The 60th Anniversary of Masters of Wine (And Why There Are Only 312 Of Them!)

published Sep 25, 2013
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

I digress from my usual Wednesday column this week to tell you a little about my week in London last week. You see, 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the Masters of Wine title. I became a Master of Wine (MW) in 2011.

In 1953, 21 members of the UK wine trade sat the exams. Six passed and thus became the world’s first group of Masters of Wine. At the time the exam was restricted to persons working in the wine trade, and in Britain. Today there are 312 of us scattered all around the globe in 24 different countries, and employed in a much more diverse world of wine.

Back then women were not encouraged to work in the wine trade. It was somehow unthinkable! Therefore, it was only in 1970 that we had our first woman MW, Sarah Morphew-Stephens, MW, who regaled us at the Gala Dinner with stories about the challenges she faced trying to get her first job in the wine trade. She faced rejection after rejection, until finally she landed one, but only because she was small enough to crawl into and clean a fermenting tank! Thankfully things have moved on since. Today we are 90+ women, and growing.

Moving on, 1988 saw the first non-UK based MW, Michael Hill Smith, MW from Adelaide, Australia. Then in 1990 we got our very own MWs in the US: Joel Butler, MW, and Tim Hanni, MW.

Today in the United States we are a total of 34 MWs of which 11 of us are women.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

What is a Master of Wine?

For readers not so familiar with the title Master of Wine, let me explain. A Master of Wine is someone who has demonstrated a thorough knowledge and mastery of all aspects of wine. It is one of the highest wine credentials achievable in the world, and I am very proud and humbled to be part of this group. All the blood, sweat and tears during my five years of study finally paid off in 2011.

After a minimum period of two years study (but most people take three to four years to prepare), there is a four-day series of exams comprised of three practical (tasting) papers and four theory papers. Each of the tasting papers consists of 12 wines, served blind, and arranged in a number of different flights. Candidates are required to write strong, convincing and reasoned arguments (based only on evidence picked up from smelling and tasting the wine) as to the wine’s origin, varietal composition, winemaking, quality, commercial potential, vintage and so forth. The exam is anything but a parlor game of guessing the wine!

The written theory papers cover all things viticultural and winemaking. There is also a paper dedicated to the business of wine, and one that focuses on contemporary issues which can cover anything from the history and culture of wine, wine in today’s society, wine and health, etc.

While some brilliant individuals fly through both parts on the first go, most of us take a slightly more scenic route. This usually means passing either theory or practical first, and then repeating the other part the following year.

Once the closed book exam part is done and dusted, there is a final requirement: a dissertation or research paper, which must include some original research. In my view this is a very worthwhile part of the MW credential, as it is an opportunity to apply our knowledge and mastery to create an original piece of work that is of use to the wine trade. This takes approximately another year to complete.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Back to the Celebrations

There were many highlights to the week of celebrations, top among which had to be the opportunity to meet and chat with my fellow MWs (over half of us attended the celebrations). Other highlights included the gala dinner in the Banqueting Hall (a former Royal Palace) in Whitehall, where an original Rubens graced the ceiling. Over the course of the evening, which started with ‘Bollinger Special Cuvée’ we savored a host of excellent wines including Ridge Monte Bello ’90, Ch. Pichon Longueville Baron ’88, Ch. Margaux ’99 finishing with Gonzalez Byass Mathusalem 30-year old Oloroso and Cockburn’s Port vintage 1955.

There were also opportunities to visit the cellars of the 650-year-old Vintners Company on Upper Thames street, as well as the UK Government cellars of Lancaster House. These wonderfully historic buildings really are majestic and take you back in time. A fascinating fact that I learned on visiting Vintners Hall is that the Vintners Company is the only company apart from the British monarchy to own swans on the river Thames, thanks to the Royal Charter that was signed back in the 15th century.

We were also treated to a series of remarkable seminars and tastings which included a German tutored tasting of top Riesling and Pinot Noir, an old vines seminar showcasing wines made from 100+ year old gnarly bush vines in South Africa, California, Spain and Australia, an Italian wine tasting led by the 19 families that constitute the Istituto Grandi Marchi (IGM).

And finally, one not to be missed: a tasting of very old and rare fortified wines, which included a 130-year-old Madeira, namely Blandy’s 1887 Verdehlo.

What a wonderful week it was, but it is important to note and remember, that the wines I taste on a more regular basis are not so rare and exclusive!

And, now back to reality!

(Images: Courtesy of the Institute of Masters of Wine)