New crop of MSs

Most of those who passed the Master Sommelier exam in 2019

A follow-up to last year's Master Sommelier saga.

This week the Court of Master Sommeliers – Americas completed the annual exam for the Master Sommelier diploma. Candidates completed the theory portion of the exam previously. Only after passing theory are candidates then able to progress to the service and blind tasting portions of the exam, which took place in St Louis on Tuesday.

With the recent exam, seven new Masters were minted, making eight new Masters this year. In St Louis this week, Nick Davis, Mariya Kovacheva, Justin Moore, Vincent Morrow, Joshua Orr, Jeremy Shanker and Jill Zimorski (not pictured) passed. In April, Scott Tyree earned his Master Sommelier diploma during a special exam session.

The exam in St Louis this week marks the end of a tumultuous year for the Court. Last year’s annual exam results were invalidated after it emerged that one of the exam proctors had revealed a portion of the blind tasting segment of the exam to some of the candidates.

While the incident has regularly been described as a cheating scandal in the media, it is not clear, from information in the public domain, that cheating occurred. Instead, the exam was compromised by one of the exam proctors, thus invalidating the exam itself. The outcome was that the results of last year’s annual exam were essentially tossed out by the Court. Candidates who had apparently passed in the September 2018 exam did not retain their Master Sommelier titles and instead had to take a new exam for the opportunity to advance to Master-level recognition. As a consequence, candidates were given multiple new testing opportunities over the last year, including the regularly scheduled September exam that has just taken place.

In addition to the substantial cost of remounting exams, the Court also waived new exam fees, refunded fees from the compromised exam, and subsidised the cost of travel for the retake opportunity. The recent test in St Louis was the final subsidised retake opportunity for candidates affected by the compromised exam. Candidates can still work towards future exam opportunities as would occur under standard conditions.

This past year has brought ongoing controversy for the Court as a result of the invalidated exam. Candidates affected by the invalidation as well as other Master Sommeliers have spoken out to the media to complain about the Court’s decision to invalidate the exam rather than try to pinpoint potential cheaters (JR adds see this article, for example). However, suggesting such investigation misses the subtle difference between an invalidated exam and a cheating candidate. In the case of a cheating scandal an individual candidate or group of candidates would be trying to game the system through the use of secret information about the test. However, in the case of an invalidated exam, the conditions that define the exam itself are compromised.

According to publicly available information, in last year’s annual Master exam, a proctor of the exam revealed information about some of the wines included in the blind tasting portion thus violating the defining element of that portion of the test – that no candidates know anything about the wines. While it is also possible some of the candidates used the revealed information to their advantage to cheat, that does not reverse the point that the exam itself was made invalid before it was even given. Since there is no way to know if the offending proctor gave additional information or cues verbally, the exam itself had to be invalidated, thus affecting all candidates who took the test. As a result, this had an impact not only on candidates who had apparently passed the exam, but on all candidates who took the test whether they passed or not. All 50 candidates who sat last year’s exam were given the opportunity to resit.  

In the face of ongoing media coverage about the incident the Court has been tight-lipped. Their public commentary has remained restricted to only two press releases published last October following the invalidation of the exam. While their silence may be necessary, it has left the door open for speculation and hearsay about the situation.

Inflammatory media articles have been written speculating on how the situation may mean larger issues within the Court. At the same time, some of the candidates affected by the invalidated test results, and some already minted Master Sommeliers, have spoken out to disagree with the Court’s decision. Most have stated that further investigation into the question of cheating should have been done before coming to a final decision. None of the Master Sommeliers who has been interviewed by the media about the decision is a member of the Court board.

While it is clear the Court has done little to manage the PR side of the situation, one must assume that they believe their silence has been legally necessary. The Court would have to be careful to avoid concerns of libel or defamation of the any of the potential candidates or the now-removed exam proctor who violated last year’s exam. Silence from the board would also be necessary if there is any sort of ongoing investigation of the incident.