I think the first thing to cover on this is where to get your education from. My options, in Calgary at least, were 2 private training schools, one of which is offered through SAIT. Plenty of tastings, educational tasting seminars through various liquor stores, and training provided by my former employer, are all major contributors to my understanding of wine and knowledge thereof. Not to mention, of course, about a bazillion online training programs and smart phone apps.
The Heavy Hitters
These two are the private training schools I mentioned above. They have the most comprehensive, unbiased, and student focused courses out there. They come with classroom hours, reading materials and a fully qualified instructor. As a bonus, they typically have smaller class sizes.
I took the level 1, four week foundation course through Fine Vintage and loved it! I had an excellent teacher who answered all of my questions, regardless of how silly or simple I thought they might be. Even if I ended up stumping my instructor, she came back the next week with the answer. One of my main reasons for picking this course was because it was recommended to me by someone who had gone through both the ISG and the WSET, and also a third training provider that no longer exists. They knew my instructor, and believed that the credibility of the certificate was much better from WSET.The only downfall to this course was that it was only four weeks long, whereas the competitors course was longer. I feel that it could have easily been spread out over 6 weeks as an introductory style course because there is so much ground work to be laid for the next level. It made for a fair bit of reading and researching outside of the materials given to maximize the classroom time. However, that being said, for someone who is just doing it because they like wine - and want to know more about the product - it was perfect..
Now, I haven’t taken any training with ISG (International Sommelier Guide), so I cannot remark on their instructors or classroom settings. What I can say is that the idea of it taking place at SAIT appeals to me. In my opinion, I think that this course is tailored more to the new professional. With the length of the course, a whopping 10 weeks, I imagine the amount of technical knowledge you should come away with would be considerably higher. How could it not be, with the amount of review that must go on?
As I said above, I think 6 weeks is the ideal length for any wine foundation course. At 10 weeks I fear redundancy and boredom may set in for those of us with a weaker sense of willpower.
Many boutique wine shops and liquor stores often do tastings and education classes on wines of varying prices, ranging from $20 to $150. Some may be even higher depending on the wines being opened and any food or appearances that may accompany it, such as The Queen or even Rocky Balboa. I believe these should be treated more as exploratory wine tastings and less as educational seminars. I think the people that go to these pre-planned and ticketed events are there to taste some wines and learn a few facts. Not necessarily to memorize a book on what a particular wine region or varietal tastes like.
Often, these shops will partner with wine importers to do free tastings for their customers. In this situation there is little pre-planning involved and no tickets. The establishment may advertise that they have a tasting occurring on a certain day, but that’s usually it. With this they have someone handing out free samples of the wine and trying to educate through tiny fun facts or food pairings as they are hoping to drive sales for that day. Depending on the personality of the salesperson, this can both good and bad, as you may end up impulse buying a wine that isn’t your style.
In the food and beverage industry a lot of places have in house training where they educate their staff on the wines and other types of alcohol they are selling. I find these to be the BEST forms of wine training. You're guaranteed small class sizes, you’re with your peers, your instructors typically know your learning style and have worked with you before. You will usually have a say on what you'll be learning about and most places will actually have a quiz or exam to test their staffs knowledge. It’s because of this that I almost always take a servers recommendation. They know their food, and in theory, they know their wine as well. Also, as a patron of a restaurant, you can always as ask for a taster if it’s by the glass to be sure.
As for the online community and phone apps, I think that anyone can call themselves an expert. So take what you read with a grain of salt, and be sure to research and cross reference before you spend any money on the at home training programs.
Now, as I have only completed a few of these options, and not had the opportunity to fully explore all facets of eduction, please don’t feel that my review is at all limiting you. I encourage you to research on your own and find the kind of training that best suits you. I find it is often the people you’re taught by, and not the course itself, that dictates how well you do or what you get out of it. Find a teacher and program that works with your style of learning.