After revelations of cheating led the country’s most prestigious wine industry certification body to invalidate the 2018 master sommeliers tasting exams, the somms are pushing back.
In case you missed it, on Tuesday, the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, invalidated the master sommelier titles awarded to 2018’s batch of newly passed sommeliers. The move was a reaction to the discovery that a master sommelier (who was also an exam proctor) leaked answers to an unnamed candidate who was taking the test; the board annulled the titles of all 23 master sommeliers because the extent to which the answers were leaked remains unknown. In the wake of the discovery, the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, is creating opportunities for candidates to retake the portion of the exam called into question.
Nineteen of the 23 candidates whose titles were stripped away do not find this a fitting solution and have communicated their umbrage to the Court in a letter obtained by the Chicago Tribune.
“As your colleagues and as members of the Court of Master Sommeliers, we feel the decision reached by the Board of Directors of the Court of Master Sommeliers (the “Board”) was done in haste and did not follow appropriate due process in redacting the status of the Class of 2018, as outlined by the Bylaws of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas,” the letter reads in part.
Tellingly, the 19 sommeliers signed the letters with the abbreviation for master sommeliers, “MS.”
The letter from the 19 sommeliers specifically named a board member currently listed on the Court of Master Sommeliers website, saying the person “broke the Code of Ethics and Conduct set forth by the Court,” but stopped short of accusing the person of leaking information to candidates. As of publication, messages to the Court’s Executive Director Kathleen Lewis and Chairman Devon Broglie had not been returned to confirm or deny this person’s involvement.
In a separate email titled “Fellow Masters — A Call to Action” appealing to Court members, the sommeliers write: “Can we all be certain that this breach hasn’t happened before with this same individual on the Board? We ask that a thorough investigation be conducted to clear the names of those of us who passed fairly, and who have been unjustly grouped under an umbrella of those who may have compromised the examination.”
The Court has communicated that proceedings have started to bar this person’s participation in Court events and even terminate the person’s membership.
The candidates have also seemingly closed ranks. Messages to Chicago-area candidate Jill Zimorski remain unanswered, and candidate Dan Pilkey refused to offer comment to the Tribune. (Both Pilkey and Zimorski are among the sommeliers listed on the letter to the Court. The letter states, “Many of us have already incurred the public spattering of our names across the press, associated with words like “scandal,” “cheating” and “shame,” citing previous reporting by the Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Daily Beast.)
The letter addresses what many in the industry deem the unfairness of invalidating the entire Class of 2018’s tasting portion of the notoriously difficult exam; it also questions the Court’s retesting protocol, made public Wednesday.
The board’s unanimous decision includes: refunding all fees collected for the tasting portion of the 2018 Master Sommelier Diploma Exam; creating two retesting opportunities, as well as retesting during 2019’s regularly scheduled examination program; waiving associated exam fees; and offering travel cost assistance to retest. (The retest is available to all 54 candidates who took the tasting portion of the exam, including the 23 affected sommelier candidates who ostensibly passed.)
For their part, the affected somms wrote, “to retest the 54 candidates as a whole, effectively exonerates the guilty parties, and at the very least rewards their lack of moral courage. … The onus lies with the Board to conduct a full investigation into the scope of the cheating and issue an apology clearing those not involved in the allegations, fully reinstating their status as Master Sommeliers.”
The Master Sommelier examination is broken into three parts: theory, practical service and tasting. Books like “Cork Dork” by Bianca Bosker and films like “Somm” have highlighted the notoriously difficult examination, which can take years to complete. The tasting portion, alone, requires candidates to taste six wines and, in 25 minutes, “identify, where appropriate, grape varieties, country of origin, district and appellation of origin, and vintages of the wines tasted.”
Each portion of the test costs $995 ($1,775 if a candidate takes both the practical and tasting at the same time), not to mention the cost of buying wine to taste and practice with. Sommeliers create tasting groups not only for the fellowship that comes with studying, but also to mitigate many of these costs and to try as many wines as possible during tasting sessions.
“Though I stand with the court’s decisions, I know they didn’t come to their conclusions lightly,” said Alpana Singh, a master sommelier and the owner of Terra & Vine restaurant in Evanston. “I also know what the sommeliers feel — they’re entitled to feel rage, confusion, all of it right now. I personally still have panic attacks and dreams, thinking about my own test. At the end of the day, the Court is a brother- and sisterhood of professionals, and they’re experiencing it all together.”
Singh said the events of this week are especially “heavy, because it’s unprecedented. I’ve been a master sommelier since 2003 and a court member since 1995 — this is the first I’ve heard of anything at this level.”
“I know whatever was decided in (the boardroom), it was done with a heavy heart.”