Ballpark estimate: $1,350+
Many people enjoy a glass of wine over dinner. But when you go to your local liquor store, how much do you really know about what you’re selecting?
The type and quality of the wine you prefer is a very individual thing. Some people are satisfied with a $10 local blend, others may prefer to splurge on a fine French bourdoux for $300 to $400 or more (and much, much more, if your budget can support it). And whether the extra investment is really worth it all depends on how cultivated your palette is and how big an appreciation you have for wine. If you’re someone who truly “gets” the concept of buying a good vintage and in fact, feels passionate about the topic, then you might want to consider putting your wine knowledge to work for you by becoming a sommelier and getting paid to do something you love.
What is a Sommelier?
A professional sommelier is a wine expert who is often hired by fine restaurants, five-star hotels, and very high-end wine retailers to serve a vital role in helping customers make great wine selections based on taste, aroma, and color.
While anyone with expertise in fine wines who understands the differences among grapes and vineyards, regions, labeling, and pairings can land a job as a sommelier, you can greatly increase your chances of getting hired by a fine dining establishment if you undergo formal training and become certified in the field. Certified sommeliers can also command a higher salary than their untrained counterparts, so your investment in education may pay off over time in what you can earn when you put it to work. Further, regardless of whether you are certified or not, a good sommelier is also well versed in customer service, since you’ll need to keep customers happy.
Characteristics of a Sommelier
There are some important characteristics of a successful sommelier that you should evaluate before deciding to take the plunge into training for this career. First and foremost, you’ll need to enjoy wine. You’ll also need a keen sense of smell and taste in order to succeed in this role, since you’ll be required to use these senses to evaluate the product in question. Finally, you’ll need a strong command of the English language in order to describe what you’re tasting and smelling to customers who may have little or no knowledge. (You may also be challenged by fellow wine connoisseurs whom you may have to serve, thus testing your knowledge in unexpected ways.)
Specialized Knowledge Needed
There are also many nuances about the wine industry that a sommelier needs to master. For instance, you’ll need to know the difference between how wine is labeled in the U.S. versus other countries. Consider this: In France, the name of the wine represents the region where the grapes are grown and the wine is produced. The simplest and most widely know example is Champagne, which originates in the Champagne region of France. In the U.S., on the other hand, wine is labeled based on the type of grapes used to make the wine, such as Chardonnay, which is made from Chardonnay grapes.
In France, the same wine would be labeled White Burgundy because Chardonnay grapes are primarily grown in Burgundy. Oddly enough, most Americans would expect a Burgundy wine to be red, which is made from the Pinot Noir grape, also grown in Burgundy. Another important fact is that French law governs the labeling of wine.
As you can imagine, with this kind of very specialized knowledge needed, the sommelier is forever learning about new wines that have recently come to market and finding new ways to evaluate and describe these to clients and customers. This requires ongoing education as well as the ability to teach oneself every day on the job.
Training Programs and Schools
Competition for the best sommelier jobs is stiff. Therefore, to get a leg up on the competition, it helps to attend a good training program. Some of the most respected options include the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York, the International Culinary Center in Silicon Valley, Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, and the Boston University School of Hospitality.
However, the simplest and shortest route to be a certified sommelier can be by getting trained through the Court of Master Sommeliers, which is the same organization that manages the testing and certification process. This certainly seems like a great option if your primary interest is to become a sommelier and you don’t need a degree in the process.
Cost to be a Certified Sommelier
An introductory sommelier course through the Court of Master Sommeliers is just $525, with a follow-up course at $395 and an exam fee of $395. If you pass the exam on your first try, this means you can become a Certified Sommelier with your out-of-pocket costs totaling about $1,315. (Just keep in mind that if you need to take the exam more than once, the full price of $395 applies each time so it can add up quickly.)
Once you get your regular certification, you can move up to take the advanced sommelier course. This is priced at $995 and includes a great deal of hands-on training. Once you complete the advanced training, you can sit for the advanced exam at an additional fee of $995. So this means it will cost you $1,990 for the advanced training and exam (in addition to the costs for the standard certification, of course).
To become a Master Sommelier, you’ll need to work for a number of years and apply for certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers, which includes taking three separate tests (theory, tasting, and practical at a price of $795 for each one. This brings the total cost for becoming a Master Sommelier to $2,305 (plus what you already spent to get to this point.) However, it’s almost impossible to pass the three exams on your first try and many people try numerous times. Further, only a small number of people are ever successful in earning their master sommelier designation.
Another route to sommelier certification is to enroll in an Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree program that offers courses in wine expertise. This will give you more varied traning and experience to fall back on and will prepare you for a wider array of jobs. Associate’s Degree programs at community colleges will often include wine classes and can cost as little as $15,000. If you prefer to earn a Bachelor’s Degree, you might look to focus on this area within the hospitality program at Boston University, where the overall cost will be more than $200,000.
The Pay Off
So it is worth it to become a master sommelier? It all depends. The pay scale for a certified Sommelier starts at about $20,000 per year for entry-level positions and goes up to more than $70,000 for advanced Sommeliers employed in fine restaurants or hotels. Further, those elite who reach the enviable master sommelier status can expect to make $150,000 or more, since they are very in demand. But in addition to the money you’ll earn, you’ll find that working in the wine field is a rewarding and enjoyable experience that is likely to quench even the biggest wine drinker’s thirst for knowledge.