Most professional wine-tasters will have had a bad taste left in their mouths at some point—but a shocking exam-cheating scandal at the Court of Master Sommeliers is likely to embitter the whole world of wine’s elite.
Those who pass the notoriously difficult exam have long been considered to carry the imprimatur of a true wine expert. Since it was created in 1969, only 274 people have managed to pass the test, sorting the best from the rest for more than 50 years.
But the genteel world of wine-tasting has been rocked by a scandal even worse than drinking a Pinot Grigio at room temperature. Twenty-three people who passed the sommelier exam this year have been stripped of their qualifications amid allegations of cheating.
In a letter sent to all master sommeliers, Chairman Devon Broglie said the board had “received a report from outside legal counsel that a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas disclosed confidential information pertinent to the tasting portion of the 2018 Master Sommelier Diploma Examination prior to the examination.”
Exactly who divulged the information to the students, or what confidential information was revealed, isn’t clear. The San Francisco Chronicle reports it’s likely the culprit was an exam proctor—a master sommelier who’s undergone four years of additional training to be able to spot a true wine expert.
The tasting exam is probably the trickiest of the three sections of the test. It takes place over 25 minutes in which a candidate must taste six wines, blind, and identify each one’s grape variety, region of origin, and vintage. Even a tiny bit of information given could, of course, be a great help.
The shame and anger of the 23 stripped of their qualifications will be palpable. The mark of having passed the exam is being able to add an “MS” title suffix to your name—indicating Master Sommelier. The permission to use the suffix has now been stripped from the 23.
Only one member of the class of 2018 retains the title. Morgan Harris passed the tasting section of the exam last year, so was untainted by the scandal. He said: “It’s heartbreaking and incredibly disappointing for me and for everyone else who passed the exam in a fair and honest way.”
Harris said he was shocked by allegations because of the lengths the CMS goes to prevent cheating. It reportedly quarantines the candidates before and after the exam, and exam-takers are never told the identities of the wines—even if they pass. “Not in the five years I took the exam did anybody talk to me about any wines,” said Harris.
But the other 23 no longer have the vaunted title. It’s also unclear whether the $995 that it costs to take each examination would be refunded to them.
Moreover, there could be an even bigger financial penalty to come. The Chronicle reports that an advanced sommelier in the U.S. earns an average salary of $87,000, while a master earns an average of $164,000. This qualification would have been a ticket to bigger and better things.
Broglie promised there would be an “expedited process” for the 2018 candidates to re-take the tasting examination. Hopefully, the sour taste from the cheating scandal won’t have had too great an effect on their abilities.