by Jillian Veader

Last Updated: June 24, 2024

CMS vs WSET: Which One Is For Me?

Whether wine is a personal interest for you or a professional vocation, taking classes and receiving a certification in the field is incredibly rewarding, and will enhance your understanding of all things wine. But with all of the certifications available, which one is right for you?

Two of the largest organizations you may hear about is the WSET and CMS. The Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), is a widely popular certification that distributes credentials in wine, beer, spirits, and sake. Since its inception in 1969, over one million WSET certifications have been awarded. The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) is among the other notable professional certifications, spanning four levels with an exclusive focus on the proper serving and handling of wine. When people think of careers in the wine industry, the first thing they inevitably think of is the illustrious sommelier.

The main distinction between CMS and WSET training is the structure of the courses and their intended learning outcome. CMS is service-oriented, focusing on curating wine lists, food pairing, and tasting in a restaurant setting. If you are working in hospitality, this is an excellent course for you. While you will still learn to taste and evaluate wine with WSET, it is more theory-oriented, ideal for those in retail, distribution, and more, covering a wide breadth of knowledge.

That is not to say that anyone who takes a CMS course must end up in hospitality, or those that earn their WSET won’t have the proper skill set to do so. I have had sales reps who earned their Somm, and met wine directors in restaurants and bars who learned through WSET. Deciding which course is right for you is subjective, and depends on what skills and information you most value.

Both institutions use levels to differentiate the difficulty of their course offerings. Here is a quick breakdown of what they offer and their rough equivalents in difficulty:

Level 1 Introductory
Level 2 Certified
Level 3 Advanced
Level 4 (Diploma) Master

What Will I Learn in WSET vs CMS?

At its core, the bulk of the information you will be studying in a WSET course is about wine grapes, the countries where they’re grown, and how these factors contribute to the style of a finished wine. You will also learn how to taste wine using the Systematic Approach to Tasting (SAT) method, which gets progressively more comprehensive as you move through each level.

A CMS course will teach you their Deductive Tasting Method (DTM), service standards, and overviews of each major wine-growing region. This includes theoretical information, as well as hands-on practices such as properly setting a dining table, opening a bottle of Champagne, and suggesting wine and food pairings.

A major difference between CMS and WSET is how you learn. WSET offers both in-person and online courses that span from a couple of weeks to several years, and are available at institutions all around the world. When you sit for a WSET exam, you will sit in the same place you took your courses and received instruction.

CMS works differently. Depending on your course level, you will only receive in-person course instruction for 2-3 days at a specified location; success requires a lot of self-study using the course materials provided by CMS. For example, the in-person Introductory Sommelier Course and Examination takes place from 8:00 AM - 6:00 PM over two days. In contrast, the Level 1 WSET consists of a 2-hour class once per week for a few weeks.

It's also important to note that CMS exams are not offered in every city or state. Courses and exams are given in select locations each year, and candidates are responsible for their own travel and accommodations, making it a significant time and financial commitment. You can check out the CMS course calendar here for further information.

What Are the Exams Like in WSET vs CMS?

The structure of the WSET and CMS exams are quite different. WSET exams range from 30 multiple-choice questions at Level 1, to a comprehensive theory exam with multiple choice, short answer, and essay questions, along with blind tastings, at Level 4. These exams are generally offered a few times per year through your course provider.

CMS exams cover theory similar to WSET, but there is also a heavy focus on practical service and tasting. Student are expected to be able to properly pair food and wine, demonstrate the ability to serve wine to guests, and have the additional knowledge of how to serve spirits and beer. It is a comprehensive, hands-on experience that is unlike any other exam in the world.

Commitment Breakdown

Depending on your program and desired level of study, you may spend a few days, weeks, or several months attending lectures. Keep in mind that in order to pass CMS, there is a hefty self-study requirement, and you must attend the in-person courses only after properly preparing on your own.

WSET Entry Requirement Total Qualification Time (TQT) Exam Length
Level 1 None 6 hours 30 multiple-choice questions
Level 2 None 28 hours 50 multiple-choice questions
Level 3 WSET Level 2 or equivalent level of knowledge 84 hours 50 multiple-choice questions, 4 short answers, plus a blind tasting of 2 wines
Level 4 (Diploma) WSET Level 3 Award in Wines or WSET Level 3 Award in Wines & Spirits 500 hours 5 separate theory exams, plus a blind tasting of 12 wines
CMS Entry Requirement Total Qualification Time (TQT) Exam Length
Introductory None 2 full days of in-person instruction plus prior self-study 70 multiple-choice questions
Certified Pass Introductory Exam (minimum 60% required); 3 years’ field experience is recommended but not required 1 year of self-study after passing Introductory course recommended A written theory and tasting exam, and a practical hospitality and service exam.
Advanced Pass Certified Exam (minimum 60% required) and applicants must have a minimum three years in a service/sales position 1 year of self-study after passing Certified course recommended A written theory exam, a verbal tasting exam, and a practical consisting of hospitality & service and business of the sommelier.
Master Pass Advanced Exam (minimum 60% required) 1 year of self-study after passing Advanced course recommended An oral theory exam, a deductive tasting of six wines, and a practical wine service exam (75% minimum passing score).

What Can I Do With Each Certification?

While both organizations provide you with significant theory and tasting practice, the intended outcome between WSET and CMS courses are different.

Levels 1 and 2 of WSET are considered introductory. It is not necessary for you to have prior experience in the industry in order to succeed in and enjoy these courses. For example, in my Level 2 class, I was working as a retail buyer, but there were also restaurant servers, bartenders, and enthusiasts who just wanted to up their wine game. One woman worked in marketing, and stated that she was taking the course to help her feel more confident navigating a wine list when taking clients out to dinner.

Level 3 WSET is a significant jump up from Level 2. If you pass, it shows a high level of knowledge and commitment to the industry. Many sales reps hold this certification, but it is also ideal for those in retail and restaurant settings. Really, anyone who works with wine or has a significant interest in it will gain an immense amount of knowledge and tasting practice.

Level 4, also known as Diploma, is the highest WSET certification you can earn, and is considered a prerequisite for the Master of Wine (MW) certification. This is an intense course with a large time commitment. A WSET Diploma shows employers that you are among only a few hundred graduates with a highly tuned skill set, commitment level, and knowledge base, and you are considered an expert in your field. Anyone from sommeliers, buyers, and sales reps, to vineyard technicians, winemakers, writers, and other professionals can benefit from WSET Diploma.

A CMS certification will set you on a slightly different path. The Introductory course is just that – introductory. There is no tasting or practical exam here, but it is a required prerequisite for taking the Certified Sommelier course, which demonstrates a high level of practical skill and knowledge. The Introductory course is important as it helps you gauge the time and study commitments required to continue up the ladder. As a Certified Sommelier, you will have proven not only your theoretical knowledge, but also your ability to taste and service wine in a high-end, professional setting.

The Advanced Sommelier certification shows a deep level of commitment to the industry. By this point, you are among the pros, whether it be in the restaurant industry or beyond. Perhaps you curate restaurant wine lists, own your own restaurant or bar, or teach others about wine. Distribution, sales, and importing are also popular paths. The possibilities are practically endless.

Becoming a Master Sommelier is among the most difficult and prestigious certifications you can earn, with less than 300 people having earned the title. But what’s the advantage? For one thing, the average salary for those with a Master Sommelier title is $164,000 (for comparison, the average earnings for an Advanced Sommelier is $87,000). A Master Sommelier is just that: a master at his or her craft, among the top echelon of the industry. A Master Sommelier might be teaching, writing, running a business, traveling, making wine, and more.

CMS courses are designed to benefit those working on the floor of a restaurant, with service being at the forefront. However, you can take these tasting and service skills with you on a variety of career paths.

Which Course Should I Start With?

Which direction of study you should take is ultimately up to you. WSET covers a wide range of topics, and is generally more widely available. You will also receive a lot of in-person instruction (about two hours per week spread over several weeks or months), and while self-study is required to pass the exams, it is easy to manage your time. One benefit of WSET is that you are not required to begin at Level 1, and can opt to jump right into Levels 2 or 3 depending on your current level of comfort with the material.

Passing a CMS course largely requires you to direct your own studies. While there is in-person course instruction, it occurs the day you take the exam, and if you have not prepared on your own, it is unlikely you will pass. If you are someone who is self-driven and manages your time well, you can have great success with CMS. Someone who learns better in a classroom setting may have better luck with WSET.

All that being said, no qualification is better than the other. Consider what information you value most and the amount of time you’re willing to commit to. Whichever path you pursue, you will leave with a heightened knowledge and appreciation of wine.



WSET Level 1 Specifications

WSET Level 2 Specifications

WSET Level 3 Specifications

WSET Level 4 Diploma Specifications


Introductory Course Guide

Certified Course Guide

Advanced Course Guide

Master Course Guide

Like this? Here are some other aritlces you may like