The Master Sommelier Cheating Debacle

The Master Sommelier Cheating Debacle

So grab a glass of wine and imagine with me for a moment…you have a thirst for knowledge, a talent and deep understanding of wine, and you believe that if you “do what you love, the rest will come.” You gradually work your way up the sommelier hierarchy and chase the holy grail of becoming a Master Sommelier for years.

Photo courtesy of Court of Master Sommeliers

Photo courtesy of Court of Master Sommeliers

You invest as much of your life as is imaginable to the study of wine - reading everything you can get your hands on, studying every detail about the business, tasting every wine possible and committing it to memory, hiring tutors and mentors, creating study groups, traveling to all the wine regions of the world - all while working long hours in the trade.

Our Introductory Level One course taught us the  deductive tasting method  used by all Master Sommeliers.

Our Introductory Level One course taught us the deductive tasting method used by all Master Sommeliers.

Spending thousands of dollars, slowly but surely you have worked your way through the Master Court of Sommelier’s prerequisite exams - The Introductory Level One, the Certified, the Advanced. (You can read a series of posts about He and She’s Level One experiences by clicking here). Each level becomes increasingly challenging with fewer passing. You are waitlisted for years just to have the opportunity to sit for the Advanced exam.

Master Sommelier, Andrew McNamara, tutoring a candidate for the Advanced Sommelier level - six wines, 25 minutes, no notes.

Master Sommelier, Andrew McNamara, tutoring a candidate for the Advanced Sommelier level - six wines, 25 minutes, no notes.

But what you really want is to earn the coveted Master Sommelier designation. You can almost taste the overnight industry fame, the doubling of your salary, and all the wonderful perks thrown your way. By now you have worked at least ten years in the business and have been invited to sit for the exam. Although you have made several attempts in the past, achieving the Master Sommelier status alludes you. After all, only fourteen people have ever passed the Master level on their first try (known as Krug Cup winners), and there have been only 274 sommeliers in the world who have passed the Master exam since 1969. You head to St. Louis in early September along with 53 other hopefuls and tell yourself “this will be the time I will join this elite group!”

The Master exam covers all aspects of the world and industry of wine, beer, spirits, cocktails, is taken verbally, and consists of three parts:

  1. Wine theory (winemaking, grape varietals, grape-growing regions)

  2. Practical hospitality, wine service, and salesmanship (help in wine selection and demonstrate serving skills)

  3. Blind tasting (six wines from anywhere in the world)

A Master Sommelier providing a service demonstration for the class. (Photo courtesy of Court of Master Sommeliers)

A Master Sommelier providing a service demonstration for the class. (Photo courtesy of Court of Master Sommeliers)

This Master Certification exam is notoriously difficult, many spend years preparing, and make several attempts before passing all three sections of the test. If you fail a part, you can go back and retake it the following year, although, if you don’t pass all three sections within three years you go back to square one. Hard to imagine? Check out the 2012 documentary from Jason Wise, Somm, which follows four sommeliers as they attempt to pass the Master level exam.

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Of the three sections, the blind tasting is widely considered the most challenging of all. In just 25 minutes one must taste and accurately describe six mystery wines that have been pre-poured - including grape variety, origin, winemaker, vintage - that allows roughly four minutes to identify and describe each wine. None of the test takers are to know which wines will be tasted. The three judges award points for noting specific descriptors and a 75% grade is required to pass. The wines are changed up for each exam, and in fact, nobody is even given the correct answers after the exam. It is that top secret!

Imagine your delight when you receive the life-changing news that you are a Master Sommelier - As are 23 others who tested with you! A record number of new Masters join the elite ranks, and you pop the best champagne you ever have in celebration! You attend a formal ceremony at the Four Seasons Hotel and are handed the pin for which you have given your all. At the New Master Luncheon, proudly donning your badge of honor, you talk amongst yourselves, compare notes and realize that cumulatively your new class had taken the blind tasting portion of the exam more than 100 times.

Master Sommelier celebration. (Photo courtesy of Court of Master Sommeliers)

Master Sommelier celebration. (Photo courtesy of Court of Master Sommeliers)

The typical pass rate is just 3% to 8%. Another bottle of champagne is popped with such relief that you won’t have to take that devil of a test ever again. You look forward to a grand homecoming and a huge promotion.

But, not so fast! (pour yourself another glass of wine here)

Five weeks later, you are utterly flabbergasted when you get word that you, and 22 other newly anointed Master Sommeliers, are having their titles stripped!! How could this happen??

On October 9, 2018, the Court of Master Sommeliers received notice from a student’s attorney that a member of the Court disclosed confidential information pertinent to the tasting portion of the 2018 exam before the exam.

Hmm, you know you were not told which wines would be tasted in the blind tasting, but who was? The suspected leaker mentored at least four of the candidates, though it is thought that the information was given to just one student.

Because it could not be determined who was helped by the disclosure, the Board of Directors of the Court of Master Sommeliers voted unanimously to invalidate the scores of all 23 newly appointed Master Sommeliers who passed the blind tasting portion for the first time in 2018. In a statement, the Court defended its decision as essential to preserving the rigor of the exam saying “maintaining the integrity of the examination process must be our highest priority, lest we risk diminishing the value of respect earned from becoming a Master Sommelier.”

On October 11, 2018, 19 of the 23 sommeliers stripped of their Master status filed a complaint with the Board of Directors, requesting a more thorough investigation and that their titles be reinstated - Not sure why the other four did not sign the letter - were they the ones who benefitted from the breach? The Court could take legal action and subpoena the phone and email records of the suspected leaker and those who tested that day, but so far they have not. No word as to any changes being made to the Board’s decision at this time.

To try to alleviate the pain, the Court will provide the 23 affected candidates two opportunities to retake the exam; either at the end of 2018 or the spring/summer of 2019. They will also have the option to wait until the next regularly scheduled exam in the fall of 2019. The Court will also refund the $995 paid to take the September exam, waive the $995 cost to register for a future exam re-take and help with travel reimbursement, if appropriate, for all 54 candidates from the 2018 exam. Word is some are so demoralized they may not retake the exam and are seeking work in other fields.

It is suspected that Master Sommelier Regino “Reggie” Narito, Jr, of California, formerly with Young’s Market Company, was the person who leaked the list. The Court has not officially disclosed that Narito was at fault, though He and She’s sources believe that it is. For what it’s worth, his membership in the Court has been terminated, his title revoked, his profile is no longer found on their website, and it appears he is looking for a new job. You can see him in the movie Somm as well as the television series Uncorked - maybe a story will be written about this debacle, and he will have a new role to play.

He and She are relieved we were not in that class and wish all the best to the candidates who choose to go for it again! Keep your eye on the prize folks and let us know how it goes!

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— He and She on Wine



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