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Masters of Wine and Master Sommelier

The Pinnacle of Wine Knowledge

Can you explain what a Master Sommelier (MS) or Master of Wine (MW) means to wine lovers? If you have a cursory understanding of what a MS and MW designation means in the world of wine, but certainly not enough to be conversant, let’s take a look at this topic. In wine, a person with a MS or MW after their name is the equivalent of CPA after the name of an accountant. The CPA is important to most of us at tax time but the MS or MW can be useful all year long.

There are basically two highly respected organizations that award designations to individuals who can demonstrate a high level of expertise in all things wine. However, each of the two has a focus that is significantly different in approach to wine. One focuses on the serving of wine in a culinary or restaurant environment, while the other has a more traditional approach to wine and its heritage (the art, science and business of wine).

In respect to the elder of the two organizations is the Masters of Wine. The ruling body of this title is The Institute of Masters of Wine. A Master of Wine, as defined by the Institute, is “someone who has demonstrated, by way of rigorous examination, a thorough knowledge of all aspects of wine and an ability to communicate that knowledge clearly”. Currently there are approximately 300 such titled individuals around the World with 31 in the U.S.

The origins of this Institute can be traced to the mid 1300’s in London when organizations were formed around various trades (known as- Livery Companies) e.g. goldsmiths, fishmongers, tailors, and wine. In the beginning there were only 12 designated Institutes. The Worshipful Company of Vintners (wine merchants) was one of the original 12.

From this old and honorable organization came the understanding that there needed to be a formal education that resulted in certifiable standards of wine knowledge. Granted it took many centuries. Nonetheless, in 1953 the inaugural award of Master of Wine came into being in the UK. Of the 21 individuals sitting for the exam only 6 successfully passed a process which involved 5 papers on theory and 3 practical papers (one was on analysis of faulty wine). By the way, the first woman was awarded the MW designation in 1970. The first Master of Wine was awarded to 2 individuals from the U.S. in 1990.

Today, after 2 years of intense study, the Masters of Wine final exam comprises four-3 hour sessions of questioning on-viticulture, winemaking, wine business and relevant issues confronting the wine business. Part two involves three blind tastings of 12 flights of wines each followed with a written paper on all elements of each of the wines. Finally a 10,000 word dissertation must be delivered and defended before a board.

You will find Masters of Wine to be involved in such areas as wine education, wine imports, and food industry and winery companies.

The second title of professional status in wine is that of Master Sommelier awarded from The Court of Master Sommeliers. The Court of Master Sommeliers was established in 1969 in the UK to encourage improved standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants. Today there are approximately 200 individuals who have earned The Court of Master Sommeliers title, a process that can take 5 years of formal course work and practical service industry experience to complete. Actual course work can be accomplished in a couple of years.

In 2012 there were 11 titles of Master Sommelier bestowed and 7 were in Northern California, 1 in Southern California, 1 in Seattle, 1 in New York, and 1 in Aspen. In my random survey of title holders it appears that virtually all are employed in the restaurant industry. It is important to recognize there are only 129 Master Sommeliers in the US.

With the requirement of having practical experience in the beverage industry, supplemented with the 4 levels of course work, the process to become a MS can be 5 or more years in total and cost $4,000 exclusive of wine purchases.

The job of a Sommelier is to promote wine within a restaurant setting, raise the standards of beverage services, and manage the profitability of the beverage component for a restaurant. Therefore, not all employees of a restaurant wearing a suit and delivering wine to the table are Master Sommeliers. Having gotten to know a great Master Sommelier in Las Vegas, Mr. Kevin Vogt, I have found you can get a lot of wine experiences and information from a Master Sommelier for the simple price of a bottle of wine. Ultimately, they consult with the customer to enhance the customers experience with the total restaurant (food, beverages, and ambience). Actually, wine service can be very complicated, especially when a demanding customer is thrown into the mix.

A Master Sommelier is buying and managing thousands of bottles of wine starting in the early morning and working with chefs for future menu planning to have the right wines on hand to support all menu items. Not an easy job.

There are other programs in existence that award a diploma or certificate or some kind of credential associated with wine. Another relative newcomer to the trained wine professional accreditation process is the International Sommelier Guild. Their reported costs for a complete program are approximately $4,000. The Level III course is a diploma program that includes classroom instruction. The designation for someone completing the course work is Master Wine Guild.

It appears that colleges and universities with a hospitality department use the International Wine Guild curriculum as a basis for beverage studies.

This now begs the question: Which is the most prestigious title-Master of Wine or Master Sommelier? There is some overlapping of study materials such as tasting, pairings, and winemaking. However, the most significant difference in the two programs is that the MS is more oriented to the customer interface in a restaurant environment while the MW is focused on the business aspect of marketing, importing, managing winemaking, etc. You will probably find a lot of Master of Wine titled individuals in the educational field. The Institute of Masters of Wine definitely has more history behind the qualification of Master of Wine. Both involve a lot of study time and the failure rate in first attempts is significant.

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