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  • Alexander Smith

How to get into the Wine Industry

I have been in the Wine Industry for close to two years now. I own and run Points on Wine along with a new Promotional Agency in Quebec, Canada called Wines by Alexander. Both of these ventures allow me to express the passion I have for wines and wineries I respect. It took me close to two years to get to where I am, and I have never been happier, however this post is not about how much I love wine or the wineries I represent in Quebec, but how YOU can get into the wine industry.


Whether you just want to learn more about wine, start a blog, distribution company, wine bar or anything in between there are many courses and accreditations in the market place for you to become a true wine expert. However a word of warning, you will NEVER know EVERYTHING about wine. Just take Italy, there are over 350 classified grape varieties along with more than 500 unclassified, how can one person memorize all those varieties? That is just Italy, and then add the regions, appellations, yields, terroir, climate, vintage variation it JUST NEVER ENDS. I am not trying to discourage you, but just keep your feet on the ground. Now let's get to it.


The two most talked about qualifications are the Master Sommelier (MS) and the Master of Wine (MW) titles. Neither have been passed by more than 400 people and the pass rate is between 5-10%. However you do not have to complete one of these qualifications to be fully recognized in the industry. Some of the most talented individuals I have ever met in the industry have little to no formal training. The main reason is that when these individuals started their career, the infrastructure was just not there, however with the internet today, it is much easier to access 100s of online and distant learning wine courses.



Apart from the MS and MW courses there are also other accreditations which offer global recognition, including WSET and Wine Scholar Guild. For this guide I will discuss my experiences with these courses and who I believe they are suited to. As you can imagine the Wine Industry is known as an expensive industry and so I will discuss the pros and cons of each course and cost estimates due to samples, travelling etc. I will also discuss how to reduce those costs and ways to improve your chances of passing the exam.


Other factors to consider, do you have 1-2 hours a week or 10-20 hours. Do you work in the industry or are just looking to improve your knowledge? Restaurant or Wine Shop? Lots to discuss, so let's get into the nuts and bolts.


Court of Master Sommelier

Background: For those who have watched the SOMM series you know what all about this. For those who have not, go watch SOMM and you will be automatically hooked. This is a 4 level course. I completed both Levels 1 and 2 on the first attempt, and so I can only detail what worked for me. For Level 3 and 4 I have taken what others who have passed the exam discussed with me.


Level 1 - Introductory Course ($699 US)

Course Outline: A 2 day course which involves a multiple choice test at the end of the second day. There is no tasting exam but there is tasting practice to help prepare you for Level 2. There is no requirement of previous restaurant experience for this level. You will receive a certificate, however you need to complete level 2 before becoming a Certified Sommelier.

Additional Cost: No additional wines are required to pass this part of the course.

Time Required: Around 24 hours of studying time should be allocated prior to the course to ensure you fully understand the material. However less or more time might be required depending on your prior knowledge.

Pre-qualification: None

Pass rate: 90%

Tips: Study the book in advance, don't wait until the 2 day course, you do not want to retake this part.



Level 2 - Certified Exam ($595 US)

Course Outline: A 1 day exam which consists of a Tasting, Theory and Practical part.

- Tasting: 2 whites and 2 reds, by using a supplied grid you need to evaluate aromas, tastes, acidity, possible varieties and regions etc.

- Theory: 45 question exam, there is no book

- Service: A mock restaurant where you will be asked anything from food/wine pairings to opening a bottle of Champagne.

Additional Cost: The CMS will provide a list of possible varieties which may be tested. I believe around $4,000 should be set aside to purchase wines which include all different regions, varieties and ages are evaluated.

Time Required: They recommend 1 year between Level 1 and Level 2, I probably studied around 5-10 hours per week for a year to ensure all 3 parts were properly covered.

Pre-qualification: Level 1

Pass rate: 60%

Tips:

- Tasting:Join a tasting group( I did not ) or have an understanding partner who will pour wines for you( I did ) Buy a Coravin, this will save you $$. Finally: Taste, taste, taste

- Theory: Join GuildSomm, fully understand the sections on all regions and complete both the beginner and intermediate tests and you should be fine. There are multiple books which help to provide you an overview of the wine industry, however GuildSomm had everything I needed to pass.

- Service: I did not work in a restaurant when I took the exam and so this was the most difficult for me. Buy a lot of Cheap Sparkling wine and learn how to open it properly: https://vimeo.com/37904814. Learn how to pour wine, walk around with a tray of empty and full glasses of wine. If you can work a few shifts at a local restaurant that will probably work best.

Suitable for: Sommeliers in a restaurants, wine event planner


Level 3 - Advanced Sommelier Course ($2600 US)

Course Outline: A 3 day Course followed by a 3 day exam which consists of a Tasting, Theory and Practical part.

- Tasting: 3 whites and 3 reds, to evaluate aromas, tastes, acidity, exact varieties and regions.

- Theory: Multi-section theory exam

- Service: A mock restaurant where you will be asked anything from food/wine pairings to opening a bottle of Champagne, more intense than the Certified course.

Additional Cost: The CMS will provide a list of possible varieties which may be served. I believe around $8,000 should be set aside to ensure all different regions, varieties and ages are evaluated. If you work in a restaurant this number is significantly reduced.

Time Required: They recommend 1 year between the Level 2 and Level 3. You should aim to study around 20-30 hours per week during this time.

Pre-qualification: Level 2 + 3 years service

Pass rate: 25-30%

Tips: Since I have not taken this exam, I can only go with what I have been told by those who have passed it. Join a study group, signup to GuildSomm. Master all of the levels including the Advanced questions. Also look into taking other courses (WSG) to improve your knowledge of regions you feel less comfortable with.

Suitable for: Head sommelier in a high end restaurant, wine buyer for a restaurant group


Level 4 - Master Sommelier Course ($1795 US)

Course Outline: An exam for theory with a later 3 day exam which includes both tasting and a service part.

- Tasting: 3 whites and 3 reds, you need to evaluate aromas, tastes, acidity, exact varieties and regions.

- Theory: Multi-section theory exam

- Service: A mock restaurant where you will be asked anything from food/wine pairings to serving wine, more intense than the Advanced course.

Additional Cost: The CMS will provide a list of possible varieties which may be tested. I believe around $12,000 should be set aside to ensure all different regions, varieties and ages are evaluated. This number might seem high and assuming you have access to wine due to working in a restaurant this amount is significantly reduced.

Time Required: 1 year between the Level 3 and Level 4 minimum. You should aim to study around 30 hours per week during this time. This is a vague guide and probably more to ensure you do not have to retake the exam.

Pre-qualification: Level 3

Pass rate: 10%

Tips: Join a Study group, get an MS mentor and surround yourself with wine geeks

Suitable for: Wine Ambassador, Head Sommelier at a Michelin Restaurant, Specialist Retail shop owner/Wine Club


WSET (Wine & Spirit Educational Trust)

Background: This is the most accessible set of courses and is designed to take a candidate with little to no knowledge of wine from 0 to Pro. The courses are well crafted and assume you have no other training. This is probably the preferred option for most candidates. This is more theoretical compared to the Court of Master Sommelier with no requirement of opening a bottle of wine or carrying a tray with drinks! The WSET also recently did a complete overhaul and now they specialize in wines instead of both wines and spirits.


Level 1 Awards in Wine ($350 USD)

Course Outline: A one day course with an exam consisting of multiple choice questions on the basics of wines, varieties and how to serve them.

Additional Cost: No additional cost

Time Required: 6 hours

Pre-qualification: None

Pass rate: High


Level 2 Awards in Wine ($750 USD)

Course Outline: A three day course learning how to use the SAT approach to tasting wines, along with theory of grape varieties, regions etc. Final exam consists of a 50 multiple choice question.

Additional Cost: No additional cost

Time Required: 11 hours of personal time

Pre-qualification: Level 1 or sufficient knowledge.

Pass rate: ~80%


Level 3 Awards in Wine ($1200USD)

Course Outline: a 30 hour course which studies the Level 3 manual along with using the SAT to evaluate the quality of different wines. The exam consists of 50 multiple choice questions, 4 short questions (which are longer than you think!) and 2 wines which are to be evaluated as per the SAT approach

Additional Cost: $300-500 to buy the samples tasted in course.

Time Required: 54 hours of personal time

Pre-qualification: Level 2 or equivalent knowledge.

Pass rate: ~60%

Tips: Read and understand the manual prior to the course. Make a note of all samples tasted in course and ensure you are able to match your teachers tasting notes. Most students fail on the short questions. I recommend the following resources to help you: https://www.thirtyfifty.co.uk/WSET-L3-Exam-Questions.asp

https://www.finevintageltd.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Fine-Vintage-Level-3-Practice-Questions.pdf

Suitable for: Wine Educator, Wine Distributor


Level 4 Diploma in Wine ($7500USD)

Course Outline: an 18 months diploma which includes the following section: wine production, wine business, wines of the world, sparkling wines, fortified wines and a research assignment. There are multiple theoretical and tasting exams throughout the course

Additional Cost: $5000 to buy the samples tasted in course.

Time Required: 370 hours of personal time

Pre-qualification: Level 3

Pass rate: ~60%

Tips: With no official books I would recommend the following for casual reading:

- Oxford Companion to Wine - Jancis Robinson

- Understanding Wine Technology - David Bird

- Viticulture, an introduction - Stephen Skelton

- The Port Companion - Godfrey Spence

- World Wine Atlas - Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robison

For the tasting portion it is recommended to join a study group who are following the same course as you.

Suitable for: Wine Marketing Manager, Brand Ambassador


Master of Wine

Background: Once completion of the WSET Level 4, the next natural course is the Master of Wine, which includes 3 stages. There are multiple exams along the way, and you must pass Stage 1 before going onto Stage 2 etc. This is the pinnacle of wine education and with less than 400 in the world, this is a highly sought-after title.

Suitable for: Wine Writer, Wine Educator, Winemaker, Wine Judge, Wine Consultant, Sky is the limit!


Stage 1 - Foundation Year (3,300 GBP)

Course Outline: This is the foundation year and includes seminars, course days and assignments. Mentors are provided, and study groups suggested. The exam at the end of the first year includes a 12 wine tasting paper along with two essays.

Additional Cost: This is very difficult to evaluate due to the traveling required, additional books, samples etc. I would not be surprised to see around $10,000 additional required.

Time Required: 40 hours per week

Pre-qualification: WSET Level 4 or similar


Stage 2 - Intermediate year (5,000 GBP)

Course Outline: This is the intermediate year and includes seminars, course days and assignments. Mentors are provided and study groups suggested.The exam at the end of the second year is both practical and theoretical

Additional Cost: This is very difficult to evaluate due to the traveling required, additional books, samples etc. I would not be surprised to see around $10,000 additional required.

Time Required: 40 hours per week

Pre-qualification: Stage 1


Stage 3 - Research Paper (1,400 GBP)

Course Outline: This final year is dedicated to a research paper on the subject and contribution to the world of wine of 6,000-10,000 words

Additional Cost: Unless you require to travel to certain destinations this will probably be your 'cheapest' year.

Time Required: How long does it take you to write 10,000 words?

Pre-qualification: Stage 2


Wine Scholar Guild

Background: These online/instructor courses help to solidify regions which you might struggle with when working towards the MS or MW title. There is no tasting component, however the theory is top notch. They cover France, Italy and Spain along with further sub-regions in France such as Burgundy, Bordeaux and Rhone.

Suitable for: Specialist Buyer, Wine Educator


Country - France, Italy, Spain ($595 US, self-taught or $790 instructor led)

Course Outline: I used the self-taught option which includes online seminars, podcasts and all the material required to succeed. Practice questions, quizzes also help to ensure you have every chance possible to succeed.

Additional Cost: No additional cost unless purchasing samples to understand the different regions. $500-700

Time Required: 200 hours or so

Pre-qualification: WSET Level 3 or Certified Sommelier Level is recommended but not required.


Hopefully the above will help to guide you in your wine career, any questions or corrections to the above based on your experience let me know.






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