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3 Paths to Wine Geekdom OR "Hey - you like one of them thar some-yeahs?"

Whenever someone asks me what I've been up to in my "wine life," and I tell them that I've recently sat an exam of some sort, I invariably get asked the same question:

"So... uhm.. what does that do for you exactly? Are you, like, a sommelier now?"

Now, it wasn't all that long ago that I knew nothing about wine, or the various credential-chasing that would effectively allow me to take something I would come to love (drinking and sharing wine) and piss all over it by making it difficult and shoring up my free time with studying weighty tomes of wine knowledge. So I understand why people ask me that. The answer is even more complicated and usually boils down to this:

"Well... sort of..."

So, I thought that I'd try to take a few minutes to explain the wacky world of wine education in layman's terms - a quick reference that I'd wished that I'd had when I was starting to "take this wine thing more seriously."

Fortunately for me, the fabulous folks at i-WineReview.com have already done this for me, and they have a great page on their site that lays it all out in some detail. So, can you go to this page and have it all figured out?

Well... sort of...

In the world of wine, there are (more-or-less) 3 main educational/certification paths that you can take which are internationally recognized:
  1. Masters of Wine - This is the granddaddy qualification for wine peeps, and exists to recognize the best of the best in the art, science, and business of wine. Which means that theoretically anyone can achieve it, but in reality it's insanely tough and there are fewer than 25 members from the U.S. Achieving the MW credential is a bit like a PhD on steriods.

    The MW recommends, as a prerequisite for entry, the Level 4 Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). This is a bit like the Masters degree of the wine world, with 4 levels of certification covering a one-day foundation certification in wine / spirits concepts, all the way through a multi-year Diploma program. Each step gets significantly more difficult in the academic portion (multiple-guess and essay exams) and adds more difficult wine identification tastings. This is where I started (I've got Level 2 and Level 3 certifications, Level 3 being the first one to test you on tasting identification). WSET classes and exams can only be offered by affiliated organizations (e.g., PhillyWine.com in Philadelphia).

    This path (WSET through MW) focuses on the entire world of wine & spirits, how they are made, with emphasis on tasting profiles typical for these beverages in the regions where they are made.

  2. The Court of Master Sommeliers - This is the granddaddy qualification of wine service. It focuses on the best-of-the-best in wine service and industry matters, and those that sit the final diploma exam also must pass a brutal (and fairly rapid) tasting. I know someone who is sitting this tasting by invitation, and she has been studying her a__ off for a month, mostly through 'blind' tastings (you identify the wine - type, age, and region - by tasting, without knowing anything about it until it's poured into your glass).

  3. Society of Wine Educators - This group exists to promote standards of qualification in the education of wine. Their focus is on deep understanding of wine taste, identifying wine faults, and having detailed knowledge of the geography, science, and history of wine. Members (of which I am one) and non-members can sit two levels of exams to achieve qualifications that are meant to prove that you know what you're talking about when you speak or teach on the subject of wine:

    Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) - This exam is a bit like the Boards of wine: 100 questions (a bit more difficult than those of the WSET Advanced exam), 1 hour, 75% needed to pass.

    Certified Wine Educator (CWE) - More difficult exam, plus two tastings to identify similar wines from different world regions and wine faults, respectively. I have met people that have failed these tastings multiple times - it's brutal.
After that, come various certification and education programs around the globe that are local, and are NOT internationally recognized. These can be fun, local, and usually require no wine knowledge to get started. They're a great way to learn more about wine. There are probably about a billion of these such programs, give or take several million. As an example, I've heard good things about the Wine Spectator School, which offers classes on-line. A quick search on the Internet will turn up all kinds of these, or varying difficulty and interest. Are these local things any good?

Well... sort of...

If you want to learn a bit more about wine, by all means seek out a local program near you and have fun. If that program asks for lots of your hard-earned dollars (I'm talking $1000s here) to give you what they tell you is a "professional" certification that rivals the three I have outlined above, then ***walk away as fast as you can***. And keep your hand firmly on your wallet and/or purse while you exit.

Cheers!

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