The Pandemic Changed Sommelier Education
March 2020 was a terrible moment for wine educators. In-class wine education was impossible for much of the United States. As a result, the best wine schools pivoted toward various online wine programs. Many wine educators we talked to confirmed this move online was essential to their school’s survival.
The shutdown was a massive paradigm shift. And now we see a reimagined world of online wine education. This article is focused on online sommelier certifications. For wine-tasting classes, you can check out our reviews of Virtual Wine Tastings.
Developing and deploying something as complicated as a sommelier certification program is no easy feat. It takes a team of seasoned professionals to create something worthwhile. The top wine accreditation bodies built new programs. The Court of Master Sommeliers made a version of their Level One Program. The National Wine School created a whole new series of online classes. The Wine & Spirit Education Trust didn’t update its programs but gave its franchises more autonomy.
We spent several months attending dozens of online wine courses. The quality varied greatly. Those listed on this page are worth your investment of time and money. However, many other programs we attended were not worth your time. There are some deeply flawed online sommelier courses on offer. We discuss evaluating a program’s quality at the end of this article.
Types of Online Sommelier Courses
When you start looking at taking an online sommelier class, you should know a few critical terms. First, asynchronous courses are professionally recorded and produced. These videos allow the student to take the class at their own pace. However, only the better wine schools can afford to offer this type of program to their students. Synchronous courses are streamed live and run on a predetermined schedule; these are much more common but provide a lower-quality experience. Finally, SCORM is the eLearning protocol most universities and schools use to build and deliver courses to students.
The Best Online Sommelier Courses
First Place: National Wine School
NWS is most associated with SCORM-compliant wine education in college settings. They don’t have the media-savvy gloss of WSET or CMS: if that matters to you, maybe you should glean your wine education off TikTok rather than become a sommelier.
The pivot to online was more effortless for them, as they already distributed most of their education material online. They have added well-produced video lectures to their portfolio and teleconferences with professors. The programs are well thought out and far ahead of any other available schedule. While the L1 program is excellent, the L2 and L3 programs genuinely shine. Their proprietary scent kits take these programs to a new level.
The program is packaged into the National Wine School’s public-facing platform, including a wide variety of reading and testing options. Overall, it is a well-thought-out and SCORM-compliant opportunity. Since the NWS system is designed to be deployed at universities, so there is a high level of professionalism. You will feel at home if you’ve ever taken an online college class. Website.
Where to Take: Wine School of Philadelphia
While you can take the NWS programs directly from their website, we recommend taking the program through one of their affiliated schools, the Wine School of Philadelphia. Much of the content distributed nationally by NWS is produced in New York and Philadelphia. Several of the main contributors are instructors for the Wine School of Philadelphia.
WSoP consistently earns top points for their in-person programs, which is not why we recommend them. We discovered while signing up that this regional school charges less for the same programs than the national ones. For instance, going through WSOP for a Level One certificate costs $150. The same program would have cost twice as much if we had gone through the national agenda. Website: https://www.vinology.com/online-wine-school/
Sample Online NWS Sommelier Course
Second Place: Wine & Spirit Education Trust
The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) is the dominant company in the restaurant trade. Name recognition makes this a consideration if your career goal is restaurant work. If you’ve previously taken WSET classes and enjoyed them, you will feel right at home in the online version.
Classes are a Zoom-style teleconference with PowerPoint presentations. Much information is given rapidly, with the WSET- certified wine instructor giving a short lecture. While there is plenty to criticize about this formula –it makes wine education impossibly dull– it is the most ubiquitous in the restaurant industry.
There is a steep decline in quality between first and second place on this list; we think some people will prefer this program for one reason: there is a live instructor. You can take this program with your local WSET affiliate school, so the instructor is possibly in your city.
The other benefit of having this program spread across the county is that you can shop for bargains. We have found that pricing per program varies greatly, and WSET schools actively compete with each other. Here are the WSET affiliate schools in the USA to use for comparison shopping: Fine Vintage LTD, San Francisco Wine School, Wine Education Institute, Florida Wine Academy, Virginia Wine & Spirits Academy, Dallas Wine Education Center, Texas Wine School, International Wine Center, Capital Wine School, Wine Academy of Las Vegas, Spirited Grape, American Wine School, and Napa Valley Wine Academy. Happy hunting!
Just one caveat: the quality of some of these programs is far from stellar. See the “Online Sommelier Classes to Avoid” section for more details.
Where to Take: Grape Experience
It was challenging to choose which online WSET program was the best. There are dozens of WSET affiliates, and they all offer similar experiences. The main differences are the narrator and the professionalism of the affiliate school. For that reason, Grape Experience is our top pick.
Grape Experience is the only WSET vendor to offer asynchronous classes, and there are weekly online Zoom meetings with an instructor. We find the team at Grape Experience to provide the best experience overall. Adam Chase is a fantastic teacher and has pulled together an excellent team of instructors. Website: https://www.grapeexperience.com/online/
Sample Online WSET Wine Course
Third Place: International Sommelier Guild
At the International Sommelier Guild (ISG), the production value is a step up from WSET programs, but the information is sometimes dated. While based in the United States, the group has expanded internationally, offering online programming in many languages, including Russian, Spanish, and Chinese.
The programs consist of an outstanding learning experience that is fully asynchronous. The one drawback is that lectures are audio-only. We feel it would benefit the students to have video instruction included in all online courses for the pricing.
Sample Online Sommelier Course
University Online Wine Courses
There are a few other good options for wine education from several universities. Sadly, none of them come with any certification. For example, the U.C. Davis Wine class on Coursera is comprehensive and well-organized but does not offer sommelier certification.
Another great (and free) option is the introductory wine program at the University of Adelaide. We found it better than the Cornell University introductory wine course, which is unsuitable for serious wine professionals.
Our Criteria for Rating Online Sommelier Classes
High-quality wine instruction. This is a no-brainer, in our opinion. The best wine instructors can deliver knowledge in a manner that students find compelling. A great teacher knows what the core concepts are and makes sure that students understand them. Unfortunately, far too many wine instructors deliver information in a yawn-inducing monotone. We prefer our wine instruction to be fun, dynamic, and intelligent.
Student interaction. It’s vital for students to interact with staff, especially if they have questions. Communication is typically through zoom, email, or a chat function.
High-Resolution Video / High-Quality Audio In the era of Zoom, poor-quality audio and video is inexcusable. A wine student should expect a high-quality experience that is visually sharp and delivers crisp audio. HD and 4K video are now standard for online college classrooms; grainy video signals that you are dealing with a fly-by-night operation. Is the instructor using a high-quality cardioid microphone or a cheap omnidirectional one that sounds like a tin can?
Online Academic Resources Programs should come with original online material. Whether that information is relayed via video or reading material depends on the program, as long as it is presented in a lesson-by-lesson format. A critical consideration is whether there are quizzes or projects attached to lessons: the best online wine course offers ways to judge how well you are mastering the program.
Wine Selections Most L2 and L3 programs require that the student purchases wines. The best programs provide a list of wines to buy. However, we strongly recommend against any program that sends you samples of wine. This may seem counterintuitive, but we found that schools that offer to send you wines for a price do so at a high markup, offer awful wines, and often ship them illegally.
Sommelier Certification Another obvious requirement is that many programs offering “Online Sommelier Classes” do not provide certification. There is no reason to take a course if the school cannot provide a qualified accreditated certificate.
Online Sommelier Classes to Avoid
As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, some deeply flawed online sommelier courses are on offer. Why are so many online wine programs subpar? This is primarily the fault of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET).
WSET wine education has been guided by a basic formula: wine tasting and a PowerPoint presentation for a long time. Sadly, wine schools can franchise content from suppliers like WSET and run classes without infrastructure. You don’t need a permanent space or teaching credentials to buy into the franchise.
This franchise mentality of faster-is-better has led to an over-reliance on PowerPoint slides, and teachers are just reading the headlines. However, quality instruction is so much more than that. We hope wine schools will develop original content that engages the student and offers a unique experience. It will make for better online courses and better wine education overall.
While some WSET programs are stellar, many more are outlandishly terrible.