Earlier this week, scandal rocked the wine world when the Court of Master Sommeliers announced that it would be rescinding the master sommelier (MS) designation from 23 of the 24 people who had passed the master sommelier exam this year. In an October 9 email sent to members, CMS board chairman Devon Broglie wrote that the court got word that a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers “disclosed confidential information pertinent to the tasting portion of the 2018 Master Sommelier Diploma Examination prior to the examination.” In short, someone — or someones — cheated.
It’s a huge deal for the small community of master sommeliers — just 274 people have passed the exam since its 1969 inception — and a devastating blow to the honest test-takers who spent years preparing for the notoriously difficult exam. Here’s everything you need to know — before the story gets made into the greatest wine movie this side of Sideways. (This post will be updated as more information becomes available.)
What is the exam?
The Master Sommelier Diploma Examination is the test sommeliers take to become master sommeliers, the pinnacle achievement in a sommelier’s career. It’s the same exam that’s the subject of the 2013 documentary Somm, which chronicled four men’s quest to pass the exam and add the coveted “MS” to the end of their titles.
As outlined in the film, passing the master sommelier exam requires years of practice and, often, multiple attempts. It’s not cheap — it costs $995 to take the exam each time. Plus, the candidates must first pass three other CMS tests to reach this final level. And while it’s not a requirement that a sommelier one day become a master sommelier, passing the test can mean better career opportunities. The Chronicle reports that, in the U.S., an advanced sommelier earns an average salary of $87,000, while a master sommelier makes an average of $164,000.
The exam consists of three parts, and if candidates pass one section but fail another, they can retake that part next year. The sections include a verbal wine theory exam, the practical “restaurant wine service and salesmanship,” and a practical tasting. During the tasting portion, the test-taker must “clearly and accurately describe” six different wines, including grape varieties, origin, and vintage, in just 25 minutes. This is the portion of the exam that the Court of Master Sommeliers deemed invalid in 2018.
The name of the CMS member who leaked the confidential information has not been released officially, but the court does know who that person is. In its email to members, the CMS announced: “The Board of Directors has barred the Master involved from participating in any Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas programs or events. On Monday, October 8, 2018 the Board voted unanimously to initiate the process of terminating the involved Master’s membership in the court pursuant to our bylaws.”
Wine Searcher has floated the name of a master sommelier based in San Diego. While his name still appears on the list of the Board of Directors, it is the only name that has been removed from this list of the court’s members. Wine Searcher notes that this person mentored four of the students who passed the exam. When reached by Eater, the person in question had no comment. The CMS has not responded to Eater’s requests for comment.
It was impossible to tell who among the candidates received the information, so the CMS was forced to invalidate the scores for 23 of the 24 newly appointed master sommeliers, who all completed the exam in September. Morgan Harris, head sommelier at the Angler in San Francisco, gets to keep his title because he passed the tasting portion the previous year. He told the Chronicle that he had no idea who the cheating candidate could be, saying, “I just can’t imagine in what universe you would work so hard to achieve something that you’re then actively invalidating.”
What are sommeliers saying about it?
On October 11, 19 of the 23 sommeliers signed a letter expressing their displeasure with the court’s decision. They shared it with the Chicago Tribune. “As your colleagues and as members of the Court of Master Sommeliers, we feel the decision reached by the Board of Directors of the Court of Master Sommeliers (the ‘Board’) was done in haste and did not follow appropriate due process in redacting the status of the Class of 2018, as outlined by the Bylaws of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas,” the letter reads. The letter also calls for a more thorough investigation, given the fact that there’s no way to be sure the cheating master sommelier hadn’t done something similar in previous years.
There’s some support for the court’s call, however. Spago sommelier Cristie Norman says that although the “decision to overturn the results drives a knife into the heart of anyone who has been through the court’s rigorous testing process,” it ultimately upholds the integrity of the master sommelier title.
What happens now?
The CMS wants to make it relatively easy for the 23 sommeliers to regain their titles. They’ll be given two opportunities to retake the exam — one later this year, and another in spring or summer 2019. The court will also refund the tasting fees for the 2018 tasting portion of the exam and all of the fees for the upcoming exams as well as offer some help with travel expenses.
In a statement, the Court of Master Sommeliers defends the decision as essential to preserving the rigor of the exam. “Maintaining the integrity of the examination process must be our highest priority, lest we risk diminishing the value of, and the respect earned from, becoming a Master Sommelier,” it reads.
Harris said in the Chronicle that “the decision that was made is the only one that could be made.” But most agree that it’s a real punch to the gut for the 23 candidates who may or may not have cheated.
• Somm scandal: Revelations of cheating at master sommelier examination lead to the invalidation of 23 new certifications [San Francisco Chronicle]
• Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas Board of Directors Takes Unanimous Actions to Preserve Integrity of Examination Process [Court of Master Sommeliers]
• Sommeliers push back at decision to strip ‘master’ titles after incident of cheating [Chicago Tribune]
• Somm Struck Off Over Tasting Leak [Wine Searcher]
• Why It Was Right to Strip 23 Master Sommeliers of Their Titles [E]