Yet a breakthrough of sorts came last year when three Americans -- Louisiana restaurateur D.C. Flynt, Washington state wine-executive Bob Betz and Southern California ophthalmologist Patrick Farrell -- each earned an M.W. Last winter, Flynt and Betz were honored for their achievements in the written part of the M.W. exam, long considered the toughest portion for Americans not brought up under the rigors of the British system of essay writing.
Flynt, 46, the chef and owner of Cafe Margaux in Lake Charles, La., which holds a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for its wine list, won the Robert Oatley Bursary award, sponsored by the Australian winery Rosemount, for the best overall essay answering the question: "Wine: Who Needs It?" Flynt had tried for six years to earn the M.W. degree. Candidates must not only write a series of essays over a four-day period on the various technical, marketing and social aspects of the wine industry, they must also successfully identify up to 36 wines tasted blind over a three-day period.
"We really need to have 300 or 400 [degree holders] in the United States," said Flynt. "The level of wine knowledge among wholesalers, retailers, importers and distributors needs to be raised. Improving that will filter down to the consumer." He attributes his M.W. success to a week-long preparatory course the Institute of Masters of Wine requires of Americans who want to take the test.
Betz, 50, a 23-year veteran of Stimson Lane Vineyards & Estates in Woodinville, Wash. -- which owns Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest in Washington and Villa Mt. Eden and Conn Creek in Napa Valley -- won two awards: the Robert Mondavi award, for having the highest overall scores on the essays, and the Villa Maria Award, for the best paper in the viticultural field. Betz, who is vice president of enology research and education at Stimson Lane, said that luck was on his side when he drew his essay topic: vineyard mechanics and site selection.
Betz's advice for aspiring students facing the essay portion of the exam is to not only show breadth of knowledge but a coherent argument as well. "Weigh both sides of an issue, but take a stand," Betz said. "If you just stated all the facts, I don't think you'd pass."
For Farrell, 44, who lives in Huntington Beach, Calif., earning the M.W. means that a new world has opened up to him regarding wine. He recently judged an Australian wine competition, and like Betz and Flynt, he now helps grade M.W. candidate essays.
The next set of M.W. exams will be given this July in San Francisco. With an overall passing rate of just 30 percent, the odds for failure are great, though candidates have five years to complete all the requirements. Farrell said, "I really enjoyed the process, though there were some times I wanted to pull my hair out."
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