Reports of the death of the wine certification are, as ever, greatly exaggerated.
Every so often, a media outlet declares the near-death of wine certifications. One of the more recent examples can be found on VinePair’s website in an article titled “Does Anyone Still Care About Wine Certifications?“
Now, in fairness to the article’s author, despite its click-bait title, it actually does a decent job at suggesting that the answer to its own question is, “Yes, the industry does still care about wine certifications.” The article closes with an open question: “So what are wine professionals to do in what seems like a no-win situation? Should they still encourage their employees to pursue certification programs that are famously broken yet arguably still necessary?”
As we’ll get into in a few moments here, the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes!” as well. It’s worth deconstructing the arguments against the relevancy of wine certifications because they are, in fact, more relevant—and essential—than ever before.
What makes a certification reputable? Meaningful certs start with meaningful educational bodies, and for wine in the USA, that generally means the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), and the Society of Wine Educators (SWE).
Wine Certifications, by the Numbers
Let’s throw some cold, hard numbers on the burning question of wine certification relevancy. A record number of aspiring wine scholars—more than 108,000—sat for a Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) exam last year (beating a previous WSET record set during 2018/19). That, my friends, is a ton of people who apparently still care about earning a wine certification of some type.
For the U.S-based Society of Wine Educators, the period between 2020 and 2022 could hardly be called a failure of interest: it saw more than 5,300 candidates sign up.
That means those looking to break into (or advance in) the wine industry are likely facing tougher competition than ever before, arguably making a well-regarded wine certification a necessity.
After all, a reputable certification acts as a differentiator in a field that looks as crowded as ever. Put another way, given the choice between two candidates for a wine job who are equal in every other way, who would you pick; the one with certification or the one without?
Courting the Court of Master Somms
The VinePair article referenced above starts with a quote from Bay Grape’s Stevie Stacionis regarding industry pros seeking certifications: “‘No one is going through the Court [of Master Sommeliers] anymore.’” That might be her experience, but in the larger view, it’s demonstrably untrue.
Emily Wines, MS, was appointed Chair of the Board of Directors for the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) in the aftermath of the cheating and sexual harassment scandals that plagued the Court in recent years.
I spoke with Wines about the state of enrollment for the CMS, and she laid out the numbers. “Over 60,000 have obtained our certifications [since 2005],” Wines told me (just 168 of those are Master Sommeliers, the notoriously difficult and highest level certification offered by the CMS). “In 2022, approximately 6,000 students took a course or exam, 3,000+ in person, 3,000+ online.”
While those numbers are lower than the 100,000+ who took a WSET qualification during the 2020/21 academic year, they’re nothing to sneeze at—and they speak to a strong interest in the tasting, theory, and service-centric skills that the CMS has to offer would-be sommeliers. Wines credits the increased accessibility of CMS courses for the strong numbers, noting that “online courses and examinations are accessible in every geography and accommodate different learning styles.”
No disrespect was meant to those who voluntarily gave up their CMS pins during the recent troubles there. They were standing up for what was right and demanding much-needed change using the levers and platforms available to them. They should be applauded for what they did.
But they largely didn’t do it because the certifications themselves (and the skill sets they imparted) were meaningless or no longer mattered; they did it because something meaningful had to be done to help spark change in how the CMS was run.
Ultimately, a reputable wine certification shows at least two very valuable things:
- That you have some mastery of the ever-evolving, complex topic of wine, from how it’s made, to its rich history, to its exciting new trends, and
- That you are capable of adhering to a discipline (such as best practices in service, education, and/or tasting) and are willing to “put in the work.”
In challenging times like these, the wine industry needs as many people who can demonstrate those things as possible!