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  • Elaine Chukan Brown
Written by
  • Elaine Chukan Brown
7 Sep 2018

In a new record, the Court of Master Sommeliers in the United States celebrated no fewer than 24 passes of the rigorous Master Sommelier exams on Tuesday this week in St Louis, Missouri where this year's exams took place.

While the number of individuals to pass this year's exams is a record, the pass rate remains relatively low. This year saw 141 individuals step forward as candidates for the Court's highest certification (only slightly fewer than the total number of this year's Master of Wine candidates around the world). To enter, candidates must first have passed the challenging Advanced Sommelier certification, and then, based on continuing education and mentorship, be invited to sit for the Master exams. Almost incredibly, this year's 24 successful candidates represent together more than 100 years of study and training since garnering their Advanced title.

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The Master Sommelier exams are the top certification for the Court and include testing in three core areas – theory, practical or service, and blind tasting. In a relatively recent change, the exams have been separated into two separate testing periods. In July the 141 candidates were tested on theory, which the Court regards as fundamental in order to pass the other two parts of the exam. Those who passed the theory section returned this month to be tested over two days on their service and blind-tasting abilities. Candidates must pass all three sections within three years or begin a completely new attempt.

In rare cases, hopefuls who successfully pass all three sections at their first attempt are awarded the Krug Cup. If ever two candidates successfully pass all three sections at their first attempt, the candidate with the highest score wins the Cup. The Krug Cup had not been awarded since 2012 when Sur Lucero of Napa Valley successfully passed all three exam sections at his first attempt. This year, however, newly-minted Master Sommelier Greg Van Wagner of Jimmy's Restaurant in Aspen, Colorado goes home with the Cup.

The new crop of Master Sommeliers brings the total number of MSs in the United States to 181. The first successful Master Sommelier exams to be held in the United States were in 1969, and the official US-based Court of Master Sommeliers chapter opened only in 1977. A sister chapter is based in the UK. (The total number of MWs worldwide is 380 but the Master of Wine exams were first held back in 1953. Several high achievers on both sides of the Atlantic have passed both MS and MW exams.)

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The others who earned their Master Sommelier pin this week represent wine and beverage programmes from all over the United States including Seattle, Chicago, New York, Houston, San Diego, San Francisco, Napa Valley, and St Louis itself, as well as markets in North Carolina, Ontario, and others. The new MSs include Steven Washuta, Jessica Waugh, Douglas Kim, Dana Gaiser, Christopher Ramelb, Peter Bothwell, Robert Ord, Andrey Ivanov, Jane Lopes, Steven Robinson, Justin Tismit, Scott Barber, Elton Nichols, Mia Van de Water, Steven McDonald, Daniel Pilkey, Tyler Alden, Morgan Harris, Joshua Orr, Jill Zimorski, James Michael Lechner, Maximilian Kast, Vincent Morrow. 

The discipline it takes to pass the Master Sommelier exams is significant. Importantly, the Court of Master Sommeliers emphasises that the real work begins after the exams are passed. Newly minted Master Sommeliers are expected to portray unparalleled professionalism in service regardless of the particular job placement they happen to have, and to use their role to act as mentors and educators for the wine community at large, most especially those others also seeking the recognition of the Sommelier, Advanced, or Master Sommelier titles.