Questions Surrounding Blind-Tasting Exam Leave 23 New Master Sommeliers in Limbo (Wine Spectator)

The Master Sommelier exam, the hospitality industry's top-level certification for wine knowledge that has become a symbol of high achievement for many who work in restaurants, 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. It is working to expedite the opportunity for all eligible candidates to retake the blind-tasting portion of the exam to ensure that everyone has an equal playing field. 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 Board understands the gravity of this decision and it was not made lightly," wrote Broglie. "We reached this decision after many hours of careful consideration of the evidence and discussion on the impact on the Court and individual members."

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."

"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 administering the exams, typically to members of the beverage service industry, and to conduct education programs. There are four levels of difficulty—Introductory, Certified, Advanced and Master Sommelier.

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.

What now?

"We understand this decision is a shock to those who recently passed this examination, and we carefully considered the impact our decision has on our newly pinned Masters and their careers," said Broglie. "We are committed to developing an expedited process so that all eligible candidates can retake the tasting examination." In addition to the costs of travel and tasting training that candidates often take on, the exam itself costs $995 per segment. (A 24th 2018 Master Sommelier recipient, Morgan Harris of San Francisco, had previously passed the tasting portion and thus kept his diploma.)

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.

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.

Another impacted candidate, Vincent Morrow, a sommelier at the soon-to-open One 65 in San Francisco, defended the integrity of his fellow test-takers on the GuildSomm board. "One ex-Master screwed this up for everyone. Whoever chose to take advantage of it, if they did, that is on them. I'll vouch for every one of the other [candidates] until I learn otherwise," he wrote.

"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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