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Paper chase: The challenge of obtaining beverage certification

Time and commitment are needed to prove you’re a drink expert

David Flaherty is the marketing director for the Washington State Wine Commission. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation's Restaurant News.

The beverage community is a tight-knit one, where some professionals have become household names throughout the industry. But despite the relationship-oriented nature of the profession, sometimes it helps to have paperwork that backs up your charm. 

There are numerous certification tracks that professionals can follow to prove they know what they’re talking about when it comes to beer, wine, spirits or even cider (a few of which I myself have achieved). They’ve gained more attention thanks to films like “Somm” and books like “Cork Dork,” which describe the study required for high-level certifications. But is it worth it? 

“A certification is a positive flag that a candidate is serious about the industry, especially if it’s someone who's trying to make a career change,” said Christy Frank, partner and wine buyer at Copake Wine Works, a retail shop in Copake, N.Y. “If you have even a base-level certification, I'm going to take you much more seriously than someone who just ‘loves wine.’"

Frank has embarked on the certification journey and will sit for the Advanced Sommelier exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers this year. The grueling three-day test covers wine theory, deductive tasting and service. Most candidates sitting for the test have spent years working in restaurants, so as someone on the retail side, Frank has her work cut out for her. 

“Since I'm not working on a restaurant floor, I've set up a table in my apartment, acquired trays and run juice service for my kids. They're also learning the service standards and are more than happy to correct me if I step out of line,” she said.

Frank doesn’t necessarily need more certifications, but she said she enjoys how the rigorous study keeps her sharp, connects her with a larger network of professionals, gives her more job options and puts her in better standing with potential investors.

San Diego-based Molly Brooks, who is certified as an Advanced Sommelier, a Specialist of Wine and a Cicerone (a beer expert), said her certifications often put her in good graces with the clients that she serves as a national account manager for Truly Fine Wines, an importer of German wines.

“Certification shows that a person took the time out of their life to plan for, apply for and sit for an exam, which is asking a lot in this busy world,” Brooks said. “And in my current position, it is certainly a selling point or a silent nod when I reach out to accounts, event planners and to those in other markets, as they recognize the skills required.”

Certifications require a significant time investment, and can also be costly.

Applicants for certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers, the Society of Wine Educators and the Wine & Spirit Education Trust must be able to recognize dozens of classic wines from around the world, which is not a cheap endeavor to train for, as it requires buying a lot of wine. 

“Tasting groups are essential in helping to afford the wines that are required for you to pass the exam,” said Michelle Richards, general manager at St. John’s Restaurant in Chattanooga, Tenn., and a Certified Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Members of the group can split the costs of bottles used for tasting practice.

Apart from the benefits of the actual certification, Richards said there’s also value in being part of a community that stretches across the country.

“If I would not have gone the certification route, I would not have this amazing network,” she said. “And being around advanced and master sommeliers is inspiring and helps you want to do more for yourself, your staff, your company and the community.”

Many of those studying for the theory portions of the tests use online group services like Google Hangouts or Skype to defy the boundaries of geography, offering both encouragement and the ability to quiz each other at all hours of the night. I always say, there’s nothing like coming home after a 14-hour shift on the restaurant floor to memorize the Grand Cru vineyards of Chablis.

For many of those in the industry, the study materials are right in front of them, either on the retail shelves they’re stocking or filling their restaurant’s wine cellar.

Jamie Stratton, wine director and partner at Jacob Liquor Exchange in Wichita, Kan., emphasized that behind every bottle of wine lies a ton of information that can be mined, including its history, geology and geography, so he’d take one home and open the books. 

While in pursuit of his Certified Specialist of Wine and Certified Wine Educator certifications, both through the Society of Wine Educators, he often proceeded one bottle at a time.

“One thing I did while studying a region was to try to drink a key wine from that area,” Stratton said. “It helps one to not only understand its sense of place, but also hones your tasting abilities at the same time, both of which are indispensable for selling and understanding wine.” 

But ultimately, no certification can be a substitute for experience. 

“At the end of the day, it comes down to experience and the candidate themselves,” Richards of St. John’s Restaurant said of the job applicants she interviews. “I know what it took to earn that certification, so there is a level of respect there. However, if you have years of experience in the service or beverage industry, work hard, have a great attitude, a willingness to learn and don’t think you can get off for New Year's Eve or Valentine’s Day, then you’re hired.”

David Flaherty has more than 20 years experience in the hospitality industry. He is a certified specialist of wine, a certified cicerone and a former operations manager and beer and spirits director for Hearth restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in New York City. He is currently marketing director for the Washington State Wine Commission and writes about wine, beer and spirits in his blog, Grapes and Grains. 

Correction: January 18, 2018
David Flaherty's bio has been updated to reflect the fact that he is now a certified specialist of wine.
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