1. The rocky road to becoming a Master of Wine
Why should someone become a Master of Wine?
There are two possible answers to that:
On the one hand, if you work in the wine business, especially internationally, it is one of the best-known titles in the world. It represents good repute, reliability and expertise. I believe the most important thing is that if you have those two letters behind your name, nobody doubts your skills anymore. It doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman, young or old, black or white. The terms 'journalist' and 'sommelier' are unprotected terms that anyone can use, but 'Master of Wine' is a registered term.
On the other, it’s a personal challenge. It’s your own personal Mount Everest. You start to climb, and you don’t know whether you’ll get all the way to the top. But when you do get up there, the view is damned good.
It’s your own personal Mount Everest. You start to climb, and you don’t know whether you’ll get all the way to the top. But when you do get up there, the view is damned good.
How long does it take to reach the summit?
You have to calculate five to six years, depending on how much time you can devote to your job, of course. Most people work five days a week and study at the weekend. With me it was different. I’m a freelancer, so three or four months before the exam, I cut back a bit, only working three or four days a week, and studying the other three or four days.
And what does it cost?
You have to work on about €10,000 a year in fees for the Institute, exam fees, wines, travel expenses and books. I invested a total of between €40,000 and €50,000. But you recoup the money within a year. It pays off immediately! You have a different name, a different level of recognition, you charge different rates, and your workload is different.
What happens after you pass the exam — do companies come knocking on your door with job offers?
Well, it’s not quite that simple, of course. When I became a Master of Wine in 2011, the Germans weren’t too familiar with the title. I was the first person in Germany to proactively market it. Until the end of the 1980s, it was a purely English [qualification].
The Institute was founded in 1955 to provide better training for buyers and salespeople in England. At that time, England was one of the largest importers of wine. Those who had anything to do with wine in England didn’t produce it themselves. Mostly, they were trading with wines. Then it began to expand beyond mere trading. The first Master of Wine who didn’t come from a trading background was Jancis Robinson.
But yes, the situation changes quickly; you just have to take action and promote yourself and your success.
2. Comparing programs: MW, MS, and MBA
One question that is always debated is, which is superior? The MW, Master Sommelier (MS), or MBA?
First of all, official academic programs are academic programs, and MS or MW are not academic. Academic training programs have one advantage, in that they are designed so that almost anyone can take the exam and pass. The other two are not. The standards are set so high that not everyone can pass them.
They require different training. The MS is designed for sommeliers. One part of the exam is serving. I can’t do that, so there’s no way I’ll ever be able to do the Master Sommelier program. The MS is more hands-on, more about learning by heart and a descriptive approach to wine. The MW, on the other hand, requires comprehensive knowledge, and from that knowledge comes the understanding and insight into all aspects relating to wine.
In the tasting, for example, two Burgundys had to be assigned to the correct appellation. In the theoretical part, questions had to be answered on viticulture, vinification, and marketing, such as:
- "How does the geology of a vineyard influence the way it is cultivated?"
- "What analysis and labeling requirements must be met in order to import wine into the EU?"
The other fundamental thing, which is hugely important, is that the MS exam is open, and the MW exam is closed. Nobody knows who is being examined. You are neutral, you are a number, even in the admission process. The exams are anonymous and they are in writing. It doesn’t matter in the least whether I, as the examiner, have an opinion about you. The Master Sommelier exams, on the other hand, are largely open. In the practical exam, you stand in front of a committee that recognizes you as a person.
There was a big scandal at the Court of Master Sommeliers, because the Court allegedly pressured female candidates for sex. Could this happen at the IMW?
I’d never say never. I think every Institution in the world is afraid that something could suddenly happen somewhere. But the chance is small. It’s virtually impossible for someone to come up to you and make an offer to scoot you up the MW ladder if you do something for them in return, precisely because the examination process is completely anonymized. After the scandal at the Court of Master Sommeliers, we’ve learned to pay even more attention to such aspects.
We ensure that all social groups have the opportunity to participate in the Master of Wine program.
To what extent does the issue of equality play a role?
It’s an issue everywhere. We have a Diversity Committee, but of course, it’s not only about gender. With us, all social groups are represented. That’s very important to us. We ensure that all social groups have the opportunity to participate in the Master of Wine program.
The subject has become a matter of course. An example: I am currently planning the Masters of Wine Symposium, and the Diversity Committee asked me if I had given thought to diversity for the opening session, with regard to the constellation of speakers. No, I hadn’t thought about it for the session that I was going to be moderating myself. I chose the best experts in the world — there will be five of us on the stage, all women, with every skin tone, from white to black. They are the experts — and not merely token women. This is lived diversity.
3. The Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW)
The IMW is a venerable and very old institution. How does it manage to keep pace with the fast-changing world of wine, with mixes, alcohol-free wines, and natural wines?
The Institute monitors the procedures, methods of operation, auditing methods and content every year. Are we up to date? We adapt to current trends. Natural wines, for example, have been a standard component of the exam for years. Now, non-alcoholic wines are in vogue, but they are only included in the theoretical part, and not in the practical test. Why? Because, legally speaking, they are not wines. Whether that will still apply next year is another question.
In 1953, with the aim of improving the level of education in the British wine industry, particularly trading, the first Master of Wine examination was held by the Wine and Spirit Association and the Vintners’ Company in London. Two years later, the first six MWs established the IMW. In 1970, Sarap Morphew Stephen became the first female MW. In 1988, the exam was opened to people outside the UK. That same year, the Australian Michael Hill Smith became the first international MW. From 1992, the exam was held internationally on three continents, in London, Adelaide and San Francisco. According to the institute, 52% of MWs today are men and 48% are women. There are 415 active MWs in 31 countries.
Let’s talk about money. How is the Institute financed?
There is the accusation that “it’s only after money”. This accusation always comes up when someone is required to pay the fees. I felt the same way as a student. In fact, the IMW is a non-profit organisation, which means that it can’t actually make a profit, because it would be taxed at a high rate. So, it’s not a wealthy organization that rakes in millions every year. The students’ fees fund the program, and here are patrons whose money also goes towards the training program.
The IMW is a non-profit organisation.
Today, an opera ticket costs less than €100. Why? Because it’s highly subsidised, by the city, by the state. That means you sit in a seat at the opera house, but the real value of that seat is actually twice as much. It’s similar with us. If the fees are £3,000 a year and you have a week-long seminar, course days, travelling, classes, wine tasting and so on, the real value is completely different than the course fee. We’re not getting rich. I’m volunteering and I’m organising the symposium at the moment too. I’d rather not say now how much real time I put into it.
And what about the demand?
We still have more applicants than we can accept. But we don’t put an actual number on how many we accept. Each applicant is evaluated by several people on multiple levels. Is the person worth it or not? About two-thirds have a good chance of being accepted. Even though not every one of those candidates will end up becoming an MW, I want to make one thing clear: We do not make any effort to keep the number small in order to remain an elitist group.
4. The IMW Symposium:“Taste for the Future”
How important is the Symposium?
I must expand on that a little. The Symposium takes place every four years. It's a big event. I know the dimensions because I've been to three symposia, in Bordeaux, Florence and in Logroño. In 2015, I spoke with representatives of the German Wine Institute (DWI) and the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP) for the first time, about bringing Germany into play as a venue. The next Symposium was awarded to Australia, and it should have taken place in 2022, but it was canceled due to the pandemic, so I approached the DWI and the VDP again in the autumn of 2021, and they were very interested. Wiesbaden was ultimately chosen over Mainz as the host city. It simply has the wow effect and boasts a brand new conference center as well.
But, of course, the most important factor is the content. Sure, it's also four days of partying, with great tastings, lunches, dinners and invitations. The theme "Taste for the Future" was a personal wish of mine. It combines many important approaches for the wine industry: What's in store for us in the future in terms of grape varieties, in the cellar, in the wine industry? And then, there's the social side too.
Entire regions are experiencing rising temperatures and require irrigation. What will happen in the next 20 years?
The subject of sustainability is indeed a major talking point at the moment.
However, the term must first gain some substance. This includes environmentally-friendly viticulture and so on, but the crucial issue is packaging. We can’t avoid the subject if we don’t want to kill ourselves and our planet too. I was recently abroad, and while tasting wines, I picked up a bottle that weighed one and a half kilograms! That is entirely unnecessary. Then, when I visit a vineyard, I find that they are still using glyphosate. Entire regions are experiencing rising temperatures and require irrigation. What will happen in the next 20 years? The natural conditions for viticulture simply no longer exist. There is a lot of discussion about it, but I believe that in many cases, people still haven't recognised the seriousness of the situation.
How sustainable can an MW education be with all the traveling around the globe?
The Institute pays very close attention to the issue of sustainability. We have a Sustainability Committee that keeps an eye on the CO2 footprint of all members, for example. We now also meet in person only once a year. And we are aiming for CO2 neutrality. That’s also a focus at the Symposium: for example, we’ve pushed for everyone from Central Europe to come by train. No bus transfers from Frankfurt Airport; they can catch a train from there. The tasting booklets are all available digitally, and so on. We pay CO2 offsets for the things we can’t avoid, such as transporting the wine, refrigeration, and disposal of the bottles.
As far as the training is concerned, yes, there is a lot of travelling around. During the pandemic there was a lot of online teaching, of course, but a lot is taking place in a classroom setting again. This is also important because it means the wines are available to everyone in the same condition, poured from the same, normal bottle. And quite honestly, the interpersonal component, the exchange, the networking, is also enormously important. I don’t think you can put a course like this 100% online. You simply have to travel to wine regions.
5. Challenges for the industry
The wine market as a whole is shrinking, and young people in particular, are drinking less wine. Won’t there soon be less need for wine experts like MWs, because the market is getting smaller?
I’m not worried about that. I believe that Generation Z simply hasn’t found the right wine that excites them yet. And every Generation Z is followed by a Generation Something that does exactly the opposite again. There may suddenly be a new wave of enthusiasm for wine. I don’t see wine as a product that will be discontinued one day. Quite the opposite. Wine is not just a product. It is a cultural asset. This ensures the eternity of wine. You don’t let cultural assets go down the drain. You don’t demolish temples.
Every Generation Z is followed by a Generation Something that does exactly the opposite again.
The external conditions are also becoming more difficult, from advertising bans to shock images on the bottle.
Let me put it this way: you could stick pictures of pregnant women and cirrhosis of the liver on the back of my wine bottles and I would still drink wine. I don’t think those things have much effect.
I’m more afraid of taxation. As soon as politicians smell money, you get milked forever. That’s the most dangerous and probably the most effective way to curb wine consumption. I hope it doesn’t come to that.
Participation is reserved for individuals who are professionally active in the wine industry. In addition to at least three years of professional experience, prior training is required, such as the WSET Diploma, a Master’s degree in Viticulture or Enology, or the Advanced Sommelier’s program. After successful assessment, candidates must take an entrance test consisting of an essay and the tasting notes of four wines.
Stage 1: A challenging start
After admission, candidates are assigned a mentor. During this stage, candidates familiarise themselves with the system. In an intermediate assessment, candidates must answer two questions in essay format, and they must analyse twelve wines.
Stage 2: The heart of the program
In addition to an obligatory seminar, the candidates must take part in a four-day exam. A total of 36 wines are blind tasted and analysed in three separate examinations consisting of white wines, red wines and a mix of still, sparkling and fortified wines. Questions are asked about the origin and the varieties of grapes as well as production methods, quality and style and commercial aspects. Moreover, there are five theoretical exams on viticulture, winemaking, quality management and control and the international wine market.
In order to pass the exam successfully, 65% of the total points must be achieved in all segments. Theory and practice are assessed separately. In 2022, 30% of candidates passed the theoretical exam and 13% passed the practical exam.
Stage 3: The research paper
The final stage concludes the program. It involves a 6,000 to 10,000 words research paper, written independently by the candidate, on a topic of his or her choice. The topic must constitute a constructive contribution that will add knowledge to the world of wine.
Currently, the overall price for all components of the program is £12,740 (approx. $16,000).
The next application phase begins in May 2024.
Meininger's International is media partner of the International Symposium of the Institute of Masters of Wine in Wiesbaden.