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Clarifying Credential Blur

December 11, 2014

Clarifying Credential BlurThere are no legal requirements for anyone to become credentialed to work as, or call themselves, a sommelier. However, many individuals decide to challenge themselves, demonstrate their knowledge and add initials to their resume. Many people are confused by what I call wine credential blur. There are at least a dozen sommelier credentialing bodies or schools that offer their own sommelier programs. Since I wrote about this in 2012, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) has added a sommelier credential and several schools have also created their own programs. It is hard for most people to tell which one is best.

This is further muddled by competing and sometimes misleading claims.  It is also confusing to many whether a sommelier credential is right for them. There are other organizations to consider, such as the aforementioned WSET, the Institute of Masters of Wine, the Society of Wine Educators and specialized groups such as the French Wine Society, Italian Wine Central, Bordeaux Educator program, Sherry Educator program, Cicerone and others. To demonstrate deep knowledge of wine globally I believe there are three international exams that are the most reputable and prestigious: Master of Wine (MW), Master Sommelier (MS) and Certified Wine Educator (CWE).

All three are primarily self-study programs. Deciding which to pursue is the first challenge. If you are going to work in service, Master Sommelier is the clear choice. If you have not worked in service and do not plan on doing so, it will be nearly impossible to get beyond level 2, Certified Sommelier. If you want to teach, Certified Wine Educator offered by the Society of Wine Educators is perfect. If you work, or hope to work, in distribution or marketing Master of Wine might be the right fit. Another organization worth discussing further is WSET as they provide a formal study program, unlike the others, which as I said are mostly self-study. Most MW candidates use WSETs 4-level program as preparation for the MW exam. Passing the WSET Diploma is in and of itself an impressive feat.

Watching students navigate, and often become confounded by all of these various educational paths played a large part in the inspiration behind the San Francisco Wine School.  I wanted to provide educational programs that help students with their wine careers, not just the exams. It was clear that some graduates had no intention of working as sommeliers but this was their best educational option. There was also a demand and need for continuing education after the Certified Sommelier exam. I knew that an independent wine school would have more focus and give higher priority to wine education than a culinary school ever could.

Our instructors are as diverse as our programs, with some coming from retail, wholesale, import, restaurant, writing and collecting backgrounds with credentials from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), Institute of Masters of Wine, Society of Wine Educators, French Wine Society and more. There are nay sayers out there who believe that only on the job learning is valid but there are no other professions that completely bypass formal education and licensing or certification. We emphasize the importance of work experience, volunteering, networking, reading, travel, wining and dining in addition to everything we provide in the classroom. More credential programs are on the way both in the classroom and online and continuing education workshops are under development. The industry is getting more competitive every day and formal education will give workers an edge.

I’d like to add that a linear path is not the only way to go. The wandering route of exploring anything and everything that adds to your knowledge and experience base is valuable as well. The journey is often as important as the destination, but it’s nice to know which way to start walking.

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