Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Club MW: pass or pass?

Published:  23 July, 2008

The Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) sounds like a scary place. The sort of place that might be surrounded by barbed wire and big, black gates; a darkened building that you can't set foot in without a password and a secret handshake. Not everyone is frightened, however, and plenty of people have tried to climb the walls - more than 2,000 since the first members were admitted in 1953. But there are currently only 250 worldwide who have successfully struggled through the marathon examination, including a four-part theory paper, three-part practical paper and final dissertation, to make it to the other side.

With such a limited membership and lower-than-low pass rate, it's hardly surprising that the Institute has had to defend itself against a number of attacks over the years. The accusations have been endless: it's old-fashioned, out of date, elitist, pretentious, badly run, chauvinistic, lacking in structure, etcetera. It has even been suggested that passing the exam is more about knowing which buttons to press than possessing sufficient grasp of the subject matter. Kate Thal of Green and Blue Wines, and an ex-MW student, told Harpers in 2002: There are large numbers who get through by cracking the code and not by mastering anything.'

Perhaps it's time to take another look at the home of this prestigious qualification and see what it has to say for itself.

It's worth pointing out to those who shout old-fashioned' and chauvinistic' that while it took the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) at Lord's until 1998 to break its 211-year men-only history and allow female cricketers through the door, the first female MW appeared in 1970. It's true that the first 70 or so Masters of Wine were male and that today's female quota is just 23%, but this percentage is constantly growing.

The term old-fashioned' is difficult to gauge, but if it can mean traditional then Siobhan Turner, executive director of the Institute, agrees that it's applicable - although with some qualification: We definitely respect tradition but we're not governed by it,' she explains. Peter McCombie MW amusingly adds: The IMW may have some elitist and old-fashioned members but I don't think that describes the Institute itself.'

Everything in moderation

There are undoubtedly some old-fashioned aspects. For example, every student and member is obliged to sign a Code of Conduct, which stipulates that members are expected to be sensitive to the social and behavioural problems associated with the immoderate consumption of wine'. In other words, don't get drunk in public or you're out'. There's also the undeniable stigma of the upper-class, old boys' network attached to the IMW, which is not without due cause - many members present at one of the Institute's wine tastings could have stepped out of the pages of a PG Wodehouse novel. But surely this is now irrelevant considering that questions in recent theory papers have addressed topical issues such as global warming, brand building, over-production and supermarket selection. And, as far as the tastings go, it has just been announced that Tim Atkin MW will be joining the Institute's events committee, an appointment likely to shake things up a bit.

A further accusation from some is that the IMW relies too heavily on a teaching system based on old-fashioned master and apprentice' teaching rather than contemporary methods. In answer to this, Turner responds: We are not, and don't pretend to be, a purely academic body. We want students who are business people or winemakers and who are getting their hands dirty in the goings on of the global wine community.' The IMW has an academic advisor in the form of Tim Unwin, of London's Royal Holloway University, she continues, but it's important to understand that the Institute itself is not a university. This is in our favour because it makes us much more relevant to the world of wine.'

Regardless of academic standing, the MW course is far more about self-study than actual teaching. In the two-year syllabus there are only five days of lectures and two residential study weeks abroad. Twenty days of education over the course of two years is not going to get students through the MW exam,' says Turner. They need to taste as much as possible, work on written answers and practise essay structure.' However, students are not left completely in the wilderness and the IMW helps them with education programmes and distance learning via its website, as well as by providing mentors.

But is this basic supervision enough? Julia Harding MW passed the exam in 2003 and agrees that students are mainly left to their own devices. But she doesn't think they're alone unless they want to be. There's not a lot of pink, fluffy support from the Institute, but it does make it available if needs be.' Journalist Sarah Jane Evans, who has passed the exams but has yet to complete her dissertation, believes the teaching has improved immeasurably'. Once upon a time it used to be like reading the runes,' she says, but the feedback is far more explicit now.' Another student, Pierpaolo Petrassi, senior wine buyer at WaverleyTBS, goes further: There is no longer any excuse to reach the exam and not be able to give it a good crack.'

Hugo Rose MW, chairman of the Education and Exam Board, is also confident that the present organisation of the course is much improved. When I sat the exam 15 years ago, there was no programme as such, simply a series of course days and tutorials. Now students enter a structured two-year curriculum with access to recently passed MWs, specialists from different disciplines and peers from across the industry.' Turner points out that the IMW supporters are also very important in this regard. Constellation is one of the two principal supporters and, in addition to providing an annual cash bonus of 30,000, it gives students the ability to access top business minds and have an insight into one of the world's most dynamic wine companies.'

Luck of the draw

But would it not be fair to suggest that the fortunes of many students could depend on whether or not they've been assigned to a dedicated mentor? There are about 60 mentors working for the IMW, and although they are all Masters of Wine, they are not paid for their time and are likely to be in full-time jobs as well. So it is understandable that MW student Samantha Caporn, an assistant wine buyer at Direct Wines, admits that being assigned a good mentor is a bit luck of the draw' and that Evans comments that some of them may be too busy to act as tutors'.

Harding counters: I'm sure the tutoring does vary, but this is the same as any teaching establishment', while Petrassi reminds critics that a lot of the MWs involved have been there for a number of years and have considerable experience'. Turner also defends the system saying: All our mentors work phenomenally hard with the students and they're tremendously proud if they have a student who gets through, because they know how hard it is.' She explains that the mentor's role is to provide guidance rather than instruction and we really expect the students to work towards this qualification by themselves'.

A feature of the IMW that attracts seemingly endless controversy is the low pass rate. The 2004 results showed more student confidence with the practical paper, which had a 28% pass rate, as opposed to 16% in the theory. But last year's exam turned this trend on its head with 26% passing the theory and 18% making it through the practical. In 2003, the average pass rate for the theory over the previous decade was reported to be 20%, and 31% for the practical. This inevitably generates a lot of frustration among students who repeatedly fail the exam despite putting in no shortage of money, time and effort. What's the point in working your tits off for three years only to come out with nothing?' remarks Joe Wadsack, an ex-MW student.

In terms of the pass rate overall, everyone is clear on one thing at least: the standards have to be maintained. Turner states: What we're not doing and will never do, is lower the standards. The qualification has to be something that people want to obtain and want to study for.' American Master of Wine Jay Youmans admits that the low pass rate is what makes the course so prone to criticism', but adds, this is what makes this title so desirable and separates it from other wine qualifications'. Richard Bampfield MW is also unequivocal: There is no way that existing MWs are going to support a lowering of standards. The IMW accepts that it must work harder to improve the education process to achieve a higher pass rate.'

According to Turner, a lesson in psychology could be a big factor in this improvement process. I've been working with a performance psychologist to try and see what approach we can take in terms of encouraging students and I'm hoping to bring someone in this year on a consultancy basis to work with individual students on their exam technique.' Turner has noticed many students who have the skills, have done the work but for some reason can't make it through the last step' and she sees this as a mental issue with performance. These are clearly students who should be passing and Turner hopes the psychologist will be able wipe out this confidence hurdle.

Another favoured criticism of the system (and a proposed reason for the pass rate problem) is that there's too big a jump between the standard of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Diploma and the MW course. This leads to the accusation that new recruits at the Institute are going in with their eyes wide shut to the troubles that lie ahead. However, while this argument may once have held some weight, the WSET has recently emerged from a Diploma refurbishment, which Ian Harris, chairman of the WSET, reveals has resulted in a greater reliance on course work and self-study, as well as the addition of an Honours Diploma in the form of a dissertation. All these alterations have helped build a bridge to the MW course.

The idea that today's MW students don't know what they're in for simply doesn't stand up. The IMW will only accept UK applications from people who hold the WSET Diploma and each potential student (except those who passed the Diploma with distinction) have to sit a further test before entry to the MW course is granted. Moreover, all candidates are given a Student Guide that provides a breakdown of the two-year course. The mysteries just aren't there any longer.

But do those two letters really make a difference in the modern wine trade? Most people seem to think so. Yes they do and yes they should,' says South African Master of Wine Cathy van Zyl MW. I do not believe it makes you better then everyone else,' she qualifies, but it takes a great deal of hard work, perseverance and flair to earn those initials; qualities that every employer surely has to value highly.' Harding agrees, saying it acts as a suggestion, if not a guarantee, that you know what you're talking about'. Peter McCombie MW is also in no doubt of the qualification's worth, but makes the point that it only has value if you are good at doing something else useful'.

Ultimate accolade

This notion is further expressed by industry employers. Jane Hughes, category manager for wine at Sainsbury's comments: The MW is still recognised as one of the highest accolades in the industry but we do not see it as critical to have an MW if the team possesses strength, knowledge and experience in all relevant areas.' Paul Bastard at the Co-op adds: The qualification guarantees a fine mind and it would be a bonus to employ an MW as a wine buyer. But it would also be a bonus to employ someone fluent in a foreign language.' Claudia Brown, PR manager for Oddbins continues: It is not the only factor affecting hiring and promotion, but we encourage employees to further their knowledge, and we consider the MW course to be an important part of wine education.'

The MW qualification is not for everyone. Some people don't have the time, others would rather speak than write and, if an employer isn't footing the bill, finance can also be a factor. Wadsack suggests that the cost of gaining and maintaining membership is comparable to running a small aircraft. But it's difficult to argue with the benefits of the course as a whole or, indeed, the high standards it demands. With the UK education system currently facing such thunderous criticism over the slipping of standards, the Institute can hold its head high and give the wine trade a proper badge of honour.

Being an MW is far from necessary for most people in the wine trade, but it's vital to have such heights to aspire to. And surely there's a small part of everyone that fancies joining such an exclusive club.