The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) is the world’s most lauded wine council, known for notoriously difficult exams that require years of intense study and often many attempts to pass. But its reputation was up-ended last week when, as reported by the Chicago Tribune, a lawyer told the American chapter that one of the CMS judges leaked information to a candidate before the tasting exam.

As a result, CMS has revoked the Master Sommelier titles of 23 of the 24 hard-working sommeliers who’d just earned their prized MS pin.

For a brief time, Attica’s wine director Jane Lopes became the sixth person – and the only woman – in Australia to hold the prestigious title of Master Sommelier. But the feeling of accomplishment was devastatingly short-lived. Here’s what happened.

The story so far

In early September, 54 advanced sommeliers took the tasting component of the Master Sommelier Diploma Examination in St. Louis, Missouri, the final – and widely considered most difficult – step in a series of exams to reach the most pre-eminent certification for their profession.

In the tasting exam, candidates have just 25 minutes to accurately describe and identify the country, region, grape, vintage and tasting notes of six different wines, verbally, to three judges.

Of 54, 24 were successful – the highest in the CMS’s history (over the past decade, the pass rate for the Americas chapter has fluctuated between three and 11 participants). And it was being celebrated. The Daily Beast reported that after the exam the CMS Americas chair Devon Broglie MS said, “This was the most successful Master Sommelier exam we have ever done.”

But on October 9 it was revealed that one of the judges had leaked information related to the exam to one or more participants, and that in response, the CMS had invalidated the results.

The CMS has not officially named the responsible party, but decided to withdraw 23 of the 24 Master Sommelier titles, and allow all 54 participants to resit. The only person to keep their 2018 MS distinction is Morgan Harris, head sommelier at Angler in San Francisco, who completed the tasting component in 2017.

The hardest exam on earth

It’s a crushingly difficult exam. Since its inception in 1969, just 249 people have achieved the highly prestigious Master Sommelier distinction (not including the 2018 members currently in limbo). After years of intense self-education and rigorous weekly tastings, those successful few earn the right to place the coveted “MS” after their names and don the signature red-and-gold lapel pin during service. The pin is a symbol of being at the top of your game, and it’s an internationally recognised standard of excellence.

It’s a long hard road to reach the summit. Some might pass on their second attempt, others on their sixth, and many candidates need five or more years to complete all stages of the examination. In training, aspiring sommeliers might place sticky note prompters around their house, so they’ve always got wine front of mind. Others make their own flashcards – one stack per country. They also form tasting groups with other dedicated sommeliers and meet weekly to smell, swirl and spit a mystery line-up of wines and learn from each other’s interpretations.

Budding sommeliers must pass introductory, certified, and advanced sommelier exams before attempting to achieve their master qualification. The final exam is by invitation only.

At this stage, participants must pass a theory exam. In 2018 this was held six weeks before the service and tasting components.

The Oceania chapter, which has been running since 2008, doesn’t currently offer master level examinations, which is why the sommeliers based in Australia travel to the US or UK for this part. The cost of international return flights, examination fees ($USD995), accommodation, and the purchasing of (often expensive) wines to study quickly adds up.

Where to from here?

Everyone’s gone quiet. The sommeliers aren’t providing comment – possibly to avoid their names being associated with the scandal in the press. But this news is also undoubtedly a devastating blow, and we’d also want to curl up under a rock (or run away to Spain, as one somm has done) until the dust settles.

The CMS is also silent. After the initial reveal, the court announced its plan for the 2018 participants. It would refund the cost of the annulled exam, and also waive the fee to resit in late-2018 or early-2019.

In response, 19 of the 23 MS candidates signed a letter to the board of directors in protest. An excerpt from the letter published in the Chicago Tribune outlines the request for a full investigation rather than failing the entire class of 2018.

The CMS’s lack of response only serves to prompt more questions. Is this a one-off incident? And what measures are being implemented to ensure this won't happen again?

This misconduct not only brings the rigour and esteem of the court into question, it’s frustrating for those who have worked immensely hard and sunk substantial time and coin into earning their stripes fairly. Don’t they deserve answers?