Jancis Robinson MW says that the Master of Wine exams are “strictly for masochists”, but for fellow journalists like Sarah Jane Evans, who got her title in 2006, the advantages of bearing those two letters behind one’s surname offset all previous efforts.
As president of the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW), Evans is keen to internationalize the image of this distinguished organisation, set up in 1953 by the Vintners’ Company to improve the standard of education in the British wine trade. Back then, only six out of 21 candidates passed the exam. Nowadays, the number of passes is still very low —less than 10% a year— but there are more women (100 now) and a much more exotic array of nationalities.
The 321 Master of Wine students come from 38 different countries. The path is long, hard and full of obstacles; for some of them, it starts at the introduction masterclasses that the IMW holds in several locations around the world, such as the one at Bodegas Muga in Haro last spring with the support of Spain’s Foundation for Wine Culture.
There, five Masters of Wine —Sarah Jane Evans, Annette Scarfe, Ed Adams, Norrel Robertson and Pedro Ballesteros, the only Spaniard holding the title— explained the programme, which is self-directed, and gave some tips about how to pass the “tough but fair” exam.
Studying hard is obviously necessary, but it’s not enough. MW candidates must be able to prove their abilities for analysis, synthesis and critical thinking. “The Institute is not a university or an MBA; it takes for granted that students have prepared the syllabus when they sit the exam. If they are asked how pH levels can be managed during vinification, they should not explain what pH is. We want to see how students apply everything they know, not how much they know”, explains Ballesteros, who writes for SWL.
It is a way of working that takes some time to get used to; it is not easy for some, specially students coming from education systems such as Spain or Italy, based on rote learning rather than practical work or essay writing. This disadvantage, along with the fact that the language of study is English, could be the reason why Italy and Spain can boast of having just one per country. (Pancho Campo resigned in 2012 after the IMW launched an investigation for alleged breaches of the Institute’s code of conduct).
Three requirements are needed to apply for the MW programme: applicants must have professional experience within the wine industry, they must hold the Wine and Spirit Education Trust Diploma (WSET) or a Bachelor's Degree in wine and they must pass a written assignment and a blind tasting.
Onneca Guelbenzu is happy with the assignments she has completed at the masterclass in Haro. Results will not be published until September, once applications from all over the world have been submitted, so she has to wait. Born in Navarra, she has travelled to Rioja from Geneva, where she works as a sommelier to gain experience in this long-distance race. Her goal is to become one of the first Spanish Masters of Wine.
“I studied Law but family traditions have meant that I have been around wine most of my life. My first job at Vila Viniteca opened the doors to tasting all kinds of wines and learning about a new world that fascinated me”, explains Onneca, who also plays bass guitar in Las Furias, a female rock band. “I now work for Mövenpick, where I’m lucky to try lots of wines from around the world which will help me to prepare for the MW programme”.
Onneca and the rest of prospective candidates in Haro —coming from Spain, the US, Italy, Denmark and Belgium— listen carefully to the explanations about how to become a Master of Wine. A minimum of three years of study are required, although most candidates, who usually combine the MW studies with their jobs, need extra time.
For European students, the first year includes a residential seminar held in Austria (Adelaide or San Francisco, for candidates wishing to sit their exam in Asia or North America) with lectures, workshops, blind tastings and theory tutorials led by Masters of Wine. Previous preparation for both the seminar and course days (held in London and other Asian and US cities) is essential in order to hand in assessments. Students are not left at their mercy, though: each one of them has the support of a MW mentor who is usually at hand to guide them.
The first year assessment includes two essays and a 12-wine blind tasting paper. “Guessing the wine is not the most important thing; the key lies in giving a reasoned assessment of the wines, considering aspects such as grape variety, origin, winemaking, sugar levels, quality and style”, explains Elisa Úcar. She passed the theory part on her first try thanks to a tough training routine and tons of will power.
“I study hard and taste every weekend; my husband [Enrique Basarte, producer and winemaker at Domaines Lupier in Navarra] picks the samples and I taste them blind”. Coravin has been “the invention of the century”, Elisa says. It allows her to taste wines at different stages of the programme, with the ensuing money and time savings when it comes to procuring wines which can be hard to find, even online.
She has travelled to numerous fairs and tastings this year with her Domaines Lupier wines so she has postponed the tough second year exam for next year but she keeps training both at home and with her “itinerant tasting group”, which includes candidates from Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Germany.
“We get together some weekends and invite an MW to taste and prepare the theory. The first time we met in Barcelona; then we’ve been to Portugal, Burgundy and Germany. We visit wineries and vineyards and then taste and study all together. It’s a great help for all of us”, explains Elisa. All the MW present in Haro share this idea. “Candidates do not compete against each other; their only rival is the exam”, says Norrel Robertson, a globetrotter who has travelled throughout the world working with wine and has now settled in the Spanish region of Calatayud to make wines under the brand El Escocés Volante. “It’s really positive to bounce ideas off each other”.
The second year is a crucial time. The academic year involves a five-day residential seminar, at least two course days and three written assignments. By now, mentors assume that students can competently write their pieces of work —MW insist about this issue throughout the seminar— as well as write tasting notes following IMW requirements.
All this studying and tasting ends with an exhausting four-day exam. “You need to be in good physical condition” to face it, says Ballesteros. Three mornings are devoted to practical exams, each with a 12-wine blind tasting; samples can be from anywhere in the world and notes must include the same elements (origin, winemaking, quality and style) as in the first year exam. Afternoons are for theory papers with topics such as viticulture, winemaking, quality control and legal issues. The last day of this vinous triathlon is reserved for Papers 4 and 5 —The Business of Wine, which relates to financial and marketing issues and Contemporary Issues, which aims to measure candidates’ communication skills. What are the vineyard factors that influence the choice of rootstocks or which logistic issues must be taken into account in bulk wine transport are two examples of paper questions that came up in the mock exam in Haro.
Successful candidates who pass the four-day exam with a 60% mark can then attempt to overcome the last obstacle before becoming a Master of Wine: a Research Paper in English —translations from original pieces of work are accepted— between 6,000 and 10,000 words in length about a topic chosen by the candidate. “It’s worth choosing a topic you like. I wrote about almacenistas in Jerez”, explains Sarah Jane Evans.
Individual determination, self-motivation and perseverance are essential, but costs must also be considered. Application fees, exams and residential seminars alone will set you back around €16,000 but travel costs, hotels and wine samples must be added to the final figure. Ed Adams was lucky to be sponsored by his company, but others like Elisa pay for it from their own pockets.
Regardless of the financial costs, she thinks it’s cost-effective. “The training, the trips, all the wonderful people you meet, the wines you taste… the whole experience is tremendously rewarding. I’m getting back much more than what I’m paying,” she concludes.
For Elisa and for MWs like Annette Scarfe, who left her banker’s job and frequently works as a volunteer for the Institute, wine knowledge is priceless.