The differences of the CMS, WSET, Master Sommelier, & Master of Wine

by  |  05-12-2015  |  38 Comments

Years ago, I found myself quite baffled by the pile of acronyms around wine and around 2010, I wanted to expand my wine knowledge from what I’d taught myself up to that point. I lived in San Francisco at the time and I started to look into various programs only to shake my head and not really understand what the hell any of these Wines & Spirits Education Trust or Court of Master Sommeliers groups were let alone the differences between a Master of Wine and a Master Sommelier.

I had forgotten about wanting to further my knowledge until two things happened just after my initial investigations. The first was that I was on an official trip to a wine region and found that while I kept up with the others, there were clearly some holes in what I knew. The more I looked at these holes, the more they grew. Not only was I seeing them in my writing, I was also starting to see them in others who had pieced their knowledge together through scratching around on the internet like digital chickens. I didn’t want to come across like this anymore and so I started to look much harder as to what was the best direction for me.

Admittedly, I came at all of this more than a little backwards. As it currently sits, in addition to writing for a number of well-known publications, I’m also a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers. This is Level 2/4 of their overall program and it really isn’t the typical way to go about this so I’m writing this article in hopes that I can give some guidance and clarify things for people who are in or will be in the same shoes that I was in.

The “Normal” Trajectory

There are a number of wine schools out there these days but for me, it came down to doing either the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) track or the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) track. I went with the CMS. My reasons for this are varied but the core difference between WSET and CMS is that the WSET has way more class time while the CMS is much more independent study. The CMS also has a heavy service component to it (thus “sommelier” being in the name) whereas the WSET doesn’t and is more academic.

If one is a wine writer, the WSET would make more sense. If one works in the restaurant trade, the CMS makes more sense. For me, while I’m a wine writer and I don’t work in the restaurant trade, the CMS ultimately made more sense as I talk about wine a lot, do private wine tastings & tours from time to time, and just needed more of a public-facing aspect to my wine knowledge.

For anyone else, if you’re not really in the restaurant trade, then the proper trajectory would be WSET 1,2,3,4. If you want the sommelier aspect, go for CMS 1 & 2 after WSET 3. Note that CMS 3 after WSET 4 won’t really do too much for you as the programs really diverge after CMS 2 and WSET 3.

It’s important to note that despite being originally founded by the same groups in England, the WSET 1-4 levels don’t correspond with the CMS 1-4 as WSET 3 and CMS 2 are more or less the same in theoretical knowledge. Level 4 of CMS is the Master Sommelier while the Master of Wine would be something like Level 5 in WSET terms. The MW used to be like a Level 6 as there was at one point a Level 5 Honors with the WSET but they’ve done away with that and those who do well in Level 4 will be invited to consider starting the Master of Wine program. It’s also important to note that WSET 4 gets considerably more intense in terms of the science behind wine and as such forms a quite large departure for those looking in to the sommelier path.

Like I said, this is all a bit screwy so let me elaborate in more detail on the specific aspects. You can also take a look at this chart that was put out by the WSET & CMS recently.

WSET

This is a purely academic program but it’s really designed for those who want to start learning the basics of wine. You don’t have to start at Level 1 or 2 though and can take a test to start at Level 3. I think most people who know a little about wine would start at Level 2. Those who really want to step in gradually in more casually, the Level 1 was created for you. The levels each get progressively more involved and I’ve heard that the tastings get quite difficult (and are actually harder than the CMS) as you go for the Level 4 Diploma given that how the wine was made is of greater importance than just identifying it.

These classes aren’t terribly cheap, but in the wine world you get what you pay for and with the higher levels, a good chunk of that cost is paying for the wines. While in-person classes are usually the preferred way to go about these, there are the online course which are significantly cheaper although you still need to go to the classroom once for the tastings as well as once for the exam. For the Level 4, you will need to search out wines to taste. This can be hard when not living in a major wine trade city such as London or New York or in say, Istanbul where it’s even trickier due to their ridiculously restrictive alcohol laws at the moment.

There are some aspects to the WSET program that can be a turn off. The first time I looked in to doing this was when living in San Francisco. At the time I was writing for a magazine who was going to pay a portion of the fee to write an article about “Becoming a Sommelier” (in hindsight I was pitching great ideas to these idiots way ahead of the curve…) What fit the budget was going to be the WSET 2. The problem is that in passing this level, you can’t call yourself a sommelier. You can’t call yourself one after Levels 3 or 4, or even the Master of Wine for that matter as this is not a service-oriented program.

I didn’t like the interactions that I had with some of the schools putting on the classes. As one of my co-exam sitters for the CMS 2 said, “WSET feels like a sausage factory.” In some ways, it’s true as people who get the certifications can then open up sanctioned franchises of the program. So, there’s something of a pushiness to get you to take the courses. This is a shame as from what I’ve seen and heard, the actual body of material in the course is quite sound and this may just be an aspect that is more “American” than what you find in Europe.

But earning these levels is a solid base given that enough people in the wine trade have heard this rather clumsy acronym to know what it is although pronunciation varies a great deal by language. Here in Spain for instance, they’ve invented the word, “viset” to name it as “doble uve-ese-e-te” is a mouthful of marbles.

CMS

The Court of Master Sommeliers has all the knowledge of the WSET but with all the service of that thing we call the, “sommelier”. This term has gotten to be quite sexy in recent years and so a lot of people are opting for this certification as I did. I don’t really need to go on at length about the pedigree that the name of this organization carries. The fact that a film, “Somm” and now a TV series, “Uncorked” have been made to show what people go through to reach the Master Sommelier level says enough.

This is not a course I recommend unless you really want to be in some form of wine service trade. Taking all the levels is mandatory and many people will find them considerably more difficult than they had originally envisioned. While it may be different in the US, for Europe, the organization really presses you for relevant experience prior to attending the Level 1 & 2 courses. They are not elitist by any means, but this is a vocational certification with a huge degree of knowledge behind it. Despite being a lover of wine for years and a professional for the last few, I only passed the Level 1 on my first go (learn how this works) and had to go back and study to pass the Level 2. The CMS functions primarily as a certifying body and isn’t like the WSET where people take it to follow an academic trajectory.

This is not an easy tract and the classes are just a couple of days which aren’t designed to teach you everything you need to know. They’re something of a review and you need to come in to the course with a large degree of knowledge already. That said, it’s an excellent program with a great track record and the Master Sommeliers truly are that no matter what people in the general public may think about this oh-so fancy title. I just mention all of these reservations because again, these certifications cost a bit and if you are much more focused on the wine knowledge part of things, go the WSET route.

Here’s a very basic breakdown of how I feel the levels of the CMS work:

  • Introductory Level 1 – “What is wine?” Do you know what phylloxera is? What is liqueur de tirage? This level is all about understand what exactly wine is and how it’s made. Read more on the full exam.
  • Certified Level 2 – “Where is wine?” Know what state in Australia, Wrattonbully resides? Can you name an excellent year for Bordeaux? Know what grapes are used in Moulin-à-Vent? The level of detail and breadth of the knowledge expands massively to know what wines come from where and what style. Read more on the full exam.
  • Advanced Level 3 – “Who is wine?” Can you name a Grand Cru producer in Corton to pair with duck breast? What was a good year for Mt. Difficulty? If you have these off the top of your head, you might be prepared for this level although the blind tasting is nearly at the Master level.
  • Master Level 4 – “You are wine.” There’s not really any way to sum up this level as the knowledge base is far beyond what I have at the moment and the few who attain are so deep in to wine (as well as the rest of beverages one must add) that it’s hard to fathom.

Master of Wine

So what is is this title? Well, like the WSET, it’s an academic title and there is no “sommelier” aspect to it. One of the most famous MW’s, Jancis Robinson always jokes, “Don’t have me pour a bottle of wine! I would spill it everywhere.” But this encompasses every facet of wine from viticulture, to vinification, to marketing & sales, to global wine trends, to I don’t even know what but if it has to do with wine, it’s in this this degree. This is the degree that usually those who write about wine ultimately pursue but there are a number of winemakers with it as well.

There are nearly 400 people in the world who have earned this title and there are a few who didn’t go the WSET route but for the general majority, they seem to go through WSET. The Master of Wine then takes at least three years (and usually more), more papers, more exams, and just more of everything. It is not for the feint of heart. It is also by taking an entrance exam, getting sponsored (two MWs or others of note in wine), and then invited to start so just having the WSET 4 doesn’t mean you can hop into studying for the MW. Again, they want to see a bit of experience in some form of writing or having made wine, totally at least three years. You also need to be recommended by an MW or someone else respected in the wine trade. A huge change is that while the WSET has a great many classes, the MW is all about independent, sometimes lonely study.

As this degree takes so long to accomplish and if someone has completed the WSET 4 some time ago, you might see them put “Master of Wine Student” in their bio or resume. Be very suspect of this because unless they are officially enrolled in the MW program, this is a serious fudge. Not having the WSET 4 is usually a dead giveaway, as well as being under 30… Press anyone for more details on this as going around saying this is a disservice to those who truly are enrolled in and pursuing this insanely rigorous program.

Master Sommelier

It’s a common question as to what is the difference between the Master of Wine and Master Sommelier. Basically, the MW is academic with heavy theory and the MS is service with heavy compendium. While I obviously haven’t taken these exams, it seems to me an example of this would be, for the MW you would be asked, “What were the advantages to a producer in making a Grand Cru Brut Nature Champagne in 2000?” whereas the MS would be asked, “Recommend a Grand Cru Champagne Brut Nature from 2000 and why it would pair with this plate of Gruyere cheese.” As you can see, similar knowledge base, but very different implementations.

There are just over 200 people in the world who have passed the MS. It’s extremely difficult as taking that classic theory aspect you see in the MW out of the equation makes everything about holding a massive amount of information about producers and regions in your head. This makes sense as it’s how you need to know things when working the floor, although the Master level is one unto itself.

But that’s about “it”. Hopefully this outlines these various programs in a way that’s useful to people out there so that they can get where they want to go a lot faster than I did. It’s a lengthy journey whichever path you choose, but if you love wine and working in it, it’s one that’s most definitely worth the effort.

Comments

38 responses to “The differences of the CMS, WSET, Master Sommelier, & Master of Wine”

  1. Fintan Kerr says:

    I think that’s a fair write-up of the WSET although the level of education was very high during my level 3 classes. I have no experience of the CMS program as everytime I try to apply for a course, it seems to conflict with my WSET schedule, irritatingly. I assumed that as I am about to embark on my WSET Diploma, I would walk quite convincingly through levels 1-2 of the CMS structure – courses which I would take to hone the service side of my skillset. I will ensure I show these levels the correct level of respect they are due, all this article has done has confirmed my desire to by educated in both aspects of the trade!

  2. Miquel says:

    The problem in comparing two similar yet different systems is that they don’t fully correlate with one another. In theory, if you have the WSET 3, then the CMS 2 theory shouldn’t be too much of a problem. I have encountered people who have it and have not passed CMS 2 theory though and it’s much more producer-oriented. Also, the entire world of wine is free game as opposed to the WSET where it seems that only if it’s been in the book do you need to know it.

    The tasting might be another story as for some reason, for the CMS it appears to be more difficult than the WSET even though the WSET has a much more intense structure. Some argue to the contrary however so largely I think it depends on the person.

  3. Rob Edwards says:

    I’ve been looking hard for an analysis like this. I live in SF, work in Napa, give tours of wineries to tourists. Taste several times a week and understand the farming and viticulture enough. Usually graduates of any program only say good things about the program THEY went to. School spirit. I get it. So your somewhat critical comparative analysis was useful. Are these the two main players or are there others? I want to work for a winemaker in either sales or a farming capacity someday, not in a restaurant (any more), but the CMS course structure is the one that fit in my schedule. Dilemmas. Your thoughts?

    • Miquel Hudin says:

      These are the two main options. There’s also the Certified Wine Specialist but as you mention, the only people I’ve seen mentioning that are worthwhile are people who have it. I looked over it a little bit and while it doesn’t look bad, it didn’t do much to pull me in.

      In your case, it sounds like WSET up to Level 3 would be the best fit. The Diploma is unnecessary if you want to work in sales. I have my issues with how WSET runs though which is why I haven’t attended their classes but I know plenty who have. They seem more concerned about their image than anything else as I was actually contacted by their communications person to make some edits to this post. Some I made, others I didn’t but none of the other groups mentioned here as so concerned about such things.

  4. AARON MANDEL says:

    All in all a good article though my experience with WSET is not comparable to yours. The experience probably varies depending upon school, but I found WSET to be very educational with no “sausage factory” feel at all. Each level in WSET is a large step up, with Diploma a very large step. But you do finish the WSET program with a much better understanding of wine, why it varies by region and how to taste. For most consumers, that’s really all we want.

    As for the MW program, it’s not by invitation only. Each year, there is an application period (which coincidentally just opened) when people interested in the program can fill out an application take a 90 minute theory exam and a 90 minute tasting exam. A letter from someone in the wine industry is also required but a good letter alone will not get you in, those exams are important.

    Nor is Diploma required. There are several Sommeliers, wine makers and others in the program without the Diploma. If you’re an avid consumer like me, Diploma is probably required (and true, most people in the program seem to have it) but a strong wine knowledge that allows you to do well on those exams is what gets you in.

  5. Chiara Ong says:

    I am new to this aspect of the food industry and your article was very enlightening. I plan to put up my own wine shop and now, I have an idea of what I should take up before doing so. Thank you very much!

  6. David Raskin says:

    Very good article. You mentioned that taking all the levels is mandatory. Can you elaborate on this? I was only interested in pursuing level 1 and level 2 at the most.

    • Miquel Hudin says:

      That means you have to start at CMS 1 and go from there. They don’t allow any challenges to the order, at least not officially. With WSET you can theoretically jump in even at the Diploma level. With the Master of Wine, you can just start there if able to prove a lengthy history working in wine.

  7. I am a recent Certified Sommelier who is taking the WSET Level 2 next month. I was told I could skip WSET Level 1, but had to take the exam for Level 2 and pass before proceeding to WSET Level 3.

    • Miquel Hudin says:

      I’ve not heard that but I did all this in the Europe chapter where they do the 1 & 2 in the same session unlike the US where it’s split up. So, it could be the case now that they’ve made a number of changes to the Certified starting in January.

      • Edward Lee says:

        If you are certified through the Court, then I recommend that you jump straight into WSET Advanced (lvl 3), save you some time and money. That’s the route I am taking right now.
        It will be a slight step up in knowledge, but you will breeze through the tasting.

        • Miquel Hudin says:

          It’s actually a bit of a step backwards as you need to memorize the WSET “answers” to things which are far more rigid and out of touch with reality. Also, the WSET tasting grid sucks.

        • Patrick says:

          Hi Miquel,

          As you state you haven’t done any WSET levels (which if that has changed since 2015, or 2017, you don’t make comment of anywhere on your website) so why would you say the WSET grid sucks? In fact your whole answer to this seems a bit presumptuous. Whilst WSET do take some time to revise their material, the knowledge you learn and the answers they expect are accurate and solid foundations for wine education, therefore I’m not sure how you can call them “out of touch with reality”. Feel free to point out sections in the text that reflect your opinion.

          In relation to the WSET grid, it is an extremely valuable tool to assess wine quality and like the L2, L3, L4 courseware, develops along with the course levels. The only issue I have with it, in some circumstances, is that it can be too narrow and potentially too particular. I’ve reviewed the CMS grid and really can’t see how you could say the WSET one sucks and the CMS does not?

          It seemed like your overall thoughts were quite balanced until I read this and a couple of the other comments. For the record I have been and still am a WSET student and am only responding here as potential students for all these programs are asking for genuine advice and in this particular scenario I think you’re being overly negative about a program you haven’t studied.

          That being said, I would agree with your overall assessment, that if someone wishes to work in the service part of the wine industry, then the CMS would be more appropriate. For academics, then WSET.

          Thanks

        • Miquel Hudin says:

          I’ve reviewed all the materials from friends who have done the series as well as helped a number of people with studying for the exams. So yes, I’m familiar with the format and content as well as the fact that it takes a long time to change and stay current.

          The WSET grid is too focused on things such as “quality” and other aspects that relate it to a UK buying market. In terms of pure deductions, I find it lacking. This is a matter of personal taste which is why this was mentioned in a comment. If it does what you need, then more power to you. I’m not telling you what to do, just what my take on things are.

  8. Excellent article – I am a Certified Somm with CMS but chose to take on an intensive training at International Culinary Center in NYC – They offer the level 1 and level 2 (Certified) on the next day. I took 1 & 2 within 48 hours. Grueling! Perfect score on level one, and “lucky I passed” on level 2 – sheer exhaustion. I work on the floor, I write a column, conduct a learning session and buy for a retail boutique. Although not mentioned, there are great regional courses that will enhance any on these broad learning certifications at my level. Again, great read.

    • Miquel Hudin says:

      Susan, thanks for stopping by. Indeed, the biggest challenge with these exams is trying to fit them in around daily life!

  9. Fred says:

    I’ve completed WSET3 and CSW (Certified Specialist of Wine). IMO, the quantity of information are similar, but the CSW test is easier (100 multiple choice for CSW; WSET3 is multiple choice, short answer, long answer, plus tasting). Although there’s a lot of overlap between them, there’s also a good bit of difference in details – so if you can afford the cost, and want to get some additional knowledge to help with future certifications – it’s worthwhile to take CSW. Plus, it enables you to pursue the Certified Wine Educator Certification – which is well respected (some MS guys proudly append CWE to their names, right after MS).

    Other certifications that one can consider: French Wine Scholar and Italian Wine Scholar (both are offered by the Wine Scholar Guild), which is extremely in depth for their respective countries of interest – I understand some CMS Advanced candidates take it to help them prepare. I’ve completed the French Wine Scholar program, and am currently working on Italian.

    • Brian Jones says:

      Is there one track you’d recommend WSET over CSW? For example, personal interest versus working in the industry as a wine educator? Wine educator vs wine marketing? Working in a restaurant vs. being a wine buyer for one?

      I would think there would be a major difference between the two in terms of area of focus or purpose for certification, but from what I’ve read about both, the only difference seems the WSET also focuses on spirits.

  10. alessandro says:

    First of all, I would say you explained the topic very clearly.
    Now I do have a question. Where do you put the AIS, the Italian sommelier association.

    • Miquel Hudin says:

      Welcome Alessandro,

      As I’ve not done the AIS, nor know anyone who has done it and the AIS, I can’t say for certain. I have several friend who have done just the AIS though and based upon what they tell me, it’s on par with the CMS Certified but more emphasis on Italian wines, which would make sense.

  11. I am glad that Fred mentioned the Wine Scholar Guild: their French Wine Scholar and Italian Wine Scholar programs are very focused and well structured, but Master Level courses on individual French AOCs that they offer are exceptional, in my opinion. I took Bordeaux and Burgundy with them — extremely thorough and comprehensive, it took me about 9 months to get through the material; exam is tough but does not include a tasting component which, I think, might be the reason why this program doesn’t carry much weight with the professionals, but attracts wine afficionados.

  12. Also, Alessandro is asking about the Italian Sommelier Association AIS. Their web site and all their activities are only in Italian, right? This is the web site that I found: https://www.aisitalia.it/ I actually have been trying to find a course specifically focused in-depth on Italian wines, but other than the online program of the Wine Scholar Guild that I have already mentioned, I didn’t find much. There is a an online Italian Wine Professional, but I think it is more suitable for wine lovers, not professional work. Any suggestions?

  13. Mike Salinas says:

    What’s a short (nice sounding) title I can use on a business card if I only have passed WSET Level 1?
    I like the Sommelier title, but you said that’s not proper?

    • Miquel Hudin says:

      The correct title would be WSET Level 1. I’ve seen some people put WSET Certified but this has no meaning and any of us in the trade assume it’s less that WSET Level 3. As for Sommelier, anyone who works as one is entitled to call themselves one but obviously Certified Sommelier is only for the CMS as WSET is not a path towards this.

  14. John says:

    With wset level 2 u can work in a restaurant as assistant sommelier..and with wset level 3 u can work in a restaurant as head sommelier! Wset its a very good school!

    • Miquel Hudin says:

      That’s not really true. Restaurants are looking more to the Court of Master Sommeliers titles for reference.

      WSET 2 and 3 definitely show a certification of knowledge which is very helpful but when looking to service qualifications, most prefer the CMS or then some certification recognized at a country level, especially in the case of France and Italy.

  15. Connie says:

    What title can you give yourself if you have passed CMS Level 1?

    • Miquel Hudin says:

      Well, “Introductory Sommelier” or “Court of Master Sommeliers Level 1”. Sadly, neither sound terribly impressive which is why everyone makes such a big deal of reaching Level 2, “Certified Sommelier”. And honestly, the only actual title if you want to be specific about it is “Master Sommelier”.

  16. Francis John says:

    Obviously you are with the CMS. The CMS path is definitely WAY more subjective. WSET is raw material. I would put a DipWSET against an Advanced Somm all day.

    • Miquel Hudin says:

      No and there is no perfect path as it depends on the person. An AS couldn’t pass the Diploma and a Diploma couldn’t pass the AS as the two tests are far removed from one another. Advanced is an overall more difficult exam in that it’s nearly at the level of Master and the all or nothing aspect in such a condensed time is super rough.

  17. Anand Kapre says:

    Anand Kapre April 11, 2019 Read your Article thoroughly and Article provided me a path I should take to go for CMS courses or to WSET courses. As a wine lover I always purchased wines. With WSET courses I can become Wine Writer etc. I do not have a plan to work in Restaurant industry. I read that WSET is more focused on Spirits. Is this correct? Thanks for Good Article.

    • Patrick says:

      Spirits are now a separate track in the WSET course structure and have been removed from the wine courses.

  18. Anil Singh Negi says:

    Excellent article to widen up the knowledge about what young guns like me should precise from the near future of wine world.
    I fell short of word inn order to thank you for your valuable knowledge for being a sommilier .
    Namastey!

  19. Ricardo Brito says:

    Thanks for the article. Any comments you could make about ASI – Association de la Sommellerie Internationale? How do you compare it with WSET and CMS?

  20. Calu says:

    Thanks for your article! I am a wine enthusiast and was looking for options to increase my knowledge…Which track do you suggest? the WSET2 or going for the CWS?
    Thanks!

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