23 newly minted master sommeliers lose prestigious title after test results voided
The wine world was rocked recently after revelations that confidential information about the famously arduous Master Sommelier blind-tasting exam had been leaked. The results of the exam were subsequently nullified, and 23 test takers lost their prestigious Master Sommelier title.
San Diego’s Joshua Orr — who only a month ago was celebrating passing the famously grueling multi-part exam after failing five times before — is one of 23 newly minted master somms who had their coveted credentials taken away on Oct. 9 when the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas announced it was voiding the results of the tasting test because insider information had been released in advance.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Oct. 18, 2018This story has been amended to clarify that it was unknown if any of the sommeliers had access to the information about the blind-tasting test. The Court of Master Sommeliers Americas invalidated the results of the exam because the integrity of the test had been compromised.
The court’s board of directors voted unanimously to invalidate the exam outcome “due to clear evidence that a Master breached the confidentiality with respect to the wines presented for tasting,” according to a statement from the board.
The statement did not name the Master Sommelier who gave away the “detailed information concerning wines in the tasting flight,” nor did it explicitly say how many of the test takers — if any — were provided information in advance about the wines they were required to identify.
“There are no words I can say that will take away the disappointment and anger that our candidates are feeling today,” board chairman Devon Broglie said in a follow-up statement Wednesday. “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.”
Orr declined to be interviewed for this story, saying only in an email Thursday morning: “I apologize but I am unable to comment on the situation at this time. Thank you.”
The mystique of the Master Sommelier, who are the undisputed rock stars of the wine world, is derived in large part by the difficulty of the exam process, which is considered on par with the medical boards or legal bar. Often called “the hardest test you’ve never heard of,” the extreme lengths MS candidates have to go through to study for it was captured in the 2012 hit documentary film “Somm.”
The exam’s notorious 95 percent failure rate has led to one of the more exclusive clubs in the world: Since 1973, when La Jolla’s Eddie Osterland became the first American Master Sommelier, only 250 people have passed and received the lusted-after, career-changing MS lapel pin.
It’s unclear how, or if, the cheating scandal impacted the number of people who passed the exam that was administered in St. Louis in September. Five days after earning his pin, a still-elated Orr noted in an interview that the class of 2018 was unusually large.
“It was the biggest class to pass the MS; it’s very unprecedented,” Orr said. “I knew a lot of people taking the test, people who’ve been around the block — who’ve been trying for 14 years. There were people there taking it for the ninth time. It’s crazy. ... This is the year the levee broke — there were just a lot of people committed to it.”
According to the Court of Master Sommelier’s website — which as of late Thursday still listed the 2018 candidates whose credentials have been rescinded — the highest number of MS titles bestowed in a single year since 2000 was 13, in 2005. An average of seven people passed each year between 2000 and 2017.
Kathleen Lewis, executive director of the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas, declined to comment when asked if the person or people directly involved in the cheating would be named so that the scandal’s taint could be lifted from those not involved.
She said the court’s board members were sequestered in a meeting Thursday, dealing with the situation.
“I really don’t have anything else to add to the statement. The focus is on the well being of those people (the candidates), there’s so much speculation being thrown out right now,” Lewis said. “You can imagine they are working diligently on this … these candidates and the integrity of the organization are at the forefront.”
The board’s statement said it had initiated “the process of terminating the membership” of the Master Sommelier who leaked the information. The board also said it would be holding two retesting opportunities, one before the end of the year and one in the spring or summer of 2019.
During the 25-minute blind-tasting test, regarded as the most difficult portion of the three-part exam, which also includes sections on theory and service, candidates try six wines and have to identify each one’s grape varietal, its wine region of origin and its vintage year.
Candidates can spend years — and thousands of dollars — studying for it, often in small groups with a timer set.
“The amount of preparation you have to do really redefines you — are you up for that moment,” Orr said in September.
Osterland, the first American Master Sommelier, said Thursday that for many of those required to retake the test, passing will be elusive. Intense studying is only part of what it takes to surmount the extreme pressure it puts on MS candidates.
”There’s a bit of luck involved and you’ve got to bring your A game and you’ve got have a good (tasting) day,” Osterland said.
“It would be highly unlikely that all 23 people would pass again and that would be crushing, to be told that you passed and then to be told that you didn’t. If I was a bettor, I would say not that many people will pass, because the stress is even higher and that further exacerbates everything.”
A total of 24 people earned the master somm title in 2018 but only 23 had it taken away because one had previously passed the blind-tasting portion. According to The Washington Post, 54 candidates took the tasting exam.
Orr, the former sommelier at Marina Kitchen at the Marriott Marquis & Marina in downtown San Diego, now works in fine wine sales and education for importer/distributor Epic Wines & Spirits. He lives with his wife and young son in San Marcos.
In September, he described how he was facing an added strain before the tasting exam.
Under the Court of Master Sommelier rules, MS candidates are required to pass all three parts over a certain time period or risk having to “reset,” or start from scratch. He has the theory and service portions under his belt but had he failed the tasting section, he would have had to reset.
“I was staring down the barrel of the reset gun. That was a little terrifying and definitely added pressure,” he said.
He was somewhat used to the rigors of wine competitions. When he was with Marina Kitchen in 2014, he won the Top Somm US Sommelier Championship, besting 200 other wine professionals from around the country.
Nothing, however, could top the euphoria of being named a Master Sommelier, he said recently. And while he was being peppered by his peers about how he’d parlay the boost in his wine career or if he’d move from San Diego, Orr said he was heeding his father and father-in-law’s advice.
“They said, ‘Take it in. Enjoy it — you’ll be a Master Sommelier for the rest of life, you’ve got time to figure it out.’ ”
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