Food & Wine Thursdays: Somm? Non.

“So, did you take sommelier classes?”

That’s a question I get a lot. The answer is no, I didn’t take “sommelier classes.” In fact, sommelier classes don’t really exist. What do exist are several independent organizations that “certify” wine professionals and sommeliers for exorbitant fees that can exceed the cost of two years of full-time community college all to be certified in…. booze. Fucking booze. And virtually every program has protocols in place where you can’t naturally test into whatever level is suitable for you, instead requiring advancement through the levels and the payment of each level’s fees, even if professional and personal experience and natural ability doesn’t necessitate it.

In the end, what do you get out of certification? I’m not certain. You can definitely learn a lot of good information, but you can also learn that information by reading books and tasting a lot of wine. You can learn the wine industry’s dictated vocabulary and writing style and become part of the industry hegemony, but do you really want to do that? You might also be able to get really good at blind tasting wine and identifying region, vintage and varietal, but that’s nothing more than a classy parlor trick. Do you want to be a trained monkey amusing millionaires on the Santa Monica Pier that is modern fine-dining?

I wouldn’t say that wine certification programs don’t offer some value in the same way I wouldn’t say that Amway doesn’t sell same some useful products. A lot can be gained by the programs but just as much or more can be gained by independent personal and professional development. I can’t tell you the number of “Certified Sommeliers” and “WSET Advanced” people I’ve met who are surprised that Aligote is a white Burgundy grape and that Garnacha (Grenache) is Spanish, not French.

I also don’t mean to disparage anybody who has taken wine courses and gotten value, pleasure and use from them. I think that’s fantastic and, again, they can have value. I’m merely questioning the structure of the program and the true motives of the administrating bodies.

If a certifying organization aspired to any legitimacy, it would offer its exams and coursework as two separate entities. Anyone could take the examinations for a basic administrative fee and if they passed, they passed–no coursework required. The organizations could then offer adjunct coursework to assist those who wanted or required additional training to pass the examinations. That’s how the SAT, California State Bar and Advanced Placement tests operate and it works well. Some of them all but require a training course (State Bar) some of them don’t at all (SAT) but all of them can be taken and (theoretically) passed without coursework that takes time and a whole lot of money. As it stands right now, the CMS/WSET/MW is essentially the same as if the Educational Testing Service mandated expensive Princeton Review courses before being allowed to take their tests and then collected some or all of the proceeds from the course providers. Sounds pretty much like bullshit when you look at it that way, doesn’t it?

Now wasn’t that a narrowly focused rant?

About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
This entry was posted in Dispatches From Academia, Home of the Bizarre Rant, Wine & Cheese and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Food & Wine Thursdays: Somm? Non.

  1. Louis says:

    The sommelier ignorance reminds me of hearing stories about heavily-certified IT professionals making big money not knowing simple stuff. Like thinking “Linux = MALWARE” or other similar nonsense.

    Though it’s not discussing the same scheme, the Penn & Teller: Bullshit episode on cheerleading goes down similar paths. Basically, they show that all competitive cheerleading is, in some way, owned by one company, and that there’s a significant incentive for them to keep cheerleading from becoming recognized as a sport, since then it would be government-regulated, and they wouldn’t have a monopoly anymore.

    Again, not the same scheme as sommelier certification, but someone’s getting rich when they don’t need to be.

  2. David D. says:

    It’s a tricky line–the cheerleading organization does provide value and a good experience to its participants but will also inevitably end up working against the interests of its participants in its own self-interest. That’s why governing bodies should always be arms length from the systems they govern.

    Certificate programs are the same way. Because soon as the certification program’s existence becomes tied to the revenue coming in by the aspiring certificated you will inevitably see the program’s standards get lower and lower. Who will spend $800 on a program if they can’t get a certificate?

  3. Justin says:

    But don’t you want to be an OT III sommelier?

  4. Pingback: Food & Wine Thursdays: What’s More Important When Learning About Wine? | The Satellite Show

  5. Pingback: Food & Wine Thursdays: Wine Aromas | The Satellite Show

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