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So You Want to Learn More About Wine?

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Interested in learning more about wine, including wine making, wine regions, wine grapes? Are you a wine novice? Casual wine enthusiast thirsty for knowledge? Or maybe a long time wine lover looking to formalize your education? Welcome to the world of wine certifications where you can spend a little or a lot for bragging rights or qualifications for a career change. Since I came to Triangle Wine Country Tours with a passion for wine but without wine work experience, working for a certification gave me the background I needed to speak knowledgeably with wineries and guests from the start. 


There are three main organizations for wine education, not including the many colleges and universities that offer 4-year degrees and masters programs in viticulture (growing wine grapes) and oenology (winemaking). They are:


Court of Master Sommeliers

Most wine lovers are familiar with sommeliers, either from restaurants, wine stores or the Somm movies, which I recommend, but also dissuaded me from pursuing this goal. Many people studying for their Court of Master Sommeliers, or CMS, take a year off paid work to study full-time and some are lucky enough to be supported by a company that supplies wines to study and/or pays their testing fees; some have a spouse who works while they study. I had none of these options. 

Sommeliers are experts in hospitality and wine tasting. Their testing consists of rigorous blind tasting, which requires them to have tasted hundreds, or even thousands, of wines as well as remember each one so they can later recall and identify them under high pressure circumstances. Typically less than 10% of those tested receive their CMS certification, which is a four-tiered system of education and in-person testing. Costs to achieve CMS certification can run upwards of $15,000 or more depending on travel, retakes and access to the wines needed to pass the blind tasting section. The testing costs alone run $3000. 

This high cost can be underwritten by employers, but is beyond reach for the average wine enthusiast unless money and time are not an issue. So it is suitable for either a fortunate wine professional or wine lovers with means.


Society of Wine Educators

I pursued and received my Certified Specialist of Wine, which is awarded by the Society of Wine Educators, or SWE, in 2021. Based in Texas, SWE provides online classes and testing does not include a blind tasting component. This format worked for me, especially during the pandemic when in-person classes were non-existent. After a 16-week course, attended once a week via Zoom, the organization recommends  self-study for another 3 to 6 months before taking the 100-question multiple-choice test. 75% is the minimum grade to pass and receive certification. Ms. Sandy Nikles was the educator who ran our Zoom classes and she was amazing: passionate about wine and a great teacher!

I was happy to pass with a grade of 81%, though some of my classmates passed with distinction at 95% or higher, which may have been possible for me years ago! I proudly wear my CSW pin on my wine tours and while attending wine events.

The CSW study guide ($49) and workbook ($39) are available for sale on Amazon. If you are a casual wine lover looking to enhance your knowledge, this is the least expensive option. Anyone can buy the study materials and peruse the sections that interest you, from components of wine to winemaking processes to identifying grape varieties grown in wine regions around the world.

In order to take the test for certification you need to join SWE ($135/year for membership) and buy a ticket to take the test for $540. The online course is included in this fee, though attending the course, while recommended, is not required. The SWE advises that attending the online course greatly improves your chances of passing the test the first time around.

In addition to CSW, SWE offers an advanced Certified Wine Educator (CWE) which includes a tasting section and tests for teaching ability as well as several spirits certifications. This option is affordable for all levels from casual wine enthusiast to wine professional


Wine & Spirits Education Trust

WSET is a UK-based organization that offers four levels of wine certification. They require enrollment in an online or in-person course program to take their exams through one of their 800+ 3rd party certifiers. Pricing varies by certifier from $3-400 for Level 1 to $1200+ for Level 3. Blind wine tasting is part of the upper level certifications. I’ve been told SWE and WSET cover similar course materials, but based on pricing and the tasting component WSET is more geared towards wine professionals or aspiring wine professionals.

Similar to SWE, they offer spirits certification as well as beer and sake.


How Do I Choose?

In my small unscientific polling of Willamette Valley friends and colleagues I find more mention of WSET certifications than CSW or CMS, though more than a handful of folks in the wine industry hold more than one certification. I have met tasting room hosts and cellar rats1  with all three, or none, or are in the process of studying for their 4-year wine degrees. I have noticed that many people attracted to these organizations for wine education are pursuing second (or third) careers like me, finally realizing how much fun they can have by working in the wine industry.


University Options

For the lucky ones who know early on that they want to study wine, a college degree in viticulture oenology is another way to go. University of California, Davis is the granddaddy of American wine schools. The pioneers of the Willamette Valley all attended and made their way to Oregon in pursuit of the terroir of Burgundy, France to plant Pinot Noir grapes in the United States. Locally, Oregon State, Linfield University and Chemeketa Community College all offer wine related degrees within spitting distance of Willamette Valley’s world class vineyards and wineries. Many other universities around the world offer these more rigorous programs but this is a topic for another blog post.


Reading Corner

While I was studying for my CSW test, I came across many books written by wine experts and people journaling their wine journeys. Here are some of my favorites:

The Wine Bible by Karen McNeil

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding

Wine for Normal People by Elizabeth Schneider

Pinot Girl by Anna Maria Ponzi

Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker


The Takeaway

Learning more about wine needn’t be difficult or expensive. There is a theoretical component but the more important lessons come with practical study: tasting! Taste wines at every opportunity, with friends, at restaurants and wine bars, at wine stores and, of course, on a wine country tour! Seek out grapes you have never heard of and try wines from different regions: California Chardonnay can taste vastly different from Oregon Chardonnay. Carry a wine journal to take notes or take photos of your favorite labels (Vivino is a great free app to store your wine photos for easy recall). Just this week I tried a new-to-me southern Italian grape: Fiano, which was made in a sparkling style by biodynamic wine producer Troon Vineyard and grown in southern Oregon. IIt was delicious! You never know which new favorite wine is just around the corner!


  1. Cellar Rat aka Cellar Hand: A cellar hand is there to assist and support the winemaker in the production of wine. They are integral to the day-to-day operation of a winery and will perform a wide range of tasks – from processing fruit, through fermentation, to finishing and maturing wine.


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