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  • Elaine Chukan Brown
Written by
  • Elaine Chukan Brown
6 Dec 2018

Once more Elaine brings us bang up to date on the scandal to have hit the American Master Sommelier organisation. 

6 December 2018 The Court of Master Sommeliers has welcomed six new Master Sommeliers to their ranks today. The tasting portion of the rigorous three-part exam took place yesterday, 5 December, in St Louis, Missouri, and the results were announced this morning. In total, 30 sat this round of the blind-tasting exam. The six who passed – Andrey Ivanov, Douglas Kim, Mia Van de Water, Maximilian Kast, Steven McDonald (pictured below), plus Dana Gaiser – had previously passed in what turned out to be September's breached exam. Yesterday's blind tasting was the first of three possible special tasting exams offered by the Court following September's breach. The second special tasting will occur in the new year, and the third alongside the regularly scheduled Master Sommelier exams already planned for next year. Each of these additional exam opportunities is proctored in the same manner as any other Master Sommelier exam. However, the Court's board has also made clear that they have increased their already strict security protocols around the blind-tasting preparation procedures following September's incident.

The press releases sent in October from the Court's board regarding September's security breach (see below) state that it was an exam proctor that violated the integrity of the exam, rather than any particular candidate who cheated. It does not state that any particular candidate sought to gain such information. The difference is important. Had an individual candidate simply cheated then it would have been a more straightforward matter of revoking that individual's, or thoses individuals', particular candidacy and removing them from the organisation. Instead, because the exam itself was compromised, the matter could not be settled by any particular individual taking the test. The test itself had to be revoked, thus having an impact on every candidate who sat for it in September, whether they passed it or not. As a result, each of the more than 50 candidates who sat for the breached exam was offered the opportunity to retest. The exam proctor who released information about the exam has also lost his membership in the Court.

The cost to the Court for underwriting these retake opportunities is severe. In the second October press release the Court made clear it would not only offer the additional testing opportunities but also refund to those affected all fees associated with the tasting portion of the exam, and help cover the cost of retesting for candidates, including travel expenses.

All six of the new Master Sommeliers to pass their tasting exam in St Louis this week had previously passed the then-breached exam in September. It is unclear how many of the total of 30 who had apparently passed in September did not pass the retest. The Master Sommelier blind-tasting exam is considered one of the most difficult professional certification exams in the world. Passing it successfully once is no guarantee that even an already recognised Master Sommelier will successfully pass it every time. Wines included could be any from hundreds of thousands worldwide. Those who have sat the exam stress that it is not merely a matter of recognising and identifying the wines, but also a matter of one's own physical health and mental stamina on that particular day. Without question, the additional stress placed on candidates as a result of the exam proctor's breach in September, and the resulting demand to retest, could affect an individual's ability to retest successfully. As a result, it is highly plausible that some of those who sat the breached exam in September will not pass in their subsequent retest. Those who do not pass will return to their already established Advanced Sommelier title and have to decide, like any other candidate, if they would like to continue in the testing process in order to seek their Master Sommelier title. 

New_MSs_Dec_2018-3.jpeg

12 October 2018  In the latest update, 19 of the 23 candidates who had their MS title suspended this week wrote the board of the CMSA a letter disagreeing with the board's decision. In the letter, the 19 state, '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.' As the letter continues, it requests the board instead penalise only those for whom there may be proof of cheating and return the MS title to the remainder of the group. Within the letter they also name the exam proctor they claim released information about the blind tasting. After the letter was sent to the board, it was then released to the media.

The press releases by the board of the CMSA make it clear that they took outside counsel. Additionally, the CMSA is subject to the laws of the state of California, as well as its own bylaws. With these things in mind, it seems unlikely, as the letter claims, that the board's decision was made in haste or without due process.

The board has also been quite careful to avoid naming the exam proctor who apparently released information, and has never implied that any of the candidates are responsible for the situation. So far no CMSA board member has communicated with media apart from the press releases. 

11 October 2018 The US-based chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers, the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas (CMSA), delivered shocking news this week, and has since announced a decision that will cost it dear in financial terms. A Master Sommelier proctoring last month's exams in St Louis, Missouri, leaked vital information about the wines presented in the tasting exam. As a result, the entire tasting portion of the 2018 exam was ruled invalid. Additionally, the unnamed individual who leaked the information is not only barred from all future activities of the Court, but the CMSA has also initiated legal proceedings to strip them of their title and membership of the institution. It would seem that for legal reasons the Court will remain unable to name the offending individual until after the proceedings have been completed. But the press releases associated with this major breach of protocol have stated that the CMSA has clear documentation proving the violation.

Chairman of the CMSA board Devon Broglie said in a press release, 'I can only imagine how hard it hit everyone to learn that something they worked so hard for was tainted by the actions of a single individual.' There is no mention of any of the candidates being suspect or subject to legal proceedings. The offending exam proctor appears to have acted alone.

The impact of this news is severe. Candidates for the exam are required to pass three sections of the exam within three years. They must first pass the theory portion, before then being allowed to proceed to the blind tasting, and service or practical exams. As long as all three sections are passed within a three-year period, candidates may pass in any combination of all three in one year, one per year, etc. For the 2018 exams, only Morgan Harris had previously passed the tasting portion and so remains unaffected by the change in results.

As I reported last month, a record 24 new MSs were announced in St Louis, but 23 of them – except for Harris who did not participate in the St Louis tasting exam – have had their recent tasting exams nullified. Their newly minted MS titles are effectively suspended until they successfully take the tasting portion again. Additionally, the Krug Cup (won this year for the first time in six years) has also been temporarily suspended until the tasting retest. The coveted Krug Cup is earned by a candidate who passes all three portions of the MS exam on the first try with the highest score of the year. If this year's Krug Cup winner, Greg Van Wagner, successfully passes his retest he will retain the prize.

Since the news emerged on Tuesday, there has been speculation that it was the leak that was responsible for the record number of MSs announced in St Louis last month, but in fact the pass rate among the 150 or so total who took any of the exams was rather lower than usual. The record number simply reflected the substantial number of candidates this year. [The Master of Wine exams, compared at * below, are also attracting record numbers of candidates – JR]

Broglie clarified that the board voted unanimously to void the tasting exam results. In the initial press release on the issue sent out on Monday he said, 'Maintaining the integrity of the examination process must be our highest priority, lest we risk diminishing the value of, and the respect earned from, becoming a Master Sommelier. Our credential is known throughout the hospitality industry worldwide, and it guarantees that the holder of the Master Sommelier title is among the most qualified of all wine industry professionals. A compromised examination does not provide that guarantee.'

While the news has sent shockwaves through the entire wine community of the United States, the way in which the Court has responded to the situation has been well received. There is substantial anger towards the unnamed Master Sommelier, and the stress involved in the prospect of a retest is severe, but little anger has been levelled at the Court. The press release also clarified that the Court will do everything it can to ease the cost and hardship associated with having to retake the tasting exams.

The cost to the Court itself as a result of the member's breach is no doubt substantial. The voided results affect not only the 23 individuals who had seemed to have successfully passed the exam in September, but all 54 candidates, including those 23, who attempted the exam. Those who failed the tasting exam in St Louis are also to be given another chance. As a result, a refund of all exam costs and compensation is being offered to all 54 candidates who took the 2018 tasting exam. The enrolment cost for taking the tasting exam is $995 per person.

The Court has not limited their refund and compensation to the cost of exam enrolment, however. In a subsequent press release issued on Tuesday the board of the CMSA announced how they will compensate those affected by the situation. They clarified that they are not only refunding fees for the 2018 tasting exam but will waive the fee for the retest. They are also offering 'appropriate travel cost assistance for the retest'. Additionally, to alleviate the strain of doing a retest, the Court will be offering two new retesting opportunities, together with the option of a retest with their standard exam offering in 2019. The cost to the CMSA, in other words, includes not only substantial financial compensation to all 54 candidates directly affected, but also the significant cost of delivering two additional blind tasting opportunities, which will not otherwise be covered through standard enrolment costs. Each individual blind tasting exam includes multiple Master Sommelier proctors and an outside observer present during each 25-minute proctored tasting, as well as a plethora of service individuals outside the private exam room(s). The impact of organising, scheduling and paying for two additional exams and the number of people required to deliver them will be considerable.

As underlined in the first SOMM movie, the Master Sommelier exam is considered one of the most difficult not only within the wine world but among professional qualifications in general. Those proctoring the exam must not only already be Master Sommeliers themselves but must also have undergone years of additional training in exam proctoring. The opening mission statement on the CMSA home page of their website (from which our image of a training session is taken) is 'The Court of Master Sommeliers sets the global standard of excellence for beverage service within the hospitality industry with integrity, exemplary knowledge, and humility.' For many of those who are members of the Court then, across all levels – Certified, Advanced and Master – this breach is not merely a violation of protocol but a betrayal of the organisation's values.

As a non-profit organisation, the CMSA is subject to strict by-laws. With the Court legally situated within the state of California, it is obliged to follow strict state laws in all decisions so the decision on how to address this unprecedented breach of protocol affecting the MS exams will not only have been difficult but will also have been made in consultation with legal counsel. The demands on the board and the entire Court as a result of this recent situation have no doubt been, and will continue to be, substantial. 

* Jancis writes Since the team at JancisRobinson.com includes three Masters of Wine, we wondered what sort of checks the MW examiners had to try to avoid a similar situation to that described above. Executive director Penny Richards explains: 'Our exams are run in a different way to that of the Court of MS, and while we can never legislate against rogue Members, we do have a much larger team of practical examiners than the MS, most of whom only know the make-up of one paper, not three. To become a Master of Wine, candidates need to pass three 'practical' exams, in which they have to recognise 12 wines in each, a total of 36. These are written, not verbal, and are all marked by at least two examiners afterwards. And while we have no reason to believe any examiner would behave in this manner, there are only a couple of senior MWs who know all 36 wines, and they have proven their integrity and rectitude in years leading up to taking on their roles.

'We also ask examiners to sign – annually – a pledge which shows they understand and recognise their roles and responsibilities as examiners.

'The MW exam expects people not merely to identify wine, but to rate it against others in a flight, and also to comment on winemaking and other factors. Nowadays straightforward identification accounts for few marks, so even if candidates were aware of the wines in advance, that would be the start of the answer, not the complete one.

'Added to all of this is a moderation system, which means there are yet more checks and balances that can be called into play at the end of the marking process, if necessary.'