What’s the difference between a Master of Wine and a Master Sommelier?

July 12, 20235 Minutes

A Master of Wine and a Master Sommelier – the two terms seem synonymous, so surely one can denote the other? Not so. In fact, that there are only three people in the world who hold both.

So what does each certification mean? And what are the key differences that drive people to pursue one over the other?

In this article, we’ll demystify the enigma surrounding these two peaks of wine expertise.

What is a Master Sommelier?

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Firstly, a sommelier is a wine steward and wine expert, who most likely uses their expertise in fine dining establishments; and a Master Sommelier is the peak of this profession. According to the Court of Master Sommeliers themselves, they were established to “encourage quality standards for beverage service in hotels and restaurants.” As such, the Master Sommelier qualification (MS) is heavily favoured by those actively working or involved in hospitality.

The Master Sommelier exam even requires that successful candidates demonstrate “the courtesy and charm of a Master Sommelier plus an ability to sell,” denoting a focus on interactions within a direct-to-consumer environment. In this instance, the wine is the product, and the Master Sommelier is its chief advocate with an astounding breadth of knowledge to help sell its best qualities. The MS qualification comprises “examinations in theoretical knowledge, practical tasting and practical service;” all invaluable skills in a restaurant or hotel.

The progression towards becoming an MS is hierarchical, providing a ladder for those who wish to climb. Before becoming an MS, studious sommeliers must first obtain their introductory sommelier, certified sommelier, and advanced sommelier certifications.

There are currently 271 active Master Sommeliers in the world.

What is a Master of Wine?

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The Master of Wine certification (MW) is more academically demanding and requires a holistic spread of wine knowledge. The Institute of Masters of Wine describes themselves as “the home of exceptional expertise in the wine world,” which is indicative of their aim: to be the qualification of choice for wine experts looking to establish themselves as authorities on the entire world of wine.

The MW entrance exam is a test of “the breadth and depth of a candidate’s theoretical knowledge and tasting skills in the art, science and business of wine” and comprises “three distinct parts; the theory and practical exams that are taken at the end of stage two, and the research paper submitted at the end of stage three.” In its first iteration in 1953, only 6 out of the 21 candidates passed, and the institute insists the exam is as rigorous today as it was back then.

The MW certification is a one-and-done affair; there is no junior, associate, or apprentice version, and no room for attrition as you progress through the rankings. As the certification is not designed to suit one specific vocation, membership consists of people from all facets of the wine industry, from event speakers to viticulturalists and journalists. There are currently 413 Masters of Wine globally.

The (summarised) differences between MW and MS

Specificity

MW: Expert knowledge of entire wine world, including theory, tasting, viniculture, viticulture, wine regions, and contemporary wine issues.

MS: Highly specialised knowledge of wine theory, tasting, and service suited to a hospitality environment.

Examinations

MW: A theory section of five specialised exam papers, a practical tasting exam of three 12-wine blind tastings, and a research paper of between 6,000 – 10,000 words on a candidate’s chosen topic. The first exam was held in 1953.

MS: Examinations in theoretical knowledge (oral), practical tasting and practical service. Candidates must also exhibit an exemplary standard of both technical and social skills, demonstrating the courtesy and charm of a Master Sommelier plus an ability to sell. The first exam was held in 1969.

Governing bodies

MW: Institution of Masters of Wine – HQ in the United Kingdom

MS: Court of Master Sommeliers – HQ in the United Kingdom

Global members

As of July 2023

MW: 414

MS: 271

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