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Questions Surrounding Blind-Tasting Exam Leave 23 New Master Sommeliers in Limbo

The Court of Master Sommeliers says a member leaked inside information from its most challenging test
The blind tasting is considered the most difficult portion of the Master exam.
Photo by: Istockphotos
The blind tasting is considered the most difficult portion of the Master exam.

Ben O'Donnell
Posted: October 10, 2018

This story was updated at 11:30 p.m. Oct. 10.

The Master Sommelier certification, which has become a symbol of high achievement in the restaurant and hospitality industries, became embroiled in intrigue and heartbreak Oct. 9. The board of directors for the organization that administers the test in the U.S., the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas, announced it would be voiding the results of its 2018 deductive blind-tasting exam, which was held in September. Chairman Devon Broglie announced in an email to organization members that the board had received "a report from outside legal counsel" Oct. 5 that a Master Sommelier had improperly disclosed information about the wines in the blind tasting.

The board chose, in a unanimous vote, to invalidate the Master Sommelier title for all 23 diploma recipients who had passed the tasting portion in 2018. "We reached this decision after many hours of careful consideration of the evidence and discussion on the impact on the Court and individual members," wrote Broglie in the initial announcement. The Court also announced that it had begun proceedings to strip membership from the offending Master Sommelier and bar that person from all organization events.

The following day, Oct. 10, the board decided that all 54 candidates who sat for the exam would be given the chance to retest on one of three dates later this year or next year, with the $995 exam fee waived and “appropriate travel cost assistance” provided. “Yesterday was a tough day for everyone in the Court of Master Sommeliers, but especially for those who passed the voided tasting examination in September. There are no words I can say that will take away the disappointment and anger that our candidates are feeling today,” said Broglie. “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 decision sent waves through the wine and restaurant industries. The candidates who have now had their degrees invalidated had, in many cases, spent years on the path to certification—most candidates retake the test several times before passing. Some now felt uncertainty about job prospects and responsibilities tied to their exam successes.

"As a member of the first class in the Court's illustrious history to be named, and subsequently, have an asterisk drawn next to the title we sacrificed so much to obtain, I offer a very earnest and valid question: What now? … What do I say to my employer who extended new benefits and responsibilities?" wrote Christopher Ramelb, one of the candidates and an employee of Southern Glazer's Wine & Spirits, on the online message board for wine-education organization GuildSomm. "I feel so stupid and lost, as if the years of preparation and discipline, the stress of performing, and the jubilation of finally doing so, have been for nothing."

Candidates often train with each other in small groups or with established Master Sommeliers to hone their skills, building strong relationships. “I have encountered some of these folks professionally over the years for a long, long time," said Master Sommelier Emily Wines, a former board member. "I have multiple candidates who I've done blind-tasting practice with, one of whom I met with once a month for the last year. It's pretty devastating to see somebody go through what is the happiest moment of their professional life turn into something like this.”

The Court aims to raise sommelier wine-service standards by conducting education programs and administering certification exams, typically to members of the beverage service industry. There are four levels of difficulty—Introductory, Certified, Advanced and Master Sommelier. Currently, 249 hold the title of Master.

Master Sommelier candidates must pass three segments of the test, each of which is administered only once a year: a 50-minute verbal theory exam, a practical exam involving a mock wine service, and finally, the segment that is arguably toughest to prepare for, a blind tasting of six wines in 25 minutes, in which the tasters try to identify grape, place of origin and vintage of wine. This is the portion that the board says was compromised at last month's exam when information about the wines was leaked. The board did not provide the identity of the culprit or indicate which, or how many, candidates received the information.

Shock and frustration

The reaction from many in the wine community was one of surprise, anger and sadness. "My heart goes out to any candidates who were negatively affected by any unethical actions related to this most unfortunate situation," said Andy Myers, wine director of chef José Andres' ThinkFoodGroup, who earned his Master Sommelier certification in 2014. "I have the utmost faith in the Court and its leadership and trust they will address the situation in the most fair and professional manner."

"It's shocking to think that anyone that has these credentials would have done something like that," said Alex LaPratt, partner and wine director of Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winners Beasts & Bottles and Atrium Dumbo in Brooklyn, N.Y., who became a Master Sommelier in 2014.

A 24th 2018 Master Sommelier recipient, Morgan Harris of San Francisco, had previously passed the tasting portion and thus kept his diploma. But he spoke of the frustration his would-be classmates faced. “Inevitably, it is unlikely that all of those people who sat it honestly would pass again. It took me four years to pass [the] tasting," said Harris. "And it’s just so heartbreaking and devastating on so many levels, because it’s just one or two dishonest people ruining stuff for a lot of other people."

Other wine professionals outside the Court felt the breach and its handling shed light on issues with the exam process and the organization. "I think it needs to be a more transparent process," said Max Coane, wine director of Prime Cellars in San Francisco and former head sommelier at Grand Award winner Saison.

"I am confident we will implement processes to maintain the integrity and rigor of our examination process moving forward," wrote Broglie. "And we will be a stronger organization as a result."

—With reporting by Lexi Williams

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