How do you choose the right wine education pathway?

I’m not sure that there is a “typical” entry into the wine business, but my experience was at least somewhat haphazard. When I graduated from college, my intent was to go on to medical school. But I had a passion for wine that I wanted to take an opportunity to kindle. Unfortunately, I found very little information about pursuing a job in the wine industry. There were sales jobs available with retailers and distributors in my area, but in terms of education or experience, I was lacking.

Wine Training?

The first educational credential I came across was the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) Introductory exam (there was no Certified exam back then), but being that I was simply in an exploratory phase, that seemed daunting. To fully evaluate the possibilities, I decided to travel to the epicenter of wine in the U.S.: the Napa Valley. While visiting, I came across a week-long course at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena that focused on tasting and evaluating wine, and provided information on the various career paths that exist in the industry. I enrolled in the course about a month later; it was my first formal “wine training.” The insight I gained, the camaraderie I shared with classmates, and the encouragement of an instructor who quickly became a mentor all added up to a cross-country drive from Virginia to my new home in the Napa Valley, a mere 3 months later. I did not have a job, or a background in wine. I simply wanted to give myself a year to learn as much as I could from the best in the industry, to decide whether a career in wine was the right path.  Nearly 20 years later, here we are.

Restaurant industry: is CMS enough?

The first few years of my career were solely on the restaurant side of the industry, and therefore I began the CMS track. For someone fresh out of college, the problem with that experience was lack of structure. I had wonderful mentors at the restaurant, who kept me engaged in tasting sessions, and the occasional seminar about a region (mostly when we added new wines to the list). We explored vineyards and wineries, learning about the winemaking process from vineyard to cellar to glass. This was high quality on-the-job training, but when it came to the kind of personal study that would allow one to pass an exam, I found myself faltering. There was a suggested CMS reading list, but no way to check one’s progress the way an instructor-led course allows. I could never determine in which order to study—from grape to region, or soil to vine, or region to wine style. In the absence of a syllabus, it was information overload.

I got through it and passed the exam after a year of work/study, but it occurs to me in hindsight how much value WSET Levels 2 and 3 would have presented in those early years. While neither Level has a significant focus on service, those aspects of restaurant work are taught every day on the job. I believe there is tremendous value in a course that focuses a student’s attention in a systematic fashion. Today, with WSET courses more widely available in the U.S., I recommend to those interested in becoming a sommelier that they take the WSET Level 2 course as a part of their CMS Certified exam study. And to sommeliers who are studying toward the CMS Advanced, I consistently suggest sitting for the WSET Level 3 course first. The truth is, there is no better service training than physically working as a wine steward or sommelier, but having an instructor-led course of study can help make sense of the vast quantity of technical information necessary to move forward through exams.

Career shifts = changing educational needs

My first wine career shift came when I transitioned to hospitality, marketing, and sales for a winery. I had the opportunity to educate my guests by far more in-depth means than possible in a restaurant setting, and I relished establishing regional comparative tastings, wine and cheese pairing seminars, and winemaking focused vineyard and facility tours. But at the other end of the spectrum, I was now expected to represent our wines on a much broader stage, managing our national distributors and creating restaurant/retail placement schemes for the entire state of California.

I was still studying toward the CMS Advanced, but that wasn’t teaching me the business of wine. Understanding the global scale of production and sales, and our place in it, is a fundamental step toward creating solid marketing and sales plans. I was extremely fortunate to find a local mentor, and I will never be able to repay the time she spent sharing decades of her knowledge with me. Many years later, when I was studying for Unit 1 of WSET Diploma (The Global Business of Alcoholic Beverages) I realized what could have been. For individuals working for a winery or a distributor, who want to advance within the organization, the global business knowledge you’ll gain by working through Diploma is one of the most helpful (and challenging) things you can do for your career.

New Roles, New Goals

So, when did I finally make the switch from CMS to WSET? In 2006, I was asked to take the helm of an import and distribution company. While considering the opportunity, I talked to a Master Sommelier friend, who asked why I was still studying toward the MS when I had clearly transitioned away from restaurant work. He suggested that because of my business pursuits and my passion for writing and teaching, I should consider pursuing the Master of Wine. It was at that time that I first learned about WSET certification, and its role as a stepping stone toward the MW. I accepted the importer job, and then undertook WSET Level 3. I became hooked on the process—the quality of the educational materials, the quality of the instructors, the level of knowledge expected of candidates. This is truly world class education.

Learning by Teaching

Years later, after making and selling my own Napa Valley wine, and partnering on winemaking projects in several other countries, I came to fully understand that my true passion is for educating others about this world of wine that I love so deeply. Teaching individual collectors, restaurant staff, and winery hospitality workers as a consultant keeps me in touch with what I consider to be the most dynamic “front lines” of this industry. And since a passion for education goes together with a love of learning, in 2013 I went “back to school” by enrolling in WSET Diploma, with my long-term goal being the pursuit of the MW.

Completing the Diploma course of study was one of the most fully engaging things I’ve ever done in the industry. The intellectual quality and diversity of the candidates was astonishing. Four remarkable individuals in my group were not even involved in the wine trade, but simply had a passion for wine and for learning all they possibly could about it. Spending hours of classroom time together, and even more hours in one another’s homes for tasting group sessions, forged some lifelong friendships. That camaraderie also holds true for my former sommelier tasting groups, and certainly for all those studying for the Advanced CMS and MS. But if you are interested in the broad world of wine, in the business of it, and in the ability to educate others (professionals and amateurs alike) I can recommend nothing more worthwhile than pursuing the WSET qualifications.

That is why I am so pleased to have the opportunity to teach these WSET courses through The Virginia Wine Academy, coming soon to the City of Richmond.

My education recommendations for various industry positions follow. Have questions? Feel free to email me directly: tracy.waldron@thevirginiawineacademy.com

Wine Industry Explorers WSET Level 1
Restaurant Servers / Bartenders WSET Level 1 and 2
Wine Stewards / Fine Dining Bartenders WSET Level 3
CMS Certified
Sommeliers WSET Level 3 and 4
CMS Advanced
Wine Store Sales Staff WSET Level 2 and 3
Wine Store Managers/Owners WSET Level 3 and 4
Winery Hospitality WSET Level 2 and 3
Winery Marketing/Sales WSET Level 3 and 4
Distributor Salespeople WSET Level 2 – 4
Import/Export Managers WSET Level 3 and 4