In Defense of Pins...

When I originally got wind of yet another controversial article on PUNCH, "The Myth of Sommelier Certification, Debunked", I was too busy to read it.


Because I was prepping for the Advanced Wine and Spirits Education Trust Exam. Complete with blind tastings, multiple choice, and essay questions.

AND, earlier this month, I took the Introductory Course with the Court of Master Sommeliers

In a future post, I'll compare these two certifications (CMS vs WSET), but first, I just wanted to chime in on this interwebs-convo on the matter of what these certifications "really" mean.

As a I mentioned, I recently took two courses. The WSET Advanced was over 40 hours in lectures, and the exam was intense. I keep on having flashbacks of things I forgot to mention in the essays...Sadly, I won't know the results for 2 months... The course at the International Wine Center in NYC was great, and there was a little celebration at the end of the course (which is now overshadowed by my fears of the results).

For the Introductory Course with the Court of Master Sommeliers at the International Culinary Center, there was a mutliple-choice exam after two full days. Gratefully, I passed and found out the results less than 1hr after the exam. (Graded by hand by Master Sommeliers, not a scantron!)

There was even a lovely ceremony with Champagne, certificates, pins, and clapping!

I took a photo of my fancy pin, and made it look extra fancy with Instagram Filters

I was happy, but in a way, it was a little anti-climatic. Several people were taking the Certified Level the next day, so everyone ran off to rest (or study).

By the time I got home, my wonderful husband had announced my achievement on Facebook. There were a number of very sweet congratulatory comments.  

I even got a text from a friend, "Congratulations, Sommelier!"

No. No, no. NO.

I had to correct everyone. And it was, and still is awkward.

ALTHOUGH I am involved in the industry in a number of capacities:

  • I intern at a wine bar from time to time
  • I do educational events (dinners, and wine tours)
  • I've helped develop a wine list for a restaurant, and even co-run staff training

I am NOT on the floor doing nightly service, so I'm not a Sommelier.

Do I know a lot of facts about wine? Sure. Can I help you pick a wine based on your likes, dislikes, and match it with your dish? Yeah. I'm pretty good, I think.

But am I a Sommelier?

Eh, no. Not really. I don't think so. What is the official definition of a Sommelier?

Wkipedia says, " A restaurant employee who orders and maintains the wines sold in the restaurant and usually has extensive knowledge about wine and food pairings."

But Oxford simply says, "a wine steward."  Does it have to be in a restaurant?

Either way, I cannot be a "Certified Sommelier" unless pass the higher level (previously mentioned) with the Court of Master Sommeliers, critically, which includes a service component. (See here for exam details).

In theory, I can open Champagne and decant old bottles. I can pour from the right, and circle around the table clock-wise. I've read about these things. I can write out the steps for you. I can even draw you a diagram. I've seen it done several times. 

However, if asked to perform these actions, I would certainly not have the agility or skill that a full-time floor Sommelier would have, even if he/she never took these courses.

Just for fun, let's consider an alternate scenario:

WHAT IF I was not a graduate student (haaaa - like I'll ever get out) and actually worked in a restaurant full time for a few years? If I did not have a certificate, yet I exclusively assisted guests with the wine list, would I be a Sommelier? I think so. That seems like a Sommelier, no?

Based on that, I wholeheartedly agree with the PUNCH piece that certifications do not magically make one a Sommelier, nor do I think any less of someone without these certifications.

THEN, WHY even bother with these certifications?

The fact remains: 

Formal education, especially for someone like me, who is working her way from the outside-inward, is just one way to show that I am serious and really committed. But this definitely does not  mean you don't care if you do not pursue formal education in the wine-spirits industry.  (WHOA - lots of double negatives there...)

Perhaps those who do not pursue certifications are more confident, or more secure? Why waste time studying for an exam, if you're already at the top? Maybe you want to devote more time to reading about specific producers or tasting, or traveling?

These courses can also be really pricey, so why take it unless it is worth it to you for some reason? (I only took classes when I could get scholarships or enroll at a reduced rate - Tips on this in another future post.) 

Additionally, in my opinion, these exams are not "easy", especially if you don't put in any effort. I studied ahead of time, and I'm glad I did. These are not exams you can just walk into and pass. In fact, NOT everyone DID pass. Even people with service experience FAILED.

Now, does this mean that the service would be terrible if I went to their restaurant? Probably not. If they know their list and menu, they might be excellent at service, even if they can't name the five primary grapes used in PORT. That said, it is nice to know that Tinta Roriz is a synonym for Tempranillo, which is the main grape used in Rioja, Spain. 

Back to the point: Since I'm not full-time in the service industry, I feel as though I need these certifications to demonstrate my potential.

Exams are simply an easy way to "quantify" abilities. It doesn't mean those without these certifications are less knowledgable, but I can at least prove that I know SOMETHING. People will take my recommendations more seriously.

Instantly, those NOT in the wine-community are impressed when they hear the word "SOMMELIER". I can see why PUNCH wanted to clarify that all these exams are not the only way to succeed in the wine-world. The more letters after a name or more competitions won, the more respect one will receive. Simple. This holds true in almost any industry, sadly. 

To be honest, when I passed the IntroSommelier Exam, I felt silly when people congratulated me. Sure, I studied hard, but I didn't feel all that different or special. I regurgitated (well, recognized) facts, so I got a fancy pin. I did not feel as though I deserved praise (again, in part because I missed a couple of questions - I know. I know... I need to get over it). 

Instead, I regularly feel more pride when I receive compliments after a Wine Dinner or Tour.

When a guest tells me she learned more about wine in 2 hours than in her whole life...THAT makes me GLOW. 

Don't get me wrong: Achieving any certification with the Court of Master Sommeliers or Wine and Spirit Education Trust is an honor. The PINS are AWESOME.

I'm not giving then up. I'll wear them proudly at my next event.

And if I make it to the Certified Level, which involves Blind Tasting and Service... I will truly be ECSTATIC if I pass.

All in all, this post was basically a long way of saying the following:

Whether I'm officially a SOMMELIER or NOT, helping people understand and enjoy wine is an accomplishment.

And as much as Sommeliers on the floor do not need certifications, these courses/certifications DO have merit, serve a purpose, and are helpful to many.

Even beyond the fancy pins, the knowledge I've gained has been tremendous and worthy of my time and effort.

While PUNCH seeks to vindicate Floor Sommeliers without Certifications, I'd like to add that those of us NOT on the floor, but WITH Certifications can still have an impact. Don't knock those PINS too much.