The wine world has been rocked by a scandal emanating from one of the most unlikely possible places.
For nearly half a century, the Court of Master Sommeliers has set the standards for wine professionals in the world’s dining rooms. There are four stages to the program, and the final step—the title of Master Sommelier itself—is nearly impossible to attain. The three-part examination (consisting of Theory, Service and Tasting) is extraordinarily grueling and difficult. It takes many candidates years, and sometimes decades, to successfully complete.
This year’s exam, held from September 3 through 5, yielded a bumper crop of 24 new Masters. This was high by any measure: only eight people passed in 2017, and three or four per year is closer to the norm. Since the founding of the Court in 1969, only 274 people have passed. Earlier this week, however, the Court received information from an outside source that one of the Masters proctoring the Tasting section disclosed confidential information regarding the identity of the wines in the exam.
The Tasting panel is regarded as the toughest section to navigate. Candidates are presented with six wines in a blind tasting format; they are given 25 minutes, and must identify them as to grape variety, region and vintage. For anyone familiar with the process, the idea that a Master would give candidates inside information on the wines being offered was shocking. The Masters proctoring the exam are required to go through a vetting and training program that takes up to four additional years.
Devon Broglie MS, chairman of the organization, announced that the Board of Directors had voted unanimously to invalidate the Tasting portion of the exam. This means that 23 of the 24 newly minted Masters will be stripped of their title and required to take the Tasting panel over again (one had previously passed Tasting, and only needed Service to compete the trilogy). The impact on these individuals is huge. According to a survey by the Guild of Sommeliers, the average salary for an Advanced Sommelier (the stage before Master) is $87,000, while Masters earn an average of $164,000. Economics aside, the candidates will be in a tough spot if they choose to retake the exam, since passing the Tasting panel calls for a combination of skill, knowledge and luck.
The name of the MS who leaked the wines has not yet been revealed, but Broglie announced that he or she would be stripped of the title and barred from participating in future Court events. There has been widespread praise for the way the Court handled the situation: they have offered a full refund to every candidate who took the Tasting portion of the exam (pass or fail), waived the fee for the retest, and have pledged financial assistance to candidates for their travel expenses should they choose to take the test again.
Mark Spivak is an award-winning writer specializing in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He has written several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. His first novel, Friend of the Devil, is available on amazon.com; his second novel, a political thriller set during the invasion of Iraq, is due out in Spring 2019.
Disclosure: Mark is a former Master Sommelier candidate, and holds the Advanced Sommelier certification from the Court.