23 Master Sommeliers Have Been Stripped Of Their Titles After A Major Cheating Scandal
Additional reporting by Caleigh Wells.
The exam to become a master sommelier is the hardest test in the wine world, maybe one of the toughest tests in any industry. Only 274 people have passed it since it was established in 1969. But the Court of Master Sommeliers has sniffed out a major cheating scandal in its ranks -- and stripped 23 of its newest Master Sommeliers of their titles.
Devon Broglie, the chairman of the organization's board and a master sommelier himself, sent a letter yesterday saying he had received information that one of the group's members had "disclosed confidential information pertinent to the tasting portion of the 2018 Master Sommelier Diploma Examination prior to the examination."
"The invalidation of the master sommelier test is really startling to the industry," says Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible. "This is one of the most agonizingly difficult tests in the world and as far as I know this has never happened before to the organization."
The tasting portion is what makes the test so difficult. Aspiring sommeliers have 25 minutes to blind-taste six wines and identify the grape variety, region of origin and vintage of each one.
"These wines could be from anywhere in the world. Dry, sweet, still, fortified, sparkling. You can imagine in the thousands of wines how hard that is," MacNeil says.
Even if candidates pass, they never find out which wines they drank so they never know what they got right or wrong.
Eddie Osterland, who in 1973 became America's first master sommelier, says he is, "still in shock and disbelief. I feel terribly for the 23 candidates that will be required to do a retake. You might be the best taster in the world and pass but when you come back and do a retake, it's another day and you could be off. On the other hand, I believe it was the only fair way to handle it."
The exam also includes a 50-minute oral portion during which applicants are quizzed on their winemaking knowledge. The practical portion simulates restaurant service as candidates recommend and pour wines for a table of discerning juges.
Almost no one passes all three sections the first time around. Candidates who pass one section but fail another can return to try again. It typically takes people five years to pass the master sommelier exam.
The 2012 documentary Somm chronicles the grueling and absurd lengths four aspiring wine pros go through as they try to pass it.
In 2018, 24 people passed the master sommelier exam. Only one of them, Morgan Harris, head sommelier at the Angler in San Francisco, will get to keep his title -- and that's because he took the tasting portion of the exam last year.
In contrast, only eight people passed the Master Sommelier exam in 2017.
Broglie, in his letter, didn't name the person responsible for sharing information but the San Francisco Chronicle, which broke the story, speculates that "the person may have been one of the exam proctors. Proctors are master sommeliers who have undergone a rigorous additional training process, typically lasting about four years."
Broglie said that the person accused of revealing information has been barred from participating in any of the group's events while the Court of Master Sommeliers terminates his membership. (We're assuming it's a "him" since almost all the members are men.) That would mean they'd also be stripped of theie master sommelier title.
It costs $995 to take the test and that doesn't include, "the cost of all of your study materials, the tens of thousands of dollars you may have spent on wine," MacNeil says.
In a subsequent press release, the Court of Master Sommeliers announced it would refund all fees collected for the tasting portion of the exam and hold two retesting opportunities, one before the end of 2018 and another during the spring or early summer of 2019. Candidates can take either retest or retake the test during the regularly scheduled exam for 2019 and their exam fees will be waived. Candidates will even get assistance with travel costs for the retest.
"I suspect that people who come back to do a retake, some will not pass just because it's that difficult," Osterland says. "It's incomprehensible to me to be awarded this thing you've worked on all your life, to be celebrating and then have the news that this is being recalled."
The people who initially passed the master sommelier exam in 2018 include:
- Tyler Alden (Seattle, WA)
- Scott Barber (St. Helena, CA)
- Peter Bothwell (New York, NY)
- Dana Gaiser (New York, NY)
- Morgan Harris (San Francisco, CA)
- Andrey Ivanov (San Francisco, CA)
- Maximilian Kast (Chapel Hill, NC)
- Douglas Kim (Las Vegas, NV)
- James Michael Lechner (Seattle, WA)
- Jane Lopes (Ripponlea, Australia)
- Steven McDonald (Houston, TX)
- Vincent Morrow(San Francisco, CA)
- Elton Nichols (Seattle, WA)
- Robert Ord (Napa, CA)
- Joshua Orr (San Diego, CA)
- Daniel Pilkey (Chicago, IL)
- Christopher Ramelb (Honolulu, HI)
- Steven Robinson (Ottawa, Ontario)
- Justin Timsit (Los Angeles, CA)
- Mia Van de Water (New York, NY)
- Greg Van Wagner (Aspen, CO)
- Steven Washuta (New York, NY)
- Jessica Waugh (Las Vegas, NV)
- Jill Zimorski (Chicago, IL)
UPDATES: Friday, Oct. 12, 1:40 p.m.: This article was updated with details about retesting oppotunities for master sommelier candidates.
Wed., Oct. 10, 12:55 p.m.: This article was updated with quotes from Karen MacNeil and Eddie Osterland. It was originally published at 11 a.m.
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