A Quick and Dirty Guide to Professional Wine Titles and Qualifications

It takes more than a good nose and palate to become a bona fide wine expert.
It takes more than a good nose and palate to become a bona fide wine expert.
Jim Fischer / Flickr

We have some bad news that may come as a shock: Not everyone can be the best. We can't all medal in the 100-meter, receive Best Actor statuettes, or win American Idol. And when it comes to wine, it's helpful to remember that we can't all be master sommeliers.

In these days of entrepreneurial irony, it seems everyone is busy creating job titles out of nothing but a bit of cleverness and gumption. However, while business cards reading "Wikipedia Wizard" or "Culture Agitator" may fly in certain circles, there are still some titles that can't be self-imposed.

That's why we've created this handy guide to professional wine titles and qualifications in the hopes that you will never again confuse your master sommeliers with your masters of wine.  

Sommelier
The term "sommelier" can be applied to virtually anyone who works with wine, particularly those who serve it on a restaurant floor. There are no credentials required to be called a sommelier, but we recommend being at least somewhat wine savvy before you print up those new business cards. Being shown up by a more knowledgeable guest can be embarrassing, to say the least.

The sommelier title starts to take on a more serious tenor when qualifications like "certified" or "advanced" are added. A certified sommelier is one who has passed the first two levels of examinations from the Court of Master Sommeliers. An advanced sommelier has successfully completed the third level, and a master sommelier has completed all four test levels. 

There are only 147 master sommeliers living in North America, and only one — Greg Tresner, MS — in Arizona

Only those who have completed all four examinations from the Court of Master Sommeliers are entitled to the qualification of master sommelier. Using it otherwise would be like calling yourself a doctor of family counseling simply because you've watched all the episodes of Couples Therapy on VH1. 

Other types of sommeliers include the professional Sommelier and maître sommelier, qualifications awarded respectively by Italian and French organizations. There are also beer sommeliers and sake sommeliers walking around out there who are accredited through different associations, but they should not be confused with wine sommeliers .

Master of Wine
While a sommelier is someone who excels in wine service, a master of wine is typically someone who works in the making, manufacturing, and distribution of wine. The master of wine qualification is awarded by the Institute of Masters of Wine, and similar to the master sommelier moniker, is a prestigious title that reflects years of rigorous study. Before completing their coursework, candidates for the Master of Wine must also write dissertations on a specific research area, like "Export Prospects for Wine from Cyprus."

Other Masters
There are several other organizations and institutions that award specific titles to their graduates. Students of the North American Sommelier Association can become all sorts of masters, including a master of terroir, master of sangiovese, even master of olive oil. The Society of Wine Educators offers four certifications that denote ability to teach within a particular specialty, as well as a certificate in hospitality and beverage services. The Culinary Institute of America and International Culinary Center also offer less-trodden paths for wine education.

Bonus Titles
The field of wine experts is vast. There are many skilled hands throughout the process of growing, harvesting, and crushing of grapes to blending, bottling, and distribution of finished wines. viticulturists and enologists are some those who have special knowledge in these trades, many of whom hold degrees from prestigious schools like UC Davis or the Burgundy Wine School in Côte de Beaune, France. Those who grow grapes are sometimes referred to as vignerons, while skilled winemakers are called vintners.

In the world of wine, different titles denote different levels of training and knowledge. It takes a painstakingly long time to become a master sommelier or master of wine, which is why it can be such a touchy subject when the titles are incorrectly attributed to those who haven't earned them. 

However, if you're still hankering for a title that reeks of wine prestige, might we recommend "Wine Jedi," "Certified Chardonnay Snob," or that you simply write "Here, Let Me Pretend I Know This Wine List" across your business card. 


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