Sommelier Level 1 Course and Exam


Being Put To The Test

On the afternoon of May 1st I found out I got into the heavily waitlisted Level 1 sommelier exam.  After about five minutes of being excited, the nerves overtook and I started to panic.  I really didn’t know what was on the test or if I needed more time to study.  I assumed and hoped that my method of last minute cramming that worked in college and my four years of experience in the wine world would suffice.  In addition, I had some time to study, so I opened up Karen MacNeils Wine Bible and started reading.  Also, when you sign up for the first test, the Guild of Sommeliers gives you access to their website (normally $100 per year) but is included in $525 to take the test.  I would say its pricey, but the website is pretty amazing and the cost includes the two days of classes which prepares you for the test as well as a lot of tasting.  The website also has tons of notes on the areas you are quizzed on so going back and forth is helpful.  I also had the Sothebys encyclopedia which I didn’t use as much for the first test but I am now for the second.

I did a bit of research and asked around how the test was and heard mixed reviews.  People who had a fair amount of wine experience said it was not too bad, people who just started studying (within the year) said it was hard, people who had already passed the first or second said is was a piece of cake.  I had mixed emotions about all three responses.  I thought I fell into the first group as I had a fair amount of wine experience but more on the sales side.  I was nervous for the people who just started studying and didn’t know much about wine, but good for them, there is no better way to learn.  As for the third group, this one freaked me out since I had no intention of stopping at level 1.

The course started at the bright and early hour of 8am where they served coffee and tea which was a nice touch and was hosted at the hotel Monaco right in the Tenderloin of SF (not the best neighborhood) but the inside was cozy, comfortable, clean and perfect for the large group of eager and excited soon to be level 1 sommeliers.

The course is led by two different sets of Master Sommeliers, one for the first day and one for the second.  There was the course director who was there both days, but each Master Sommelier led different topics.  Breaking each subject up with a different person kept it pretty interesting.

I think its important to know how specialized and talented these people are.  Each one of them are the top Sommeliers in the world.  There have been less than 200 people to ever achieve this status.  It is quite an experience to have four or five in the room at the same time both days.  There are four levels; Level 1, Level 2 – a certified sommelier, Level 3 an advanced sommelier and Level 4 – the master sommelier.  Each test gets exponentially harder.  In order to even get to Level 3, you have to be invited as well as have a sponsor.  Level 4 means they are pretty much wine gods.

You also will receive a 207 page introductory course workbook which outlines the course so you don’t have to take violently aggressive notes that hurt your hand and are illegible, so that part worked well for me.  You can still highlight, doodle and underline all you want since you get your very own workbook to keep.

They start with a welcome introduction and move right into a flight so it’s a good idea to drink coffee ahead of time so as to not destroy your taste buds and have a chance at guessing what the wines are.  They talk about winemaking and move right into France which is probably the most important country to know a lot about.  This was and is my problem; I have never sold French wines nor spent a lot of time reading about them, I just know I love them.  It made me a little bummed to think about how much French wine I have drunk in my life yet still couldn’t name most of the regions or the varietals grown in them or even be able to ramble off the names of villages and chateaus that some serious wine snobs are able to do so effortlessly.  My coping mechanism as to not feel regret is to know that I have a lot more tasting to do!  They divide up the regions and break it up with flights of wine.  The nice thing is the tasting flights are solely for your benefit to educate you and prepare you for the second exam as there is no blind tasting on the first exam.  The course covers France, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, North America, Italy, Germany, Austria/ Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Chile, Argentina, Beer, Spirits, some food and wine pairing and some wine service.

It sounds like too much to cover in two days and it is!  That’s why it’s just an introductory course.  They give you an overview of everything.  It is helpful and you learn a lot, but it goes by really fast.  If you have no wine knowledge and go into the two-day course expecting it to be enough to get you to pass, I would think again.  If you have a pretty solid background of wine, this should be enough to help you pass.  The passing rate is 60% so that should make you feel a bit less intimidated and the master Sommeliers want you to pass this test!

Its multiple choice questions that you don’t get to take home, nor do you find out how many right or wrong or which ones they were.  It makes cheating pretty hard.  I would say study regions, the main grape varietals, basic wine geography, history of wine laws in France, Italy, the U.S., AVA info, some beer/ spirits/ sake (though this is a very small portion), apertif/ digestiv (also a really small portion) and some overall history.  It sounds pretty vast but really focus on France, Italy, U.S., Spain and then some Australia/ New Zealand.  You will have some questions on Germany, Chile, Argentine, South Africa and Austria but these are by far outweighed by the first bunch.

At the end of day two they read off the people who passed because the Master Sommeliers grade this 75 multiple-choice question on the spot.  It looked like most of the class passed and you are rewarded with a glass of bubbles, a hand shake, a pin, a certificate and the ability to sign up for the next course.

After I was done, I drank some champagne, had a wonderful dinner and signed up for Level 2!

13 thoughts on “Sommelier Level 1 Course and Exam”

    1. Thank you! I am posting my experience as we speak. Please comment or leave anything you think other people would like to hear about or discuss as you please. Thanks for the kind words.


  1. Hey Alexis this is great feedback even more so because it was so recent! I am looking to take the sommelier level one intro course too, however i feel as if my background in wine is not as strong as yours. How would you go about studying for the test? What books did you read?

    1. Hi David,

      Thanks for reading this. What is your wine background? I really found that they teach you a lot during the course and set you up for success; however, I would do some reading beforehand. It is a lot they cram into your brain in a short two days. After the two days of intense learning, you take the test just about when your mind is full.

      If you can read The Wine Bible and study the maps, tasting notes and facts in the Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, you should be set. Sotheby’s is great for maps, tasting notes, facts and is much more a text book. The Wine Bible is much easier to read. You should also look up some cocktails, mixed drinks, basic beer info and some Sake info – but don’t spend a ton of time on these. Spend most of the time on wine.

      Please let me know if you have more questions as I am happy to answer anything!

  2. Hey I am curious…I am set to take the Level 1 in approximately 6 weeks and would like to know if you taking the Level 2 exam immediately following would be a recipe for disaster or more like “hitting while the iron is hot”? I’ve gotten feedback that lends to either suggestion, but would love to hear your thoughts.


    1. Hi MSJ,

      Thanks for reading my blog and reaching out. I would say that it depends on your background. Are you working in a restaurant? Do you have some dining experience? The level 1 really is not that hard and they give you 2 days of amazing training and facts to help you pass it. The level 1 is only theory. The level 2 include theory, tasting and service. Have you been attending a tasting group? I think that all of this really matters on whether or not you should go right for the second. If the answer to most of these questions are no, I would wait until the next one. However, if you are confident in service, tasting and know a fair amount about wine then by all means go for second.

      Let me know if this answers your question of if you would like more detail. Good luck and please feel free to ask me anything.


  3. Hello Alexis, I am thrilled to be a new follower on your blog. I wanted to thank you for your accessibility regarding the Sommelier Level 1 certification. I’ll be sitting the exam on the 26th of March, I’m nervous as I hate taking exams…but it’s a necessary step in my progressing at work. I’m reading as much as I can before the 2day seminar. If I have any questions would it be ok to send you an email ?

    Thanks again for your assistance.

    Happy Pat Hickey

    1. Hi Patrick! Thank you for following my blog. I would love to answer any questions that you have. Read as much as you can and they will teach you a lot in those two days. Make sure you are well rested for those days and be ready to learn. If you are already in the industry I am sure you will do great so don’t stress. Please feel free to email me any questions that you have. Good luck and speak with you soon!

      1. I am traveling for my first trip to Italy, finllay. I will be in Tuscany for a day, and would love some advice on 6-8 wineries you would suggest visiting. Our ship docks in Livorno, and we will be renting a car while there, so we can maximize our “vino” time!

  4. Great read, Alexis and thank you for confirming my thoughts on the subject. I’ve been in the F&B industry fro 15 years either in sales or restaurant (FOH & BOH) and feel that it’s time to “certify” my knowledge. You’re correct about the Wine Bible, it’s a great asset for me now.

    1. Thanks for the comment. The wine bible is great. Let me know if you have any questions or if I can help you with any subjects.

  5. Hi Alexis I love your post , I been working in a f & b business for over 20 years and I like to go for level1 , the Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia cost over $300 from Stevenson is any other you recommended , thank you .

  6. dear Alexis

    My name is snehil rai and i am from India i m currently pursuing my degree in Bsc honrs in hospitality and tourism i have been reading out your blogs as i am really interested in learning about wines so i signed up myself for level one course which is going to be on 14 december in New York city as i am travelling to New york for this exam as i am preparing myself to pass level1 at any cost i cant afford to fail this exam i am studying from Kevin zrarly windows on the world of wine and sometimes i study from study guides but i get really confuse and hard to focus and memorize as i said i cant afford to fail so i just focus please guide me so i can make my study easier and come back to my home country happily that will be really helpful if you do so. Hope to have soon and positive reply from your end
    warm regards
    snehil rai

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