When Wine Geek was a little wine geek, his father’s best friend sold ‘booze’. Not exactly sure of everything he sold, but Geek specifically remembers hearing that said salesman ‘could drink any man in town under the table’. Apparently, this was the skill-set needed to be a ‘booze salesman’ in the 50’s & 60’s. We assume that the lifespan of such a career was roughly equal to that of a player in the NFL—taking such a beating week in and week out usually wears one down quickly. In the 70’s and 80’s (and probably into the 90’s) the required skills for a wine sales rep were showing up and ‘merchandising’ the products—stocking shelves, putting up ‘point of sale’, encouraging discounted prices; perhaps it was a wine rep that said ‘half of life is just showing up’. Happily, this is NOT how the drinks business works currently: in this third millennia, having product knowledge, business acumen, & marketing savvy are much more important—indeed requirements—if one is to succeed selling alcohol beverages today.
Led by the Institute of Masters of Wine, which was founded in London in 1955 and bestowed the title of ‘Master of Wine’ (or M.W.) on a small group of individuals that passed a very rigorous series of tests confirming their wine knowledge, there are now numerous organizations that offer education & training and their own ‘post-nominals’, some fairly broad (Certified Wine Professional or CWP), some very specific (Certified Sake Professional or CSP). Wine Geek (CWE/CSP) was at a conference recently and it seemed everyone had some sort of letters after their names—some of which he had never heard of before—so we thought it an appropriate subject to address and help clarify for our readers.
Without exception, the organizations/sanctioning bodies that issue these certifications take it very seriously. All of the post-nominals we refer to here require significant knowledge (sometimes incredible knowledge), have proctored exams (not open book, on-line tests) and hold their members to certain standards. Try showing up at the test for a Certified Specialist of Wine ten minutes late and see if they let you in. Of course, there is a stratification of these credentials: there are around 300 MW’s in the world, after almost 60 years in existence—very, very hard to achieve—but there are 5,700 CSW’s in the US & Canada alone (and growing annually)—and it isn’t easy in spite of the numbers. The various organizations emphasize various things: The Court of Master Sommeliers focuses, of course, on beverage service in restaurants; the Society of Wine Educators is a ‘train the trainer’ organization that stresses product knowledge in general, emphasizing an understanding of the rules and nomenclature of all of the world’s growing regions; the Sake Education Council… well you can guess. Though most of these organizations are non-profits, this does not mean they offer education for free. Au Contraire: the estimated cost to earn a ‘Diploma’ (WSD) from Great Britain’s Wine & Spirits Education Trust (one step below a Master of Wine) is about $20,000… not counting travel and samples (one does need to taste to sharpen their skills). A Sake Certification (CSP) is around $900 (not counting any optional trips to work in a sake brewery in Japan). In Geek’s Sake Certification class, there were approximately 60 people for the three day course—do that math! Of course, this means there are now many organizations offering classes and certifications; in Philadelphia alone there are three highly regarded, professional wine schools (and most major cities have at least one). Most are indeed good, but always make sure they are certified to teach the credential you are seeking.
As for the need/value of these certifications that is in the eye of the beholder, i.e. the customer. Most people would feel better getting their Lasik surgery from a ‘Board Certified’ Ophthalmologist (rather than the one who can do them the fastest, for example) or have their furnace serviced by a Certified HVAC specialist (carbon monoxide is nothing to trifle with), so why would a restaurateur not want the person who consults on their wine list/beverage program—the category that is typically 1/3 of sales and 40-50% of their profits—to know what they are doing (as opposed, again, to the person that can drink the most). GLWAS is proud to note that fully one-third of our sales staff have one of the appropriate certifications, one of the highest if not THE highest in the industry: we are here to help you grow your business!
The following are the most recognized/respected of the education program providers:
Court of Master Sommeliers—Master Sommelier (MS), Advanced Sommelier, Certified Sommelier, Introductory Sommelier
Culinary Institute of America—Certified Wine Professional (CWP)
French Wine Society—French Wine Scholar (FWS)
Institute of Masters of Wine—Master of Wine (MW)
Sake Education Council—Certified Sake Professional (CSP)
Society of Wine Educators—Certified Wine Educator (CWE), Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS), Hospitality/Beverage Specialist
Wine & Spirits Education Trust—Diploma (WSD), Advanced, Level 2, Level 1
???—Italian Wine Professional (IWP) not sure who is behind this, but some serious instructors