Cheating scandal rocks Master Sommelier exams

Gone sour: Master Sommelier candidates spend thousands of dollars on wine in training for their exams.
Gone sour: Master Sommelier candidates spend thousands of dollars on wine in training for their exams. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

All but one of the candidates who recently passed the Master Sommelier exams, widely considered the wine world's most challenging qualification to achieve, may be stripped of the title amid a cheating scandal in the United States.

Jane Lopes, the wine director of Melbourne's Attica, is among the 23 candidates who will now need to resit the exam. Lopes, one of only six sommeliers to reach that pinnacle in Australia and the first woman, is devastated, saying "up until last week, I had no idea that there was any impropriety at the Master's tasting exam this year."  

To achieve Master Sommelier status, entrants must pass a three-part exam: theory, hospitality and the most difficult final round, which requires sommeliers to blind taste and pinpoint the exact varietal, vintage and origin of six wines. It's so difficult, roughly only five per cent of entrants pass. Candidates spend years training, and thousands of dollars buying the wines to build their knowledge. 

Attica's Jane Lopes will need to resit the Master Sommelier tasting exam.
Attica's Jane Lopes will need to resit the Master Sommelier tasting exam. Photo: Wayne Taylor

This year, a record 24 of 141 candidates made it through, double the average. Then, last week, the prestigious Court of Master Sommeliers revealed it had discovered a board member (who has since been removed) slipped details of the examination wines to an unknown number of candidates.

The Court was established in 1977 to set and improve standards of wine service in hospitality. Since then, just 274 candidates have achieved the Master Sommelier title and the right to put the MS initials after their names.

To protect the integrity of the title, the court has initiated processes to suspend the title of all but one of the 24 candidates, pending a retest. The exception, Morgan Harris, had completed his tasting exam in 2017.

Carlos Santos passed his tasting exam in Austria earlier this year.
Carlos Santos passed his tasting exam in Austria earlier this year. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

But the newly qualified Master Sommeliers are furious, believing the Court is not working to find the guilty parties, instead viewing the innocent as collateral damage. 

The pain is more than emotional. In an interview with Max Allen for The Australian Financial Review following news of her success, Lopes said the cost was huge, especially for international entrants like herself who must travel for the exams. "This was my second trip this year; I passed the theory exam in July."

Fellow sommelier Carlos Santos from Vue de Monde sympathises. He passed his tasting exam in Austria earlier this year, making his results safe, and will become a Master Sommelier if he passes his theory exam next year. He and Lopes had been doing tastings together for a year, sharing the huge cost. "I've spent over $9000 this past year just on bottles," says Santos. "That's not including any trips."

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He has no doubt Lopes could have passed the test on merit. "She is an incredible taster and extremely professional. And she was ready."

In an article on drinks website SevenFifty Daily, where newly passed sommeliers gave exam advice, Lopes said she had put in 20 to 30 hours of study a week in preparation. 

Lopes' denial of involvement is absolute. "I certainly did not receive any information about the wines beforehand." Now, she and her fellow Master Sommeliers (their titles stand, pending retesting) aren't going down without a fight. 

A letter signed by 19 of the 23 MS candidates was sent to the board of directors of the Court of Master Sommeliers in the wake of the scandal.

An extract published in The Chicago Tribune reads: "As your colleagues and as members of the Court of Master Sommeliers, we feel the decision reached by 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."

It goes on to demand a full investigation to exonerate the innocent rather than fail the entire class of 2018.

To date, the Court is promising all candidates, even those who failed the testing portion, two opportunities to resit the tasting exam, and have their fees refunded (each section of the test costs $995). Travel assistance for retesting will also be offered.

But Santos says there are so many factors that go into passing, some of the candidates who qualified honestly may not get through in their second round purely because of how they feel on the day. "You can prepare for a year, but the test itself is just 25 minutes, and if your head is somewhere else or you're just not tasting that well this day, you won't get the mark you need."

The issue has divided the wine world. Master Sommelier Jonathan Ross (ex-Restaurant Eleven Madison Park and Kisume) explains the concern. "There are people who received information, and took the test. They did not come forward. They cheated. And they are getting to retest...Why does the board not care about finding these people to eliminate the possibility of them becoming masters? Letting them retest, and possibly become masters, certainly does not protect the integrity of the court. It harms it further."