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Master sommeliers stripped of coveted titles after cheating taints wine-tasting test

Only 273 people in the world have passed the master sommelier exam. (iStock)

Watching a sommelier blindly taste a flight of wines, figuring out their origins right down to the grapevine in a French village, is like watching a magician try to guess your card: You don’t believe it’s possible until they’re right.

Then, of course, you want to know how they did it.

For master sommeliers, there is no simple explanation. The expert wine stewards spend years and thousands of dollars preparing for the master sommelier examination, seen as one of the toughest tests in the world administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers. Since its inception in 1969, only 273 people have ever passed the three-part test, according to the court’s website, with the blind tasting being the hardest part of the exam. In 25 minutes, sommeliers must identify and describe six wines, the exact region each came from and the year each was harvested — the part that might as well be a magic trick.

Only that this year, somebody really did pull a fast one.

The Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas announced on Tuesday that it would have to invalidate the blind-tasting test results for all 54 candidates in the class of 2018 because of “clear evidence” of cheating. In turn, the court would have to take back the diplomas from 23 newly minted master sommeliers who had just passed the exam last month in St. Louis.

One of the court’s masters “breached the confidentiality” of the test after releasing “detailed information concerning wines in the tasting flight” ahead of time, according to the court. The master was not identified, and it was unclear who received the information. A spokeswoman for the court told The Washington Post on Wednesday that she could not offer more details for the time being.

Devon Broglie, a master sommelier and chairman of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas board of directors, said the board understood that the decision would come “as a shock” to the new masters but that it had to be done.

“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,” Broglie said in a statement on Tuesday. “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.”

The board has since “barred” the master from participating in any programs or events and has voted unanimously to terminate the master’s membership in the organization.

Morgan Harris, the only master sommelier in the class of 2018 whose diploma was not invalidated, told The Post the sommelier community is a small one and this scandal has left it devastated.

“It’s so profoundly disappointing,” he said. “It’s a tremendous amount of waste and heartbreak for everybody who passed in an honest way and who now have to reprove something they’ve already proven.”

Candidates have three years to pass the three portions of the master sommelier exam. Before they can attempt it, they must have completed the introductory course, certification exam and advanced sommelier exam. The final test has three parts: theory, requiring vast knowledge of virtually every wine region in the world; tableside service, and lastly, the blind tasting.

Harris said that mastering it requires sacrifice, adding that the 23 people who earned diplomas had devoted their lives to the exam. He was among them but said he was only lucky. Because he had already passed the tasting portion of the exam in 2017, this year he needed to pass only the service portion, which was not affected by the scandal.

“There are people who have put relationships, marriages, parenting of their children on hold so they can make sure they’re professionally successful at this,” he said. “It sounds crazy, but that’s the whole idea: You pass the exam, and you’re done.”

Now they’re not done. Harris said it took him four years to pass the master sommelier exam. Even though he earned the distinction, Harris said, that doesn’t mean he could pass every blind tasting he attempted — meaning the 23 people forced to retake the tasting may not pass it again.

After the sommeliers passed the exam last month in St. Louis, they celebrated their achievement with glasses of champagne. In interviews with local press, some said they had spent thousands of dollars and had been trying and failing for years before breathing a massive sigh of relief once they finally passed the test.

Maximilian Kast told the News & Observer this was the eighth time he attempted the master exam, having worked his way up from the introduction course starting in 2006. Andrey Ivanov told St. Louis Magazine that it took him nine years, four failed attempts and “mountains of credit card debt” to get to this point. He said he probably spent $60,000 to $70,000 to cover the cost of his education, travel and endless bottles of wine for his studies.

Steven McDonald told the Houston Chronicle after he passed that he was “floating.”

“I know what he’s feeling,” Guy Stout, who became a master sommelier in 2005 and mentored McDonald, told the Chronicle. “You’re on cloud nine, like the world has lifted off your shoulders. All those hours you’ve put in . . . to grab the ring is really great.”

On Wednesday, the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas said it would refund the fees the candidates paid to take the tasting exam and would offer two opportunities to retake it.

“There are no words I can say that will take away the disappointment and anger that our candidates are feeling,” Broglie, the chairman, said in a statement. “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.”