WSET vs CMS
by Miquel Hudin | 20-08-2020 | 26 Comments
Wine education is something not to be undertaken lightly. There’s the investment of time and, well, a great deal of money. There’s also the issue of choosing the right direction which can be hard to fathom with all these acronyms floating around: WSET, CMS, MW, MS, CSW, CSS, WSG, WXF, XSP and a great many others including the last two I just made up to mess with you. This is why I delved into the subject awhile back to try and pass along what I’ve learned over the years as I went through the process with hundreds of other people I got to know who were doing the same.
I’ll be quite honest, the steps I took to further my wine knowledge weren’t necessarily the ones I would repeat today knowing what I know now about all these courses. So, while my older article still holds a great wealth of information, it’s time to look at how things have changed and pass along the information to hopefully help you make the best possible choices for your own, specific future, even if futures are exceedingly uncertain at the moment.
I’m going to focus here on the most respected and better-known certificates in Anglophone countries, the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS). While there are of course other programs out there (mostly national ones), these two have managed to gain the most traction in terms of international recognition, availability, and, for lack of a better word, “brand awareness”.
Programs such as the Certified Specialist of Wine, the Wine Scholar Guild, and others have gained traction over time in more specific niches. But, in terms of overall availability and maturity of their programs, the WSET and CMS are, in my opinion the best options to look into first and if one desires, follow up with the other programs.
The lay of the land
Who should look into gaining certification with these two organizations? There’s a lot of discussion around this but essentially, the WSET is for literally anyone ranging from a consumer who simply wants to know a bit more to someone deep in the wine trade whether that be a wine buyer, retail worker, journalist, educator, speaker, and many others including yes, wine tour guides.
My co-author for the Georgia book, Daria Kholodilina gives tours in Georgia with her company, Trails & Wines. She’s completed the WSET II and looking to do the WSET III. Why? “There are a lot of people giving wine tours in Georgia now as it’s the ‘cradle of wine’ but what’s amazing is how few of them actually know anything about wine and I wanted to stand out and be more serious.”
On the other hand, the CMS is really for people working in hospitality, specifically as a sommelier. If you’re not sure what this is or if you’ve heard about it recently and think it’d be cool to call yourself one, I’d really recommend that you read this article first to learn what it entails.
Things get a bit confusing however because the CMS is purely a certification body with the studying happening in a self-paced, self-guided manner. The “classes” that they run are really just a quick review of material (ex. you will not learn about Spain fully in an hour) and aren’t designed for people to sit through them to then pass the exams afterwards. While there is an overview of required knowledge given, study is very much on you and this can be very difficult for some people more used to supervision and following a schedule as it requires a lot of self-discipline.
This is why a lot of people who do the CMS actually attend the WSET classes first. These are highly structured (sometimes to a fault) and provide people with stepping stones to gain ever more wine knowledge. This approach coupled with learning to taste wines blind can help people build towards the CMS, although there are many who don’t go this route, such as myself. One fellow who works at a French bistro in Washington DC told me, “First I did WSET II and then WSET III, followed by the CMS I and then CMS II.” That’s a quite sensible path if you have the time and money.
If, however you have no intention to deal with the sommelier side of things (ie service), the WSET offers an excellent path that starts off with basically, “This is red wine. This is white wine” and leads people through to the fourth level called the Diploma which is an intense certification with multiple tests covering all facets of wine.
The issue with both of these paths is how to make them match up to one another as unfortunately, despite both being devised in the UK, the levels are not at all congruous with one another, leading to a lot of head scratching.
Understanding the initial levels
This image is one that I derived based upon my own experience doing the CMS path, along with talking to dozens of people working in wine in recent years and interviewing a few others for this article. While everyone has an opinion nudging them one way or the other, there are trends that emerge.
The first is that WSET I is the most basic level of any of them. You can in fact skip it if you think you have a higher wine knowledge than what it addresses. Who is this level for? Sharon Grundy who teaches WSET classes at Wine Courses Barcelona told me, “It’s really a lot of people who work in the service industry. For example, in Barcelona we have people who work on yachts or cruise ships taking these classes as they have no hospitality or wine experience before they come in. Also, it’s for people who just want to start out and get a taste via a one-day course.”
A notch up in difficultly, you have WSET II which is a more involved course that takes place over three days. There is an assumption of more wine knowledge coming into this but at the same time, there is the option to skip it as well. It can be quite helpful for people who want to learn more about specific regions as well as wine profiles as it starts to delve into that voodoo parlor trick known as “blind tasting”.
Somewhere between WSET II and WSET III sits the CMS “Introductory” certification. It’s hard to put an exact placement on this as while there are more basic aspects to it such as knowing the two divisions of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, there are more complicated items like memorizing well-known Third Growths in Bordeaux. There’s also a minor, yet still crucial service test to it. While the pass rate is around 90%, there are still plenty of people who fail it because I assume the “Introductory” aspect makes them think there will be a lot more lecture and guiding as you find in the WSET when in fact, there isn’t. Also, it’s obligatory to take for anyone going down the CMS path and if you want more details, you can read my account of taking it.
Advancing to the mid-levels
It’s important to emphasize that everything up to these points of the WSET II and the CMS Introductory are pretty crucial for anyone wanting to work in wine. Even if you don’t gain these certifications, you really need to have the equivalent of them in order to be taken seriously in any wine capacity. But everything gets monumentally more difficult when moving up to the WSET III and CMS “Certified Sommelier”.
Amaia Soto emphasized the difficulty aspect in an article she wrote about her path,
“I started directly with the Level 3 in Hong Kong. I just threw myself at it and I have to admit that I found it more demanding than I had expected. Trust me, even if you can skip Level 1 and 2 as I did, you need some kind of starting point. So unless you are very familiar with the WSET (how it works, how they mark the exams and so on) I suggest you to start at least from the Level 2 to know what it is all about.”
You’ll note that in the reference chart, I’ve placed the CMS Certified at a touch higher level than the WSET III. This is a tough call as both certifications are more or less comparable in terms of overall theory although the WSET III has more about winemaking while the CMS Certified has more about producers and cocktails. In the end, it’s really the format of the CMS Certified exam that makes it the tougher of the two.
Melissa Graeff, a sales representative for a mid-sized importer, did the WSET after the CMS and said, “When I started WSET III it was right after I had just passed Certified Sommelier. I already had so much knowledge that I found WSET III to be relatively easy.”
The knowledge level of these exams is intense. You can read about my taking the CMS Certified Sommelier and see that even if you have quite a lot of knowledge it’s not something you just show up to and ace. Same goes for the WSET III. But, if you really go through the 4th edition of, “Sales and Service for the Wine Professional” by Brian Julyan or then the accompanying text of the WSET III and toss in the World Atlas of Wine as well as a membership to Guildsomm, you’ll pass.
Ah yes… there’s that blind wine tasting aspect which terrifies a lot of people. It’s two wines for the WSET III and four for the CMS Certified. But what’s important here is not so much getting the wine right, but more getting your form right as at both these levels they’re prepping you for what comes next. This will require practice, but it’s all very much doable and there’s a set list of testable wines for both exams so it’s not nearly as intense as people might think it to be–at least at this level.
Moving up the ladder
A great many people stop at the Certified Sommelier in the CMS and/or WSET III and there are a lot of very valid reasons for this. The most common being that the amount of time, money and the slim pass rates of the higher levels (especially with the CMS at 30% for Advanced and 5% for Master) is really a lot to take on.
After the WSET III, there’s the WSET IV or as it’s more commonly known, “The Diploma” which can also be abbreviated as the awkward, “DipWSET”. The WSET organization clearly states that you need to put in a minimum of 500 hours of work to pass this level and that it takes between 18 months to 3 years to pass. Yikes. But, think of the Diploma as a level to start preparing for the Master of Wine, if that’s your overall trajectory as, for most people, this or the Advanced Sommelier are required to be able to apply.
For the CMS, the next level is the Advanced, but as you’ll note in the chart, I’ve inserted the “Professional Sommelier” which is a level that doesn’t exist, but really should and here’s why: the only reason to attempt the CMS Advanced Sommelier is if you’re seriously planning to attempt the CMS Master Sommelier.
There is a massive push in terms of difficultly from the Certified up to the Advanced, so much so that the exam is rightly referred to as the “mini Master”. It has this deeply-granular level of information that, if asking questions from an Advanced theory exam to people who hold the Diploma, they’ll often say, “What the hell is that?” This is because they’re facts that don’t come up in the standard wine trade environments you see with the Diploma, but that’s the nature of the Advanced exam. This is why the CMS creating this “Professional Sommelier” level or something with a similar name in the future would make for an excellent stopping point for those who want to challenge themselves to more than the now-fetishized Certified Sommelier but don’t see a need to continue to the elite level of the Master Sommelier.
The WSET Diploma will tax its takers with multiple tests covering a wide array of aspects in wine ranging from production, business, still wines, fortified, and sparkling. People will need to write essays, analyze and taste many wines blind. And there’s also a final research paper.
The key is that the exams are broken down into several chunks and if you fail one, you can re-take it. It’s stressful but it can be a managed stress, although what’s really stressful for many who attempt it is that they don’t know their results until months after the exam as the WSET is famously slow in grading papers.
The CMS Advanced is a whole different game as the exam takes place over two days. The first day is the theory and service portion and the second is the blind tasting. People can and do fail all three parts but what’s more common is that they pass two (such as theory and service or tasting and service) and then fail the third, but it makes no difference as you have to pass the entire exam in one setting and can’t repeat just one of the parts.
The theory exam of 100 or so questions covers an insanely-broad range of material about wine, winemaking, cocktails, and beer. The service portion will again pressure people on cocktails and classic wines. The tasting portion is three white and three red wines to be tasted in 25 minutes–exactly like the Master Sommelier exam. The one plus to this exam is that you get the good or sadly and more often, the bad news, the same day you finish the exams.
Micah Woodruff who holds the CMS Advanced and the WSET III and works the floor at a private club said, “Overall, I would say CMS is more difficult because there is a service component.”
And this is a sentiment that I’ve seen echoed time and again in that if you don’t have a service trajectory to your studies, then the CMS will see you run up against a wall, probably keeping you at the Certified Sommelier level. The WSET on the other hand will handily see anyone through to the Diploma no matter in what sector of the wine trade they come from although don’t think it will be a walk down the primrose path to get there.
In looking at this, it may seem like I’m generally advocating for the WSET course and to some degree I am as it serves more people overall who want to further their wine education. But, if you’re working purely in service, then the CMS is really all you need, especially as you can study at your own pace outside working hours and you’re essentially studying during working hours as well while on the floor.
A question of need
Does a wine professional actually need any of these certifications? The resounding answer from everyone I’ve ever talked to is, “no”. There have been countless people who have done very well in all facets of the wine trade without having a single certificate behind them. The catch of course is that you’re kinda having to constantly prove your worth to new people who don’t know you and when someone is looking at you through the lens of a resumé, the lack of a certificate can be a deal breaker.
Michelle DeFeo who is the president of a well-known Champagne house’s US branch put this very well,
“I’m certain that WSET I & II was instrumental for me getting my first job as a sales rep way back when. While my recent WSET III and Certified Sommelier certifications didn’t change my current standing in my company, they have been beneficial to our business in other ways. I will say that I have hired dozens and dozens of people over the course of my career, and have read countless resumés. It’s so easy for any applicant to say they love wine, but unless they already have significant work experience in the wine industry, I can only tell if they’re serious about wine if they have a credential of some sort. I make almost everyone in our office take WSET I & II so that they have a basic foundation of knowledge. On our sales team we have higher credentialed people up to the Diploma level.”
A question of price
So, if you’ve read this far in and can see that there’s an advantage in pursuing these exams and high-level credentials in wine, the most logical question to ask is, “How much will it cost?” The answer sadly, is “quite a bit”. Which can be quite a barrier to more diverse access to the industry.
For the in-person classes of the WSET at their base in London, the prices are: WSET I – £185/200€/$250, WSET II – £475/525€/$625, WSET III – £820/900€/$1,100, Diploma – £4,100/4,450€/$5,500 for a minimum total of £5,580/6,200€/$7,300 if you do the entire course. As a side note, the Master of Wine is over £10,000/11,050€/$13,000 in just fees, plus a lot more on the wines required for studying.
For CMS, the exams and review classes before each of them (with the exception of the Master Sommelier which is just the exam) are: Introductory – £565/625€/$750, Certified – £235/260€/$310 (done in tandem with the Introductory in the ‘European Chapter’), Advanced – £745/825€/$975, Master – £765/850€/$1,000 for a minimum total of £2,310/2,550€/$3,025
(Note that the conversion rates were done at the time of writing for GBP, EUR, and USD and will vary in terms of rates but also for specific geographic locations of the various exam providers.)
If you’re just glancing at these, it makes it look like the CMS is the far better value, but there are a great many hidden costs in there such as traveling to the exams (which is mandatory whereas the WSET can largely be done online at the lower levels) and then buying scads and scads of wines for tasting practice. The idea of course is that you should have access to a great many of these wines if you’re working in the trade but even still, you’ll need to pick up additional wines and it adds up fast.
The WSET has various options like choosing to do the study course online but the catch is that you then need to not only pay for, but also source the wines for tasting on your own which, if outside of wine-friendly cities such as London, NYC, San Francisco, Hong Kong and a handful of others, will be quite difficult.
Again, Amaia Soto explained the difficulties in terms of wine availability and tasting support when not in a prime market, “First problem I faced with this was the lack of samples in Mainland China. It was a nightmare and cost me an arm and a leg! A further important point, I didn’t have a tasting group or any kind of study group for that matter.”
Recently, Wine.com announced that they are partnering with the WSET to create a reference set of wines for people to buy. This is of course only available in the US where there’s always been better availability due to direct shipping. But, it’s a move in the right direction and hopefully more countries and regions will replicate this as it makes life much, much easier for those attempting the exams.
So in glancing at the costs of the courses and possible the wines, are these prices expensive to you? That depends a great deal on your own situation as when talking with people around the world, the responses come down to two camps: people in the United States and people everywhere else. There are few Americans who have achieved these levels that find the costs to be all that onerous as the price of say the WSET III is one- or two-week’s salary whereas for someone in Spain where I’m based it’s more than an entire month’s salary. In a country such as the republic of Georgia, it could be more than two month’s salary.
This has definitely made it difficult for more people to access these programs and while there are scholarships available, it’s often the case people have to move to the aforementioned wine-friendly cities (if they can) to achieve them. So this all started as a very British affair but now includes the United States. Despite the growth, access to people in other countries, with less income and, let’s just face it, who aren’t white, is still a gaping divide.
You also need to weigh the costs against what you’ll gain from them, as with any other investment in your education. If intending to work in wine writing or judging, it’s hard to justify these costs as what writing there is, pays poorly and wine judging, well that almost never pays anything unless you’re a director of the competition. If you’re planning to work in wine sales, import/export, or as a sommelier, then these certifications can make a difference in terms of salary so there’s definitely a long-term benefit there. But this is all a very personal choice for someone to make.
Don’t think that either of these courses will be a silver bullet to furthering your wine career. There’s always a great deal of independent study required to be up to date in the wine world. It’s very easy to find people who have achieved any one of these levels but have clearly stopped studying and it shows. If you want to remain current and relevant, you can’t stop learning, so it’s an aspect of the wine trade that’s worth considering if you’re just starting out in that you’re always learning if you’re the least bit good and curious.
Do keep in mind that neither the WSET (outside of London) nor the CMS are actual official accredited education bodies. By this I mean that even if attaining the “Master of Wine” or “Master Sommelier”, these do not hold the weight nor the backing of accreditation that one finds in a master degree from a university. Thus, these are not akin to a “Master of Science” or “Master of Fine Arts”. They’re titles bestowed by people who have passed the exams previously but are not part of a state-accredited education system.
In terms of the WSET, despite it forming a good framework for people to learn about wine, it also has its downsides. The first is the aforementioned cost, which can be huge. The second is that it can be a really nontransparent organization. As I mentioned earlier, the tests take an unjustifiably long time to get graded. Once received if you don’t pass, you can either pay to retake the exam or pay to have your results shared with you. They don’t share results beyond pass/fail willingly which can be frustrating for people who might want to know how to do better. I’ve had many people vent their frustrations to me in private that the WSET word is the final word and if you don’t accept it, well, too bad.
Another problem is that change comes slowly to WSET and materials are often out of date with reality. They do what they can to keep things up to date, but what’s in the text is what’s testable, so you need to know it, even if it’s wrong according to common knowledge from your professional experience. For example, according to them, Nebbiolo has a “full” body and Cava is a “budget” sparkling wine. These are aspects to the program that you just have to accept and toe the party line in order to pass. Unfortunately, instructors or “Approved Program Providers”, while they can comment about how they feel on a topic, still have to tell people that “so and so is X for the exam”.
Another problem is that as soon as someone passes one of the WSET levels and takes a one-week course, they can start teaching the lower levels, so there are many, many “Approved Program Providers” of varying quality. In some cases, instructors are merely parroting what’s in the study materials and not adding much to the learning experience, whereas others are truly making it worthwhile to take the course. That’s why I’d recommend researching schools thoroughly before you take the plunge.
As for the CMS, it’s become a victim to its own growth. The boom in interest to take these exams led to rapid growth, competition, and ultimately unfortunate behavior. It still remains a robust and exceedingly difficult certification but as to whether it’s something you want to pursue after the cheating scandal, racial inequality, and being exceedingly male dominated, leading to the sexual harassment scandal is up to you. Again, keep in mind that anything past the Certified level means that you’re heading straight up to taking on the Master and very, very few people pass that exam.
Regardless of whichever path you choose, it’s important to keep in mind that all of them have serious transparency issues that are in need of addressing.
So, which path?
Ultimately, the path you choose will be one that you’ll have hopefully chosen carefully. As you can see, neither of these paths are cheap nor fast, as is often the case in life for anything worth doing. In fact, if something seems too easy or too good to be true, it probably is. Never trust shortcuts.
But, in addition to the other courses I mentioned at the beginning, there are also more casual, local options such as joining a tasting or study group (both of these can be found in Guildsomm), visiting wine regions (an excellent pursuit even if not looking to study), and just tasting as well as reading extensively. There’s always more one can do when it comes to wine and there are always others happy to accompany you in this path.
I can only hope that, as someone with no commercial investment in either of these programs, my laying out how their structured and compare to one another can help you to make a more informed decision as to what might be the best for you and your future.