agree that it probably makes more sense to choose one path and stick with it, simply due to cost and time – but I wouldn’t base the decision on whether you work in a restaurant. I would choose based on convenience, location, and cost. Also, if you are the type of student that does better by attending structured classes, then WSET may be the better choice for you, as remember, you are on your own when it comes to studying for the Level II Certified exam with The Court. If you start your studies with WSET and enroll in Level 2 and Level 3 Award courses, by the end of that, you will have the equivalent of The Court’s Level II Certification in my opinion. Having said that, nothing precludes any knowledge-thirsty student from doing what I did and studying with multiple organizations. If you are more academically inclined, WSET may be right for you, as by the time you get to the Diploma program, there is a requirement for a written paper associated with one of the study units. There is also a focus on the business of wine which I don’t believe is addressed by any of the certifications involved with The Court.

I must admit that having the Level II Certified Somm designation from The Court has real meaning in the industry. It has a status that WSET just doesn’t seem to have, perhaps due to the popularity of the movie Somm. I also noticed that students in The Court’s process were more competitive than the students in the WSET Level 3 Award. In my WSET Level 3 Award course several people stated they were there just to learn about wine with no interest in the wine industry as a profession. In contrast, the people I met studying for The Court’s Level II exam knew exactly what they wanted within the industry: to get the Certified Somm designation and go on from there to Advanced, then to Master Somm.

While both WSET and The Court have exams as part of their certification process, The Court’s exam seems to have more prestige associated with it. By the time one gets to the M.S. or M.W. certification, it seems any prestige-related distinction disappears.

Keep in mind that community colleges, and various other organizations such as The Society of Wine Educators offer courses of wine study as well. I have focused on the two best-known certification organizations for purposes of this blog.


How I Became a Somm

When I began my formal studies, I knew I wanted to study wine, but I wasn’t yet focused on what I would do with the knowledge. Due to my particular circumstances at the time, I chose a six-month program that met once a week at night. It was comprehensive, covering not only wine making, but wine growing as well (viticulture), as well as beer and spirits. It had a weekly exam, a mid-term exam, and a final exam so it was sufficiently academic for me to feel challenged.

I started that program (American Sommelier Association in New York City) and began to meet people in the industry. I started a blind tasting group with a new friend and met more people that way. About half way through that program, the movie “Somm” premiered in New York City where I was living, and I attended the premier. At the after party, I met one of the men that starred in the movie, Dustin Wilson. The movie and the challenges portrayed by it intrigued me, so I took The Court’s Intro Course that same summer. I didn’t sign up for the Level II Certified exam for another year because life circumstances interfered, but once I made that commitment I devoted several weeks prior to the Level II exam to studying. I was helped by having all my 3 x 5 cards from my time in the New York program (tip: don’t ever throw your study materials away).

A year and a half later I decided to try the WSET course of study after meeting some people who had gone that route. I was told that WSET is more focused on the business of wine than service, and by this time, I was also more interested in that aspect of the wine industry and knew I probably wouldn’t be working in restaurants. I enrolled in an accelerated WSET Level 3 award course and passed that, but when I was finished, I didn’t feel I had really learned anything new. I don’t fault WSET for that…it’s just that I already had the other two certifications, so their Level 3 Award was redundant for me. It was a requirement, however, to move on to the Diploma program and finally the Master of Wine designation, which I hope to pursue.

In choosing the WSET route for any future wine studies for myself, I made that choice because I have become increasingly disenchanted with The Court’s process, and it’s inexplicably high failure rate for the Master exam candidates. Anyone that has studied statistics (I have) is introduced to the “bell curve” and its meaning. The Court’s failure rate must fall two standard deviations outside of the norm and I’ve never heard or read an explanation of that that makes sense to me. I have heard many people express an opinion that The Court simply wishes to keep its membership exclusive, so they have designed a process to ensure a high failure rate. That may be, and I wish those pursuing that course of study the best of luck!


Who Can Call Themselves a Somm?

There is not a definitive answer to this question. I personally have met several people who call themselves a Somm who have told me they have no formal certification or that took The Court’s Intro course (one told me he was a Somm after taking The Court’s Intro course, but he said he didn’t pass the test). Some people simply consider it a job title and if they are working in the wine industry and selling wine they consider themselves a Somm. As we all know, it’s possible to learn the tools of a trade without formal classroom study if you are motivated and have one or more good mentors. Since there is no overarching governing organization that oversees the study and certification of Somm’s, I guess it can be expected that there is wide range of opinion on this matter and also people who will use the lack of an overarching governing body to take advantage of the void.

The movie, “Somm: Into the Bottle” which was made by the same director that made Somm, addressed this topic. Some of the Master Somm’s featured in Somm: Into the Bottle apparently believe that unless you are working in a restaurant and managing the restaurant’s wine inventory and wine list not only are you not a Somm, you shouldn’t call yourself a Somm. Other Master Somm’s in the movie disagreed vehemently with this position.

As I explained earlier, if you are studying with The Court of Master Sommeliers, they do not want you calling yourself a Somm, much less a Certified Somm unless you have taken the Level II Certified exam and passed it. WSET doesn’t really address this issue in any of the materials I have seen.

I have discussed this question with friends who are Level II Certified Somm’s and all of us agree that you don’t need to work in a restaurant to be a Somm. I’m teaching wine education; one of my Certified Somm friends is a wine writer and part-time restaurant server and bartender; one is a cellar/vineyard worker, grape grower and winemaker. All of us continue to be involved in the wine industry in some fashion and we consider ourselves Somm’s.

I regret that I can’t give you a definitive answer to this question, but I’ll end this way: if you love wine and want to learn more about it, there’s a wide world of wine enthusiasts out there who can teach you about it. You can take a fun course at a local wine bar or community college, or attend an event like those I teach, or you can get as formal as you want to by pursuing a course of study through The Court or WSET. Whatever you do, have fun!