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Dear Dr. Vinny,
Is prepping for and taking the Certified Specialist of Wine exam a good idea for someone looking to get into the wine industry?
—Lucien, Shelton, Conn.
There are a lot of different wine certifications out there, like the Certified Specialist of Wine, or CSW, that you’re asking about. I can’t speak for all employers, but I think that wine classes like certification-prep courses are a great idea for anyone interested in wine, whether the end goal is a job or just greater appreciation. The CSW exam, offered through the Society of Wine Educators, is no cakewalk, and many people don't pass it on their first attempt, so that would certainly come with some bragging rights. “The CSW is a great first step for anyone interested in learning about wine and being able to ‘talk wine,’” wine-industry recruiter Amy Gardner of Wine Talent told me.
Another popular set of certifications is offered by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, or WSET, which covers more than just wine and spans multiple levels of difficulty. Many industry professionals carry WSET certs for wine, spirits or sake. Those more ambitious can transition on to the Master of Wine program, for which the WSET diploma is typically a prerequisite, or to the separate Master Sommelier program. The Master Sommelier certification is definitely geared toward people working in restaurants or similar settings, since it includes a strong service side, and a couple hundred people worldwide can claim it. (The documentary film Somm followed four MS candidates though their exam prep.) The Master of Wine is a more theoretical discipline, and there are currently only about 350 MWs in the world. It typically takes years of dedication to get either of these achievements, and members of both clubs usually end up in pretty high-level jobs.
If you’re trying to get into the wine business, relevant experience is key and, as Gardner points out, these types of certifications not only show commitment to wine, but classes and tasting groups can end up being invaluable networking tools. Be sure to capitalize on the connections you make there. Get business cards, and send thank-you notes like your mom and Dr. Vinny taught you.
Of course, you can get wine knowledge from taking classes at a local college, or even from an online wine course, like Wine Spectator School. Go to tastings, keep a journal, build up your confidence and vocabulary any way you know. Finally, Gardner recommends you always try to use your past experience to your advantage for a wine-industry job. “If you're an accountant at a manufacturing company, try finding work as an accountant in the wine industry. If you're in facilities, look for a facilities job in the wine industry. That is the easiest way to play to your strengths and be successful in the wine industry.” Good advice!
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