There are currently 370 Masters of Wine and 236 Master Sommeliers in the world. Although these titles are highly respected, very few people actually know what it takes to get there.
To be honest, I did not know much about the content of Master Sommelier exam myself until I met Robert Ord during our yearly MW seminar in Adelaide this November. Robert is the only magician in the program (no, I am not kidding, we still don’t know how he kept on finding the card we selected among the deck). He is also the Prestige Manager at Treasury Wine Estates based in Napa Valley. He is a smart, cheerful guy with great sense of humor!
While we were on our way to Eden Valley, I’ve realized that he is not only in his second year of the MW program but he is also an MS Student who has one final part of the exam left. We started discussing both programs and gossiping about their similarities and differences. Here is a short summary comparing both:
Master of Wine Exam consists of tasting and theory exams. If one passes both, he/she spends the next year writing a research paper. The theory section of the exam consists of five different papers: Viticulture, Vinification, Handling of Wine, Business of Wine, and Contemporary Issues. We need to write three essays in each paper and score over 65%. Here are a few example questions from theory:
- Using relevant examples, outline the problems and advantages of “marginal climate” vineyard sites for quality wine producers” (Paper 1)
- Critically examine the pros and cons of the techniques available in a winery for the management of alcohol levels in wine. (Paper 2)
- Consider the key issues for storage of wine after packing is complete. (Paper 3)
- Examine the role of the currency exchange rate in shaping global wine markets, focusing particularly on the period 2006 – 2009? (Paper 4)
- Does Fair Trade benefit both consumers and producers of wine (Paper 5)
These questions require solid theoretical knowledge, ability to compare and contrast various opinions on each subject and talent to communicate the most important aspects through an essay in one hour. It’s a lot of work but honestly, the amount of knowledge I’ve developed over the last one and a half year is priceless. It simply teaches you to think and be like a winemaker, viticulturist, bottler, marketer, retailer, wine bar owner and more.
Robert adds his comments on MW program as “The biggest challenge so far is with the breadth of information needed across many countries and many different aspects of the industry. The ability to be able to condense all of the information you have learned into salient and pertinent arguments that constructively answer the questions poised”
The theory part of the Master Sommelier exam is oral based on 70 to 80 questions on wine, spirits, beer and sake. “Unlike the MW questions these questions are very much one word or one-sentence answers. The questions are also more specific covering regions and producers that would be important for a floor sommelier to know.” says Robert. This simply means that one does not need in-depth knowledge in production of wine for MS but one has to memorize a lot about the regions, sub regions, appellations and producers.
Here are few examples:
- What are the allowed colors and sweetness levels for Graves?
- What is the region for Clos Cibonne?
- What is the minimum ABV for a wine with a Gordura mark?
- What beverage is governed by the German Purity Law?
The more we spoke with Robert, the better I realized the different nature of both programs. As opposed to MW exam, the MS exam has a service part. “Service aspect is held over 30 minutes or so and involves various different scenarios that may occur in a restaurant. This can include food and wine pairings, guest conflict resolutions, opening Champagne, decanting red wine, cocktails, and any other aspect of guest interaction that may be seen in a restaurant. They usually try to keep it interesting with scenarios designed to be slightly uncomfortable. This way they can measure if you are able to handle any and all situations that crop up when working in a restaurant. The past few years has seen the addition of a Business of Wine unit which tests candidates on the operational aspects of running a wine program.” says Robert.
Both exams have tasting parts. In MS exam tasting is oral and there are 6 Classic wines that are evaluated in 25 minutes. The candidate must state each wines variety, country, region of origin (as specifically as possible) and vintage. In MW exam, students take three different exams, first day 12 white wines, second day 12 red wines and finally 12 mixed bags including fortified, sweet, rose etc. Questions are like: “Wine 1 and Wine 2 are made from blends of the same two varietals, identify the varietals, identify the origin, comment of winemaking, comment on quality and maturity.“ There is a chance that one might pass without knowing the exact variety and region of origin unless it’s a classic region like Bordeaux, Burgundy. They expect you to answer logically and defend your answers properly. I believe the best part of the tasting session in MW is that it makes you learn how to evaluate quality blind. It’s a great skill to have for many wine professionals.
MS program is designed more for people working in the restaurant industry. MW on the other hand appeals people with more diverse backgrounds such as winemakers, marketers, educators, writers and so on. They both have their challenges and opportunities. So far I am happy with being on the MW side, as I have a feeling that my clumsiness might have kept me behind in the service exam: ) I also quite enjoy discovering the science behind all and can’t see myself memorizing so many details. But I do respect those, just like Robert, who have the courage to do both! :)