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Cheating Scandal Invalidates Latest Master Sommelier Tasting Exam

Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, reports that passing candidates must retake the tasting portion

Court of Master Sommeliers
Photo illustration by Jeff Quinn.

In an unprecedented event, the Board of Directors for the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, has voted to invalidate the results of the tasting portion of the 2018 Master Sommelier diploma exam, which was held from September 3 to 5. The news, released on October 9, stems from an outside report providing evidence that a Master Sommelier disclosed confidential information regarding the tasting portion of the exam. The Master Sommelier, whose name has not been released, will be terminated from the Court of Master Sommeliers and barred from the organization’s future events.

The decision comes as a shock to Court of Master Sommeliers members, candidates pursuing the Master Sommelier diploma, and the wine community, but it particularly impacts the record-breaking 24 new Master Sommeliers who passed the exam in September. What was called by Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas’ chairman of the board Devon Broglie, MS, “the most successful Master Sommelier exam we have ever done” in a September 5 video of the exam results reception posted on the organization’s Facebook page, has now seen an about-face. Twenty-three of the 24 new Master Sommeliers passed the tasting portion of the Master Sommelier exam this year and will therefore lose their new titles.

“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,” Broglie stated in a press release. “We are committed to developing an expedited process so that all eligible candidates can retake the tasting examination.”

In total, 25 candidates passed the tasting portion of the latest Master Sommelier exam. (Candidates must pass all three portions of the exam within a time frame of three years; two of the passing tasting candidates did not pass the service portion of the exam.) Those affected include Greg Van Wagner, who was the first person in six years to earn the prestigious Krug Cup, an award given to a Master Sommelier who passes all three parts of the exam on their first attempt. All candidates who had passed the tasting portion of the exam in 2018 were notified of the Court of Master Sommeliers’ decision by phone on Tuesday morning.

Though they have only held the Master Sommelier title for just over a month, many of the candidates have already made the role an integral part of their careers and identities. The bi-annual Master Sommelier Symposium, held from September 21 to 23, served to welcome the new members into the Court, and some new Master Sommeliers are already scheduled to teach Introductory Sommelier classes or shadow proctors at exams. “I’m shocked,” says Steven Washuta, sommelier at The Pool in Manhattan and one of the 23 newly-minted Master Sommeliers to have his tasting results revoked. “I’ll do whatever it takes to retain membership in the Court, which I’ve been pursuing for years and has already been a significant change in my life.”

According to the Court of Master Sommeliers press release, the tasting portion of the recent exam was compromised “by the release of detailed information concerning wines in the tasting flight.” Master Sommeliers may not disclose any information about the wines included in a tasting exam prior to, during, or after the conclusion of the exam. The specific information disclosed, means of dissemination, and number of candidates with whom the information was shared remains unclear, as Broglie was unable to provide any additional details about the confidentiality breach when he spoke with SevenFifty Daily over the phone on Tuesday evening. To his knowledge, Broglie is not aware of a Master Sommelier having been terminated in the past.

Morgan Harris, MS, head sommelier of the recently-debuted Angler San Francisco, is the only candidate to retain his new Master Sommelier title, having already passed the tasting portion of the exam in 2017. “I am devastated for all my friends and colleagues who passed with me but had their passes invalidated,” Harris says. “I am glad that the Court is concerned with protecting the integrity of the exam, and profoundly disappointed in and angry that these individuals chose to spoil so much hard work, time, and determination.”

Broglie emphasizes just how difficult the decision was to make. “We know how hard everybody works to pass the exam,” he says, “but the integrity of the Court of Master Sommeliers has to be our highest priority.”

The emotions are still raw for both current members and those that had the coveted Master Sommelier title snatched from their grasp. One candidate affected, who wished to remain anonymous, acknowledged that everyone is handling the situation as best as they can, including the Court of Master Sommeliers. But while the integrity of the Court may be stronger than ever after as a result of this decision, some may simply become disillusioned with the system. “I will probably be one of the candidates who will not retake the exam,” the anonymous source says. “I know this is not the intent, but I feel like a martyr. I am embarrassed, though I did nothing wrong. I want to find a different industry to work in. I want this to be over.”

Last updated: October 10, 2018

Courtney Schiessl is a Brooklyn-based wine journalist, educator, and consultant who has held sommelier positions at some of New York’s top restaurants, including Marta, Dirty French, and Terroir. She has written for Forbes.com, VinePair, and Wine Folly, among other publications, and she is currently pursuing the WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits. Follow her Champagne-fueled adventures on Instagram at @takeittocourt.

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