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Looking to get a leg up in the wine world? Here's a crash course in the various classes that will help you out.

Jonathan Cristaldi
February 12, 2018

If you’ve heard that working in the wine industry is extremely fun, you’ve heard correctly. But here’s a fair warning: it can be a difficult industry to navigate and your success in it depends on how well you get to know the side of the business you go into. I’d even argue that having a passion for wine is only going to get you so far. Getting an education will give you a serious leg up.

I spoke to Christian Oggenfuss, the co-owner and Chief Education Officer of Napa Valley Wine Academy, about the different kinds of certification courses out there. Named “Best Global Educator of the Year” in 2016 by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), Oggenfuss has developed an impressive array of classes, seminars, workshops and boot camps, with many offered online.

For those of you thinking of going into the wine industry, or if you’re already in the biz looking to move up the ladder, there are a lot of educational options out there. Here, we break it all down.

Q: The WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) is perhaps the most-recognized wine certification course in the world. What does it entail and who is it for?

Christian Oggenfuss: The WSET is offered in 77 different countries and in 19 different languages; it is internationally recognized for its superior study programs, including those in wine, spirits, and saké. If you travel to Bordeaux, people working at the top chateaux know the WSET. Head over to Australia or China and the WSET is there too. They offer certificate courses for people at all levels of education — from beginner classes for those wanting to enter the food and beverage industry, on up to master-level programs with specialist-level skills for almost any segment of the industry.

Q: How could gaining a certificate from the WSET help someone land a job in the wine industry?

A: Today, we’re beginning to see job listings that require a WSET education—or one of equivalent knowledge. But having a WSET post-nominal on your business card, resume, and online profile tips potential employers off to your level of knowledge and preparation for jobs in the industry. And it’s a confidence booster. The knowledge you’ll gain from WSET courses is without equal.

We understand that people are busy, and so at Napa Valley Wine Academy we have one of the largest offerings of WSET courses, including intensives, weekend-only classes; evening classes, and online classes—and provide these with great frequency. Our goal is to empower people in the industry through education.

Q: What are the top certification courses outside the WSET that are equally respected by employers in the wine industry?

A: For people looking to work on the hospitality and service side of the business, the Court of Master Sommeliers is a great option. While top somms are treated like rock stars these days, there is no overnight success. It takes a lot of work and dedication to get credentialed—and the Court leads you through a series of exams to help you excel.

There are also regional specific certifications such as Italian Wine Central’s “Italian Wine Professional” certification, which offers an extremely deep dive into the wines of Italy. Or the Wine Scholar Guild’s French Wine Scholar program, which opens up the world of French wines by sharing each region’s history, culture, food and wine styles. At our academy, we offer a program called “The American Wine Expert,” which takes you from coast to coast exploring top regions and the wine styles being made in  the U.S.  

Not only do these courses open up a world of wine knowledge to anyone wanting to take the journey, they also arm you with knowledge that can elevate your career in selling or marketing these wines.

Q: Two of the most respected titles in wine are Master Sommelier and Master of Wine. What is the difference between the two roles, and what is the best course of study for each?   

A: People often confuse Masters of Wine (MW) with Master Sommelier (MS) and vice-versa. Both are recognized as the highest credentials in the world of wine, sort of like reaching the top of Mt. Everest or the moon! However, the two certifications are quite different.

A Master Sommelier’s skills and knowledge are focused on hotel or restaurant beverage service, and helping to elevate the experience of the guest. Job options are numerous, including Head Sommelier or Beverage Director of some of the top restaurants in the world, and running a successful restaurant wine program.

A Master of Wine is a title bestowed by the Institute of Masters of Wine, whose purpose is to promote excellence, interaction and learning across all sectors of the global wine community. The goals and aspirations of Masters of Wine are wide-ranging, and the title is held by a diverse group of winemakers, buyers, shippers, business owners, retailers, academics, sommeliers, wine educators, writers, journalists and many others.  

Critical to note, is that the WSET Diploma is widely considered a requirement for entry into the Master of Wine program—or an equivalent knowledge level. Students who are determined to become Masters of Wine generally get their foundation studies through the WSET, and augment these with specialized regional studies. The Court of Master Sommeliers also recommends WSET courses in preparation for their theory exams. While much of the service and tasting preparation falls on the student, we have developed our SommDay School workshops with Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser to help augment this learning.

Q: Napa Valley Wine Academy also offers Harvest Boot Camps. For people who attend your Harvest Boot Camps, what can they expect, and how does the experience prepare someone for working in the wine industry?

A: With our boot camps, all of your senses will come alive. You don’t just learn about wine, you get out of the classroom and see, hear, touch, and taste like an insider. Every camp is different— from watching how barrels are made at a local cooperage, to seeing crushers and destemmers in action. You may be put to work helping with a pump-over (an experience you will never forget). Experiences are interspersed with classroom learning to provide anyone who drinks wine, works with wine, or writes about wine with a solid understanding of winegrowing and winemaking while interacting with some of the industry’s key players.

Q: Tell me more about the “American Wine Studies” course — what does it cover and who should take this course?

A: Wine is made in all 50 U.S. states, and great wine is being made all over the country. What influences the styles and wines being made in New York is greatly different than what influences wines of a west coast region like Napa Valley. This course explores the key wine regions of the U.S. and takes students through the styles and wines being made there. For a complete understanding of the U.S. wine industry, the course includes key historical events that led us to where we are today, along with wine laws, label requirements, and the economic influence of top regions. You will fall in love with American wines you never knew existed, and if you are selling American wines, you will see them in a new light. This is a course for any wine enthusiast or professional.

Q: Other than becoming a winemaker or working at a winery in the tasting room, what other jobs are available to people looking to get into the wine industry?

A: There are a ton of options, everything from working for a distributor, importer, retailer, or restaurant to being a marketing copywriter, wine journalist, public relations specialist, or working for a regional wine association such as Bordeaux or Chianti Classico.  

Q: What would you say to people currently working in wine who don’t have a certification. Is there a good reason to get certified if you already have a job?

A: Confidence is the number one reason to start your journey of learning. It is empowering and may lead to roads you never dreamed possible. We want you to not only dream those dreams, but to make them a reality. We see this happen every day.