The North American Sommelier Association Certified Sommelier Course, or my days spent learning to sniff, swirl and spit. Professionally.
By Jonathan Chan.
I'm a hardcore researcher. If I'm thinking of purchasing something, I'll learn everything I can before I buy. This includes movies, pomade, flower delivery companies, restaurants, home karaoke units, you name it. Hey, I work hard for my money. I want to know that I'm committing to the best and greatest value.
So, when it came to taking my wine knowledge to the next level, I went into uber-researcher mode and discovered NASA – The North American Sommelier Association.
Thus begins the results of my research and (now having gone through the Certified Sommelier course), the reality:
1) Class Time
While other Sommelier organizations offer zero to a few hours of preparation prior to the exam, NASA provides the longest amount of Certified Sommelier, classroom wine-education time – over 150 hours.
This is exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to learn from experts and not solely from books or feel like I was just paying to take an exam.
The course is taught by multiple, international, teachers (all who work within the wine industry). They are amongst the most qualified in the world, providing first-hand knowledge of each subject.
The instructors were often natives from the particular wine regions (some travelled from outside the US to teach our class) we'd be learning or winemaking and winegrowing experts or they’d written books. The insights shared were invaluable and loaded with colorful, insider anecdotes.
3) Food and Wine Pairing
The course significantly concentrates on technical food and wine pairing with an internationally patented method, including an exclusive Food and Wine-pairing textbook.
Reality: This section of the course is like looking behind the curtain to discover the secrets of the magic trick. By following the food and wine pairing method and experimenting with various combinations in class, plus a remarkable multi-course wine dinner, I'm now able to understand harmonious food and wine pairings and can discern why a pairing is or is not successful. The result is that my standards for food and wine pairing have been elevated.
There are a number of Sommelier organizations that can bestow the Certified Sommelier certification and represent the industry. Outside of the instruction, how does the North American Sommelier Association compare as a viable option?
The North American Sommelier Association is part of an umbrella organization: WSA - Worldwide Sommelier Association -- the largest Somm association in the world. The certification is issued directly by WSA from Europe and recognized officially not only in North America, but throughout the globe. NASA also offers continuing education and job opportunities.
5) Is it worth it?
Cost for the entire Certified Sommelier Course: $3600. This includes all textbooks, tools and one year membership in NASA.
Let's break it down:
This is not an introductory wine course. It's for serious wine-lovers who are willing to commit time and effort to become professionals, for a career or for a personal best. Full disclosure, I just missed passing the Certified Sommelier exam. I wasn’t alone, as others also missed the mark. Did I fail? Far from it.
Here are my takeaways from the class:
My wine-knowledge has grown exponentially. In my retail job, I've been able to turn around my store – making it the #1 Wine Department in our district.
Networking. My classmates came from all walks and socio-economic levels of life, some in the wine industry, some not. Regardless of background, there were no snobs or elitists. Everyone was so supportive and eager to help. I've made friends for life.
Support system. The “no snobs” also includes the members, board and staff of the North American Sommelier Association. Every single one is a professional and a mentor figure constantly guiding the students. They have our best interests in mind, allowing us full access with emails or calls about anything wine-related, whether we passed or not.
Continuing education. Each month there are tastings, seminars, wine dinners, and special networking events that are either free or discounted for North American Sommelier Association members. Add in the growing list of Master Classes and tie-ins with fellow wine organizations and you have all the tools to grow as a wine professional.
Along with everything I documented above, we tasted over 100 wines, beers, and spirits, enjoyed food and wine pairings, participated in service situations, engaged in sensory exercises, travelled to wine tasting rooms, vineyards and a winery. With all the hours of in-class instruction, I calculated this course to be about $24 an hour. It's not pocket change but it's a fair price when compared to grad or culinary school. Wine education is an eternal adventure. If you want a career in wine you can't do it alone. You need a friend, a mentor, and an organization like NASA that will support you each step of the way.