23 newly-minted Master Sommeliers lose title and must retake test

By Margaret Eby
October 15, 2018
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Anyone who’s ever been to a wine tasting and mentioned “hints of oak” or the “Burgundy region of France” probably fancies themselves a sommelier, but there are only 274 people in the world who can truly call themselves Master Sommeliers. Passing the three-part qualification exam requires years of preparation and a lifetime of training. Or, if certain accusations are to be believed, a little outside help from someone who’s in charge of proctoring the exam.

Over the past week, 23 out of 24 members of the newly-minted Master Sommelier class were stripped of their coveted designation. Why? An as-of-yet-unnamed member of the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) allegedly “disclosed confidential information pertinent to the tasting portion of the 2018 Master Sommelier Diploma Examination prior to the examination.” In essence, a test-taker (or multiple test-takers) got leaked intel about the tasting section, which gives applicants 25 minutes to “clearly and accurately describe” exact details about the grape varieties, origin and vintage of six different wines.

The scandal has shocked the stodgy wine world, and the fallout has been swift. The accused info leaker has been stripped of their CMS membership, and the exam results have been invalidated for every applicant except one who passed the tasting portion at an earlier date, as aspiring Master Sommeliers only have to retake portions of the exam they failed when they retake the rigorous exam.

Given how unlikely it is that all 23 test-takers cheated, most of them are naturally quite upset. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Master Sommeliers command nearly twice the average salary ($164,000) as their unaccredited counterparts ($87,000). The loss of the career-defining honorific inspired 19 of the 23 to sign their name to a letter sent to the CMS and shared with the Chicago Tribune.

“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,” it reads. “We ask that a thorough investigation be conducted to clear the names of those of us who passed fairly, and who have been unjustly grouped under an umbrella of those who may have compromised the examination.”

Hopefully this won’t end as another story of sour grapes, as CMS wants to make it as painless as possible for the tainted class to reclaim their Master Sommelier titles. Each of the 23 will have two chances to retake the exam between now and spring or summer 2019. The exam fees (a surprisingly expensive $995) will be waived both times, and the portion they paid for the now-invalidated tasting exam will be refunded. They’ll also get some reimbursement from CMS for future exam-related travel costs as well.

The situation undoubtedly sucks for as many as 22 of the test-takers, who studied for years to reach the pinnacle of their profession only to lose their new title through no fault of their own. However, CMS sees scrapping the questionable test results as the only fair way to protect the integrity of the Master Sommelier designation. It remains to be seen if the guilty parties will be publicly outed, but there’s no doubt the whole sordid scenario will be conversational fodder among the sommelier set for some time to come.