That most difficult of exams

  • This year's Master of Wine exam saw 14 successful candidates, making a total of 369 in 29 countries

'They've failed me, the sons of..........!' yelled a friend down the line from California. As a university professor no one had called into question his intellectual capacity, but had he really been wise to spend three years and a five-figure sum studying for the Master of Wine exam when the pass rate across the board is a mere ten per cent?

This year's exam saw 14 successful candidates, making a total of 369 in 29 countries. It is a very tough exam and many people whose everyday occupation is wine shrink from taking it in case they are forever after labelled as MW failures. Nor is there a tangible benefit to being able to use the initials MW after your name, though it may get you a job in one of the great London wine merchants established centuries ago.

At the beginning the London-based Institute of Masters of Wine limited candidates to British wine trade professionals. Now it is open to all-comers, starting with two years of preparatory work, and only after that does the real journey begin.

Leaving aside Jancis Robinson, few wine critics have the qualification. Certainly the Parkers, Tanzers, Peñins, Meadows and Gallonis of the wine world showed no interest, much to the annoyance of a large sector of the wine-producers, who maintain that these opinion-formers on whom their futures depend should at least have a basic training in formal wine studies.

Apart from the endless blind tastings, the theory part of the final exam features questions like, 'You are charged with establishing chardonnay vineyards in Casablanca, Chile and Champagne: what would be your main consideration?' 'What are the implications of reducing the sulphur dioxide level in the post-malactic fermentation stage?' 'What are the most important factors for the wine consumer: brand, origin or grape variety?' And the question that brings a smile to many candidates lips after having spent three years steeped in wine, 'To what extent is wine healthy? How much is too much?'