Somm School and the *Other* Bar Exam

I have a friend who is great at ordering wine. He left New York more than two years ago, but before he did, I could trust every wine decision to him. At restaurants he’d order a delicious Italian vino, and I, despite my best efforts, would order a glass of something not so delicious. Ever the gentleman, my friend would switch wines with me, telling me a little bit about his wine as he slid it across the table. My friend, of course, is Italian. I want to be like him when I grow up.

Fast-forward to August 2014. My glorious summer of post layoff dolce far niente is coming to an end. After doing ample research, then procrastinating, then doing more research, and then wallowing in my hallmark indecisiveness, I enroll in the fall sommelier certificate course at the Sommelier Society of America (“SSA”). As soon as I click “Submit,” I think, “What the hell did I just do?” The “Back” button doesn’t work, though.

It turns out that what I did was embark on a journey that I will always cherish. The SSA certificate course is a 21-week trip around the wine world, guided by passionate, engaging, and caring instructors—all wine professionals—who want their students to learn about and love wine. The course ends with a final exam comprised of multiple choice questions, short answer questions, and three blind tastings. If only there was wine tasting on the New York Bar Exam! I chose SSA for several reasons:

  • SSA is the nation’s oldest wine education organization. These people are really into wine.
  • The scope of regions and topics was appropriately broad and deep given the timeframe of the course.
  • The price was right.
  • The location, in the heart of Midtown, was convenient for me.

The course included an overview of wine production, cooperage, service, and tasting, and it surveyed the major wine grapes and regions of the world. The amount of time spent on each region was appropriate, and the exam was fair. I think that the course builds an excellent foundation for professionals who already work in the wine and hospitality industries, as well as for individuals who want to pursue further professional credentials. At the same time, it is reasonably structured and paced for people who, like me, just really love wine and food. In addition, instructors are available outside of class and keep students apprised of portfolio tastings and other events in the City.


I worried that the course would turn me into a wine snob, but it really just made me a better wine drinker. By opening my mind and my palate to the universe of wine (can you say, “Trocken Beerenauslese”?) and signaling indicators of quality, it set me on the path to better wine choices and greater enjoyment. It also taught me that it’s okay to ask questions and to be honest about my likes and dislikes. Yes, Italian reds will always be my favorites, but I'm able to enjoy other wines now, too. 

I think we all owe it to ourselves to study something that we love when we have the opportunity. I am very grateful that I had the chance to study at SSA. Oh, and next time my friend comes to New York, I will order the wine!