A sommelier is a professional wine steward who often possesses a vast knowledge of wine and other spirits. This knowledge can be gained through years of hands-on experience working with wine, through a series of professional sommelier courses, or a combination of both. For individuals wishing to gain knowledge by taking the most recognized sommelier courses, there are four basic levels to choose from—introductory sommelier, certified sommelier, advanced sommelier, and master sommelier. When all four courses have been completed, the sommelier can be considered for membership in the Court of Master Sommeliers, one of the greatest achievements that can be held in the wine service industry.
The introductory sommelier courses are designed to present the student with a wide range of basic knowledge. This entry-level course focuses primarily on the historical and technical aspects of wine, covering topics such as region and vineyard recognition and common grape varieties used during the wine-making process. The course also covers the basics of wine-tasting techniques and a brief introduction to proper wine-serving methods. Proper storage methods and wine-cellar maintenance are also touched upon.
Once an individual has completed the introductory sommelier exam, he may then move on to the certified sommelier course. Technically, this course only includes a written exam with no formal training time involved. In order to pass the exam and become a certified sommelier, however, the student must use their self-study skills, third-party training classes, and on-the-job experience to delve further into the basic items covered in the first course. Exams for the level two sommelier courses cover include one written portion, centered on wine theory and history, and two hands-on portions, focused on wine service standards and blind tasting of three separate wines.
The third level of sommelier courses allow students the opportunity to obtain the designation of advanced sommelier. This course is similar to the first in that it involves both a seminar and training aspect as well as a final exam. The exam itself, however, is nearly identical in format to the level two test. In order to pass the exam, the student must have a more in-depth knowledge of wine in general, be able to pass a blind tasting with six different wines, and exhibit an expert knowledge of selling and serving wines.
The most advanced category of sommelier courses involves the fourth and final level of training and testing which, when completed successfully, grants the honored distinction of master sommelier. In order to receive a master sommelier diploma and designation, the student must show a near-perfect grasp of all the topics covered in the first three sommelier courses. The test is, once again, structured in a similar manner to the first three exams; however, the grading is done in a much more stringent manner. The required passing score for the master course is significantly higher, and the number of wines included in the blind tasting tends to involve less common wine varieties. The wine service portion is also graded highly on personality, as opposed to simple technical knowledge of proper service techniques.