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There are very few master sommeliers in the world — fewer than 300 total. The title is the highest certification in wine service. The final test is sometimes regarded as the most difficult exam in the world, with a lower pass rate than the New York Bar exam. People spend their entire career in wine trying to pass the master’s exam, administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers. Like the bar, it’s taken in three separate parts — theory, service, and tasting — but each is so difficult that you actually get three attempts over three years, after you pass theory, to complete the other two.
The master’s exam represents the fourth and highest level in the certification. I am what’s called a ”certified sommelier,” which means I passed the second level and will test for the third next year if I get in. I work as a sommelier at Wolfgang Puck’s flagship restaurant, Spago — even with a credible resume, I have been told for the past two years that there wasn’t room for me to try for the third level. So many people fail at the third level, it now takes many years and multiple applications before you get to test. Only after passing level three (“advanced”) do you get the chance to do the master’s exam.
Those who do pass get more than just bragging rights and a lapel pin. Masters command higher salaries, trips around the world, professional credibility, and overnight industry fame. Being a master means getting the opportunity to pursue your wildest dreams in the industry. Each year there are typically three to 10 new masters who pass. Early in September, 54 participated in the blind tasting portion of the exam.
This week, 23 out of the staggering 24 people who passed were told that the results were null and void. A member of the Court of Sommeliers leaked information about the tasting in advance to at least one candidate. Someone cheated. Excepting one candidate, who took the test earlier in the year, all of them will need to do the blind tasting over again.
The blind tasting is widely considered the most difficult part of the certification process. Presented with six unmarked, already-poured glasses of wine, candidates must identify the grape, origin, and vintage in 25 minutes. It’s all done verbally; candidates cannot write down any notes and they only have approximately four minutes per wine, so they usually don’t have much time to go back and change their answer. They must say a certain number of specific descriptors for the correct wine to get the maximum number of points and must acquire a minimum of 75 percent to pass.
The wines for the exam are carefully selected to be a classic and typical example of the wine — a fair and testable wine — by many masters before the testing begins. The exact wine chosen for the exam is an extremely well-guarded secret by the Court of Master Sommeliers. Even after a candidate passes, the producers and styles of wine are never revealed. After exams, candidates typically discuss among themselves, since they all taste the same set of wines, and piece together what the wines were based on who passed and what they called — but you never really know.
It’s easy to understand why learning literally anything about the wines in advance would be a big help. For example, if someone said to look for grassy tones in a white wine, that would narrow it down to basically just one variety that is testable for our exam. You would just have to figure out where it comes from. There are also some wines that are very often confused with one another, like sangiovese and nebbiolo from Italy. They look and feel very similar in the glass, so if the only tip I got before an exam was “not nebbiolo,” I would most likely nail the wine. Even knowing what country one of the wines was from could significantly up the likelihood of getting the grape right; knowing a vintage might unlock the key to identifying the origin. If I knew it was a riper vintage, which expresses itself as more fruit forward and with higher alcohol, I would be able to guess the country of origin with much higher accuracy.
I even find myself empathizing with the now-former master sommelier who leaked information about the blind tasting (again, at this point it’s not known how many). I imagine seeing my colleagues, students, and friends working day and night, obsessively, for years, to pass this one exam. Hundreds of hours spent mentoring and cheering, only to watch them fail.
But it was wrong to cheat, and the court upheld the integrity of the certification by repealing the results. The master caught cheating was removed as well. If just one person knew the answers, who is to say they didn’t tell one, three, five, 22 of their peers? Or even just influenced them in a way that helped them pass? Candidates tend to know each other well, either from being in tasting groups together or from over the years during the testing process. (The intensely collaborative preparation depicted in the documentary Somm is not atypical.) I can see from the court’s perspective that the closeness among candidates increases the likelihood that answers or information were shared among each other. Still, it’s important to note that at this point, there is no evidence this is the case.
After a month of celebrating the highest possible achievement in their industry, after having spent spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars preparing for and traveling to an exam they took and passed, these candidates may well feel back at square one.
Approaching the blind tasting portion of the exam is like training for the Olympics: You have to be in shape. There are plenty of people who have passed tasting once and not been able to again. It depends on the time of day, your hormones, the humidity, even the altitude. When the exam was held in Aspen one year, multiple candidates complained that the change in elevation was affecting the way they tasted. Being asked to retest with your masters reputation on the line in conjunction with the sheer difficulty of the exam sounds like any wine professional’s nightmare. It’s more than likely that some, if not most, of the 23 will not pass again, but this does not necessarily mean they cheated the first time. It is that difficult.
Many of us sommeliers watching this unfold from the sidelines were deeply affected by the CMS’s decision to revoke the certification, because we understand the years of dedication and sacrifice each of those 23 candidates went through. The 24 who initially passed cumulatively had over 100 previous tries at the blind tasting. Each candidate had a community cheering for them, and it was inspiring to see them pass. It gave us hope. I thought, “If they can, maybe I can too.” The decision to overturn the results drives a knife into the heart of anyone who has been through the court’s rigorous testing process. Nineteen of the 23 signed a letter to the court urging them to conduct a full investigation and reinstate their master sommelier status.
Emotions and personal relationships aside, I believe the court made the best of an unfortunate situation. Whether or not we sommeliers like how and when it came out, the organization took action after being made aware of the breach of conduct. It also decided to refund all tuitions for the tasting portion and offered two retesting options later this year for all 54 candidates, which gives everyone another chance. It will provide travel assistance and waiving the retest tuition. These concessions lessen the blow.
The decision also means that any diner who has the privilege of being served by a certified master sommelier can still be certain they are experiencing the best of the best. The passion and dedication to get them through the testing process was enormous. Ask them questions, try things they recommend, and ultimately, have respect for these knowledgeable and hardworking individuals. They earned it.
Cristie Norman is a certified sommelier working for Wolfgang Puck’s flagship restaurant, Spago, in Beverly Hills. She also has a brand of wine-centric apparel and shares her wine adventures on Instagram.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan