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Sweet little MStery

Published:  23 July, 2008

In his book A Wine Journey Along the Russian River, Steve Heimoff refers to a comparative tasting of Alexander Valley and Napa Valley Cabernets, to which members of the Court of Master Sommeliers - among the royalty of the wine-tasting world' - were invited. Everyone in the wine trade knows about MWs, but what is this other mysterious organisation, which allows successful exam candidates to put the letters MS after their names but doesn't even have any offices to call its own?

Some very distinguished and well-known sommeliers are now fully fledged Master Sommeliers, such as Ronan Sayburn (Gordon Ramsay), Matt Wilkins (The Capital Hotel) and Matthieu Longure (La Trompette), who all passed the exam in 2005. In total there have been 138 successful attempts at the MS exam. Today, there are 25 MSs in the UK and Europe, 72 in the United States, one in Chile, and one in Canada, including 13 female MSs.

The Worship Company of Vintners, the Institute of Masters of Wine, the British Hotels & Restaurants Association, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association and the Wholesale Tobacco Trade Association introduced the Master Sommelier Diploma in 1969 as a way of (hopefully) selling more wine in the on-trade via well-trained and knowledgeable sommeliers, whose own prestige would also be raised.

Brian Julyan became an MS in 1972. In 1973 he wrote to the other six MSs suggesting that they form an organisation. He received two replies. Julyan, however, persisted, and the Court of Master Sommeliers was established as an organisation, with 13 Master Sommeliers, on 24 April 1977 at the Victoria Hotel in Torquay. (Today, Julyan is chief executive of the Court.) Thirteen proved to be an unlucky number, though, with a lean spell from the late '70s to the late '80s, weathered only by very careful housekeeping'. Everything was done on the cheap,' explains Julyan. We were very small - a three- or four-man show.' Only the determination of Julyan and Barrie Larvin prevented the Court from disappearing altogether. Better times, however, were on the horizon.

Going transatlantic

The Court's first trip to the United States was in 1984, with

the Master Sommelier Diploma qualification first held in 1987. Julyan recounts, The National Restaurant Association of America underwrote the first three years of the Advanced course and Master Sommelier Diploma exam in America, which was a great insurance for us, but we managed without any help after two years.' The United States has since become fertile ground for the Court, with much fund-raising and $2 million worth of wine held in trust from the Jeff Johnston collection, which was donated to the Court and will be used in America for courses and for obtaining scholarship funds for American candidates.

Indeed, the US chapter is now so firmly established that it is considering purchasing premises to form a base for the Court in North America. There are also two scholarships: the Mike Bonaccorsi Scholarship, named after an MS who died, and

the John Unger Scholarship to send candidates to the UK for the Master Sommelier Diploma examination.

The Court still has no formal sponsors, but the likes of The Dorchester, which has provided the MS Diploma venue for the past eight years; the Hotel du Vin group (through Robin Hutson and Grard Basset MS MW), which has provided venues for Advanced courses over the past six years; the Gordon Ramsay Restaurant organisation; the Capital Hotel Knightsbridge; and Chewton Glen have all enabled the Court to prosper.

The qualifications

There are three steps to the heaven of becoming a Master Sommelier. The Basic Certificate Course lasts three days and

is assessed with a multiple-choice theory exam and a short practical test. The syllabus covers production methods of wines and spirits; wine service, social skills and legislation; wine-

tasting skills; and the harmony of food and wine. The recently introduced Certified Sommelier qualification does not replace

the Introductory Certificate but is instead intended as a follow-on to the Introductory course. The five-day Advanced Sommelier Course - for persons with extensive wine-service experience' - culminates in a three-part exam covering practical service and salesmanship', a multiple-choice and short-answer written paper, and a tasting of six wines. (Cigars, beers and spirits also feature.) The Basic and Advanced exams, Julyan asserts, are to give the industry someone who can do a good job in a restaurant, who won't be asking for a fantastic amount of money, but can do a good job talking to the customer'.

Finally, the Master Sommelier Diploma, with a maximum of

13 candidates per year, is similar in format and content to the Advanced Sommelier Course, but with one crucial difference: everything is assessed orally rather than in writing. For these exams, the emphasis is firmly upon the practical. Everything is geared towards what happens in a restaurant,' says Julyan. Do they work the floor? Are they out of the book? We're looking at how they speak to the customer, not just their knowledge.' Questions on decanting might appear, for instance, or an examinee might have to sniff glasses to check their cleanliness. The costs of the courses, says Julyan, are dependent on the venue, any support from the venue and whether lunches are included in the fee, which is also dependent on catering facilities being available. The 2006 fees for the Introductory Certificate course are between 320 and 360; the Advanced will most likely be 420 including lunches; and the Master Sommelier Diploma will be 405, which includes a dinner.'

Conspicuous in the exam rubric is the requirement that it is essential to demonstrate the ability to SELL' [sic] - not necessarily something that MWs are required to prove during their studies. The industry is slowly coming round to the idea that you can train people to sell wine,' comments Julyan.

The 75% pass mark for the Diploma is also significantly higher than the 60% required for the other courses.

At least one candidate who has also endured the MW exam confessed to Julyan that the MS tasting paper (of six blind wines) was more difficult than the MW equivalent. Only three people have passed both the MW and MS exams, including Grard Basset. They are very different,' he says diplomatically. To say one is more difficult than the other depends. For the MS exam you need to be well combed, because you are judged on your appearance [and] how you talk to people. For the MW you can turn up unshaven and in jeans - it doesn't matter! If you are working in the wine trade the natural thing is to do the Master of Wine; if you are in the restaurant trade, the more natural thing to do would be the Master Sommelier. If you really like exams, once you've done one, why not do the other? After doing the MS, working in the restaurant trade, it was natural that I should do the MW, because I wanted to carry on learning.'

What of the future?

Julyan is cheerily optimistic about the future of the Court. Introductory programmes are now run in the UK, USA and Canada, with sommeliers from Singapore, Korea and Shanghai having attended courses recently. Enquiries have been received from China, and a Court trip to New Zealand takes place in November. In 2006 an Advanced programme will be run in Germany - a country that is very strong' with sommeliers, says Julyan.

The Court's mission statement reads: The mission of the Court of Master Sommeliers is to enhance the level of wine education and service standards throughout the hospitality industry, and to enhance the status of Sommeliers.' The MS qualification leads to the best jobs in the industry, believes Julyan, despite

his being stitched up by a Monterey journalist many years ago when she forced a confession from him that it doesn't take any more effort to open a $100 bottle than a $10 bottle'. Nonetheless, the Court Badge really is a badge of honour for those who have passed the MS Diploma exam, and one hopes that these badges won't end up in customers' glasses