Grow your Wine Knowledge - Taking the Next Step

Jonny pointing at wine map on a screen
WSET learning materials

Divine Education Part 2

In part one of Grow your Wine Knowledge, we looked at ways to increase your wine knowledge without taking any ‘official’ wine certifications. Many of those activities are enjoyable and easy to do as you go along with life on a day-to-day basis, but there are organisations that have evolved over the last few decades to produce fantastic wine education with certification that is recognised the world over.

You might think that only wine professionals take classes and sit exams, but that is definitely not the case these days. 20 years ago, a wine classroom was usually made up of wine shop and restaurant workers, aspirant sommeliers and members of buying teams and sales reps. Today the majority of those attending a wine course are there for the love of wine, and enjoy more structured classes to help them understand this enormous and fascinating subject.

You can start with a basic introduction and in theory continue until you are one of the few Masters of Wine – only around 400 in the world!

Wine Qualifications

Let’s start with most widely recognised wine qualifications that have been taken by many thousands of people since it was founded in 1969...

WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust)

WSET offer four levels of wine education and have expanded over the years to include courses on Spirits, Sake and Beer.

WSET courses are based around wine knowledge and tasting skills. They don’t really test or cover wine service and service-skills, or any other beverages in the wine courses (unlike sommelier courses/exams). WSET is not a sommelier certification, but it is a solid way for those attempting a sommelier exam, or working as a sommelier to attain a good base of wine knowledge.

It is however, the main way to learn about wine in a professional sense that can be applied to numerous careers in the wine trade.

Level 1 – A basic introductory level covering core grape varieties and famous regions. A 30-question multiple choice exam completes this one-day course.  A score of 70% is required to pass.

Level 2 – A step up in knowledge, covering the main well-known wines from around the world, basic wine making and its effect on flavour. A 50-question multiple choice exam completes the course and 55% is the passing score.

Level 3 – Generally seen as the benchmark education for a wine professional. The syllabus explains why and how wines taste the way they do and the effect this has on quality and price. It Includes many wines and styles from across the wine-producing world. The exam is over 2 and a half hours and includes 2 blind tasting wines, multiple choice, and written questions. A score of 55% on both theory and tasting exams is required for a Pass, with Merit and Distinctions awarded for scores over 65% and 80% respectively.

Level 4 (Diploma). A serious and intense study into all aspects of wine, viticulture, oenology and the business of wine. This course typically takes 2 to 3 years studied part time while working. Each of the six modules has an exam or assessment and includes 18 wines tasted blind. A score of 55% is required on all modules to gain your diploma. Merit is awarded at 65% and Distinction at 75%.

After completing the Diploma you can also qualify as an Approved Educator and Assessor after passing an Educator Training Program and teach the other levels and inspire a new generation of wine aficionados.

Wine Scholar Guild

The Wine Scholar Guild was founded in 2005 and runs specialist courses in three countries: France, Italy and Spain. They offer an ‘Essentials’ course and exam as well as their flagship Wine Scholar courses and exams in each of the three countries. These are very deep studies on the wines, the land and history and offer a thorough course and tastings of many of the less common wines as well as the classics. They also offer ‘Masters’ courses in some of the French wine regions, aimed at experts with a particular interest. A pass mark of 75% is required, with honours and highest honours awarded at 85% and 91% respectively.



French Wine Essentials
Italian Wine Essentials
Spanish Wine Essentials


French Wine Scholar 
Italian Wine Scholar
Spanish Wine Scholar

Court of Master Sommeliers

The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) was founded in the UK in 1977 and aimed to have official certifications for people working in hospitality with wine, often using the term ‘sommelier’ without necessarily having any formal qualifications. They have chapters in Europe, based in the UK, The Americas based in the US, and a satellite chapter for Oceania based in Australia. A sommelier qualification is not limited to wine but covers spirits, cocktails, beer and sake, as well as deep knowledge on service, storage, and food pairing.

Level 1 – Introductory Certificate – A two-day intensive course recapping assumed wine knowledge with a multiple-choice exam at the end of the second or on the third day.

Level 2 – Certified Sommelier – This is a tough test that expects excellent wine and all other beverage knowledge as well as all aspects of wine list creation, service and talking to guests. The written exam is a combination of multiple choice and written answers, a blind tasting of two wines, which is then followed by a practical service exam and assessed demonstration.

Level 3 – Advanced Sommelier – A very challenging exam that tests all aspects of a sommelier’s knowledge, expertise and skills in service and interacting with restaurant patrons. The exam consists of a theory paper, 6 wines tasted blind in 25 minutes describing them orally in front of the examiner, as well as a 45-minute service test. The passing grade is 60% in all sections.

Level 4 – Master Sommelier – Along with the Master of Wine exam, this is seen as the most difficult test of a wine professional, following the same format as the Advanced exam with a higher pass mark (75% in all sections). There are currently only 273 Master Sommeliers in the world.

Notable sommeliers who have passed the Master Sommelier exam include Gerard Basset, Rajat Parr and Ronan Sayburn.

Institute of Masters of Wine

This is the pinnacle of wine qualifications along with the Master Sommelier Diploma (above). Becoming a Master of Wine is a long and challenging journey and a WSET Diploma or equivalent is recommended before you start. Lectures and trips are held at various times of the year and the MW course is split over three stages, each with its own assessment.

Stage 1 – The first stage includes submitting 6 projects, then taking a blind tasting exam of 12 wines, as well as a written exam of two theory papers.

Stage 2 – An intense period of study and seminars that culminates in three 12-wine blind tastings and a written exam of five theory essays. Passing all elements is essential to continue to the next stage.

Stage 3 – The final stage is focussed on a personal research project of up to 10,000 words that focusses on wine in some aspect and should analyse and show deep understanding of the chosen subject.

This process takes a minimum of three years, but many candidates take longer. There are currently 414 Masters of Wine in the world, and this number incudes wine luminaries such as Jancis Robinson, Serena Sutcliffe, Clive Coates and Tim Aitkin.

Other wine qualifications and education bodies:

  • The International Sommelier Guild (ISG) offers courses from introductory to sommelier diploma and more advanced programs.
  • The UK Sommelier Academy is the UK’s representative body to the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) and runs all the ASI’s courses and exams up to the ASI Diploma.
  • The Society of Wine Educators is a US based educator (available internationally) that has two levels of courses and certification Certified Specialist in Wine and Certified Wine Educator.

A definitive comparison of wine education and certifications is very tricky as different exams require different sets of skills (e.g. practical service) or focus on specific areas (particularly the Wine Scholar Guild). However, the below is a broad graphic guide to the approximate level of knowledge and difficulty of passing the exam.

Wine Education and Qualifications Chart

Blog by Jonny Tyson