Making Sense of the Master Sommelier Scandal
The Court of Master Sommeliers voided the test results of 23 people who passed its legendarily tough exam a few weeks ago. What happened?
Scott Barber was traveling in Spain when he got the call on Tuesday that would upend his professional life: He was no longer a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers because a cheating scandal had invalidated the test that Barber had just passed.
Barber had been a Master Sommelier—one of the wine industry’s top designations and one held by just 273 people in the world—for a mere five heady, glorious weeks, part of an elite group of 24 sommeliers that had been awarded the title in St. Louis on September 5. It took Barber, who is president of Green Pin Wines in St. Helena, five tries and thousands of dollars to pass the tasting portion of the notoriously difficult three-part exam. Now, because a Master Sommelier had leaked information about the wine that was blind-tasted to at least one test taker, Barber would have to retake the test again.
The thought was so agonizing that Barber, who said he saw “nothing at all, nothing at all” amiss during the exam, was trying to put it out of his head and enjoy Spain. “Right now, I’m not really concerned about it,” he said.
Vincent Morrow, another newly-anointed Master Sommelier who saw his achievement ripped away, dealt with the blow in another way: He went surfing.
“Thank you to everyone that has reached out with your thoughts and kind (...or not so kind) words,” Morrow wrote on Facebook. “Someone had the balls to try and game the system by giving information about the wines prior to a candidate’s examination. What that person did with the information nobody knows. Regardless, the feeling is unimaginable. I think I speak for many of us when I say we need time to process and don’t want to be asked questions. For me, I’m going to surf my brains out and then prepare to get back in the ring with Ali for Round 2.”
The revelation that 23 newly minted Master Sommeliers would lose their titles (the 24th had not taken the tasting portion of the test in September) has rocked the wine world.
When the results of the test were announced in September, the head of the Court commented with pride about how many people had passed, since it was such an anomaly. Normally, only a handful passes each year.
“This was the most successful Master Sommelier exam we have ever done,” Devon Broglie, MS, the chair of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, said at the ceremony after the exam.
The court, with its certification program, was created in the United Kingdom in 1987 and brought to the U.S. a decade later. It was designed to elevate the level of knowledge and quality of service of wine professionals, but the red and gold pin awarded to each Master Sommelier has grown into a coveted symbol of excellence.
The exam for becoming a Master Sommelier is so difficult that most people study for years. They form groups to quiz one another on arcane facts about wine. They spend thousands of dollars buying bottles to taste and thousands more for exam fees, airplane flights and hotel rooms. They work with mentors. Many never pass. The exam’s difficulty has become so legend that a documentary, Somm, was made about it in 2012.
Those who take the test and pass on the first try are awarded what is known as the Krug Cup—and are treated like rock stars and are invited to tastings around the globe. There are only 14 Krug Cup winners in the world. Greg Van Wagner, the head sommelier at Jimmy’s in Aspen, won the 15th title in September—the first winner in six years. Now he must retake the tasting portion and pass to keep the mantle.
The exam is invitation only, so those taking it have already earned other certificates and are among the most knowledgeable about wine in the world. Many work in the U.S.’s top restaurants. Still, they find it grueling. The diploma test is made up of three parts: verbal theory, which requires knowledge of all aspects of winemaking from grape varietals to the different grape-growing regions; service, where the sommeliers demonstrate their skills in serving customers and helping them select an appropriate wine; and the hardest, the tasting. In that test, sommeliers have 25 minutes to blind-taste six wines and successfully describe the grapes they are made from, their regions, the makers of the wine, the years the wines were made and offer numerous flavor notes to three judges, or proctors.
It took about 100 years of collective effort for the 24 people who passed in September, Shayn Bjornholm, the Master Sommelier who oversaw the tests, said at the end of the process.
Nobody knows how many people cheated on the September exam. The Court has only said a lawyer contacted them to say 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.”
“Whoever was cheating must have confessed,” said Morgan Harris, who was among the class elevated to Master Sommelier in September. Harris took the service portion of the test, not the tasting portion, so his test results were not invalidated. He has emerged as a spokesman for the group of 24, most of who are reluctant to talk to the press. “It seems so wildly misguided. You worked hard for this. You are going to actively do something to undermine the thing that you worked so hard for. It’s mind-blowing.”
The board of directors said it was taking steps to kick out the Master Sommelier who revealed information about the test, although they did not release his or her name.
On October 9, members of the court placed individual phone calls to the 23 people whose titles had been stripped away, sent out an email to people connected to the organization and then a press release. The next day the court announced how it would retest those 23 people. First, it would refund the $995 fee each person had paid for the September 5 test; second it would waive the fee for the retest; and third it would offer, “appropriate travel cost assistance.” The 23 people will have the option of taking the test again this year or in the spring of 2019.
“There are no words I can say that will take away the disappointment and anger that our candidates are feeling today,” said Broglie in a statement. “I can only imagine how hard it hit everyone to learn that something they worked so hard for was tainted by the actions of a single individual.”
The fact that the sommeliers had the Master Sommelier title stripped from them is not just an emotional blow. It can have financial implications, too. The average salary of a sommelier is about $87,000 a year while a Master Sommelier can earn $150,000 a year, Harris said, referring to an industry survey done last year.
And there is no guarantee that those who retake the test will be successful. Harris said it took him four tries to pass the tasting portion of the test, and that came after practicing for six years.
“The likelihood of all of them re-sitting and all of them passing is numerically low,” said Harris, who is the head sommelier for Angler, a restaurant on San Francisco’s waterfront.
Those facing the heartbreak of losing the designation they worked so hard for are still trying to comprehend what happened. For five weeks they had a Master Sommelier pin and had risen to the top of their profession.
Immediately after they learned they passed during a ceremony at the Four Seasons Hotel in St. Louis, they were pinned, toasted with Champagne and invited into the court. They then went to a “new master lunch,” the first celebration of many that would come in the coming weeks. Soon many became the subject of newspaper articles and Facebook congratulations.
Maximilan Kast, a regional manager for Broadbent Selections in North Carolina, told the News & Observer he started tearing up after learning he passed. Bastille Restaurant in Seattle hung a huge banner over its front door for its wine director two days after he passed. “Congratulations and Happy Homecoming to James Lechner Master Sommelier,” the banner read.
“After spending five weeks with the title, I can say the pin does matter,” Christopher Ramelb, a sommelier in Hawaii, wrote on the GuildSomm message board. To “most likely have those privileges taken away is beyond cruel.”