As It Happens

'Devastating' scandal rocks wine world as 23 master sommeliers stripped of their titles

The Court of Master Sommeliers has stripped them of their titles because it discovered someone leaked information about the wines on the tasting part of the exam.

The Court of Master Sommeliers Americas says information on the crucial tasting portion of the exam was leaked

A person tastes red wine during a wine tasting session at the Chateau La Dominique in Saint-Emilion, southwestern France. (Georges Gobet/Associated Press/Getty Images)

It's one of the hardest tests in the world to pass. Sommeliers work for years before they take it. They often fail on their first, second or even third try.

Now, 23 wine experts who passed the "master sommelier" exam this fall have lost their designations.

The Court of Master Sommeliers has stripped them of their titles because it discovered someone leaked information about the wines on the tasting part of the exam. 

Courtney Schiessl, a wine journalist who worked as a sommelier in some of New York's top restaurants, spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off about the cheating scandal. Here is some of their conversation.

What does it mean to a sommelier to get this title of "master sommelier"?

It's probably the most-lauded achievement you could have in the wine world. It's certainly not necessary for a sommelier, but the people who become master sommeliers work for years and years to achieve this goal.

Which wine is which? Any sommelier worth his or her salt needs to know. (Leon Brocard/Flickr)

The people you've been talking with who've lost this — what do they say to you?

Everyone I've spoken to is still in a lot of shock, and they're really surprised, because something like this has never happened before.

It's really just been devastating, not only for them, but for the entire wine community.

All we've been told is that a current master sommelier released information that was pertinent to the tasting flight of the exam.- Courtney Schiessl, wine journalist 

This exam is notoriously rigorous, all three parts of it: a knowledge-based part, a practical part, and then this most difficult part, the tasting portion of the exam. Can you just describe for people what it entails?

The master sommelier exam is the highest of four levels that you can achieve within the Court of Master Sommeliers. So even before the master sommelier exam, you have to pass your introductory, certified, and advanced exam — which can take several years to pass.

First you have to pass theory, and then on a later date ... you have both a practical/service exam, which includes questions that you may be given on the floor as a sommelier, as well as a tasting exam, which is six wines that you must blind-taste in 25 minutes. 

Wine journalist Courtney Schiessl says people work their whole careers to pass the master sommelier test. (Nicola Tagliabue)

You're not blindfolded — you can see the wines in front of you. It's usually three whites and three reds. But you must go through each of the wines systematically: assess the sight, the aromas, and the palate of the wine. And then based on what you're tasting, you must come to a conclusion on where the wine is from, what the grape variety is and what vintage the wine is from as well. 

And so this part of the exam is the part that has been called into question. What exactly happened?

All we've been told is that a current master sommelier released information that was pertinent to the tasting flight of the exam.

So we don't know if that was before, during or after the exam — because the candidates are never told what the wines are, even after the exam. We don't know if they gave them the identity of the wines, [or] if they just gave them some clues as to what might be on the exam. 

But they cancelled the results of the taste portion, or the whole exam?

Just the tasting portion. And they've invalidated the results for everybody. So that means everyone who took the tasting portion — whether they passed or failed — now have the opportunity to re-sit the exam. 

A sommelier pours a glass of red wine in Nipozzano, Italy, Sept. 21, 2017. (Isla Binnie/Reuters)

What did the people who did the exam go through to get to the point where they were doing this test?

It is a huge time and financial investment to study for the master sommelier exam, but particularly for the tasting portion, because you have to taste a lot of wines. 

When we were trying to get someone to talk about this, many sommeliers said they just didn't want to talk. Does that surprise you that so many people don't even want to discuss this?

I think for many, the emotions are still raw. And they also so badly want to keep this title. They want to think before they say anything publicly, because one day they may be members again in this organization.

One of the sommeliers who lost their certificate said to you, "I know this is not the intent, but I feel like a martyr. I am embarrassed, though I did nothing wrong. I want to find a different industry to work in. I want this to be over." Do you understand that sentiment?

I certainly understand that it's heartbreaking for this person. They've worked for many years, and they were so proud.

Although it's only been a month, this person has already started training with the Court of Master Sommeliers to be a proctor and be a leader within the organization. So this person really feels like the ground has been ripped from under him.

Written by Kate Swoger and Kevin Ball. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A edited for length and clarity.