What even IS a Master of Wine?! How do you become one? Which Jedi powers come with the title? Is it true the pass rate is under 10%? What’s the real cost, not just in financial but also time and emotional fallout? How diverse and inclusive is the MW body? Aren’t the days of ‘the expert’ numbered anyway?!
It’s a biggie. So we’re doing this in two parts – this first one is about our own experiences of becoming Masters of Wine (MWs). And we don’t shy away from detailing the brutal lows as well as the giddying highs. We also share some of our tips and strategies for passing in double quick time (both of us won the Outstanding Student award in our respective years). And we get the ‘establishment’ views from The Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW).
In Part 2 we’ll be hearing from a current MW student, a recently passed MW and that most mythical of beasts…a chief examiner. Buckle up.
Peter Richards MW (PR): How can someone become a Master of Wine?
Sarah Harrison (SH): It’s a good question, because it’s, as you will know, it takes a bit of effort! The first thing people will need to think about is: are they ready to think about becoming a Master of Wine? Over the years we’ve improved our admissions process I would say, so that it’s now a little more stringent than it used to be, and even getting onto the course does take quite a bit of prior knowledge and experience.
PR: they let anyone on the course in my day! I wouldn’t have got on it otherwise…but harder now to get on the course, is it?
SH: It is a little bit. But that’s more beneficial for people to come on knowing they’re ready, so they’re not wasting their time and money on something they’re not quite ready for but maybe in 3 years they would be. SO there’s a few eligibility requirements to get on the programme in the first place. One is about prior education: you need at least WSET diploma level or equivalent, eg Masters in Viticulture. And you also need at least 3 years of what we call current and continuous active professional involvement in wine. So basically wine is your main job and has been for 3 years. That can be whole breadth of wine trade – writing, selling, or making, but it needs to be the primary thing you do as a professional.
PR: when I was on course, we had architects and lawyers doing it with us who weren’t professionally involved in wine. And I always thought that was a lovely thing that people could come on if they could demonstrate their seriousness and aptitude for study even if wine wasn’t their main job.
SH: it’s something that has changed over the years. People have different opinions on that. It’s because ultimately when you do become an MW it’s meant to be a community of wine professionals. So if you’re not already in that sector then it’s harder for you to take part in that community of wine professionals, so it’s a bit more of a trade association in that sense. That said, you can petition to the admissions committee, a group of MWs who review all applications and make a decision who’s at the right place to come on. And if you don’t quite fulfil the eligibility requirements but really feel you have something to offer, which I imagine those architects and lawyers would have done, then you can email them and we’ll discuss making an exception. We still do have a little bit of flexibility but mostly we try to make sure people are involved in the trade.
PR: What does the programme involve?
SH: You’ve got 3 stages now, again slightly different from how it used to be. First stage – Stage 1 – is essentially a foundation stage. The aim is to make sure you are ready to start studying for the big exam, the MW exam. So in that stage, people will join, they have to pass assessment at end of it to prove ready for the big exam. Usually a year, some take two, or some will get knocked out at that stage – we say: you’re not ready, come back in a few years. Once you’ve passed that Stage One assessment, which is made of one 12-wine tasting paper and two essay questions, you move into Stage 2. That means that you are studying to do the first two parts of the MW exam: the theory and practical exams. You’ll know more about this, cos you’ve passed it: but it’s a lot. You need to know a lot to pass those exams. Bit of overview: Theory papers go from viticulture to vinification to handling to business of wine and then a final paper on contemporary issues, interesting paper, I often enjoy reading students’ responses to things like climate change, things that are much bigger that might impact all areas of wine trade in different ways. So lots of knowledge from a theory perspective. On top of that: 3 practical papers, tasting papers always my favourite to watch…
PR: to watch?! This is not a spectator sport now is it?!
SH: So interesting to see! I’ve now done my WSET level 2 but to go from that rudimentary level of knowledge to see people at the top of their game doing the blind tasting is really interesting. So: people will have 12 white wines in the first paper then 12 reds in 2nd paper then 12 mixed in the last paper. To see people be able to taste these flights and say ‘not only is this French but from this area of Bordeaux and why’, is pretty cool to see. So that’s what you’re aiming for in stage 2: to pass all those exams, 4 days of exams, quite intense. To get to that point you have a lot of things we will supply to help you get there: a week long seminar, course days where you do practice papers, feedback from MWs, a mentor, all get you to point of sitting the exam. And if you do pass, you move to Stage 3. That’s what we call the research paper: quite different, much more self-directed, a really big scope to choose what you’re interested to research. So it’s a paper of 8-10,000 words, the topics are so broad. What did you do yours on?
PR: just racking my brains, mine was Chilean Syrah, and we had Sophie Parker-Thompson on programme, fascinating paper on biogenic amines, much more interesting than mine. But seems some good topics now, really interesting.
SH: we’ve just had, most recent, two papers there: one is Influences of Classical Music on perceptions of a Brut NV champagne. So interesting! But then also totally different view from Melissa Saunders MW: could the environmental impact of wine packaging affect decisions of retail wine buyers in New York. So different but specific and useful to future careers. So all of that to do to pass. Minimum amount of time to pass is 3 years but typically students do tend to take longer, re-sit bits.
PR: Difficult question – what’s the pass rate?
SH: We don’t have a statistic for the pass rate exactly every year cos people re-take and it takes quite a while. But to give an example, we have just over 300 students on the programme at the moment and in 2020 we had about 25 people pass through to Stage 3…so the pass rate isn’t really high, that’s well known.
PR: is it changing over time?
SH: I think so. It’s always something we’re looking to keep working on and keep improving…
PR: by improving you mean get more people passing?
SH: Yes, exactly.
PR: Financial side of things: if people ask, how much does it cost to do the MW, what do you say?
SH: Great question. Really important – people need to have a good financial plan for this. But it’s also really dependent on where you are and what job you do. Talking fees first – if you pass everything first time, fees are around £10,000 to us. Increases to retake a stage, eg £5,000-ish extra to retake Stage 2. So that’s one thing I mean when I say: make sure you’re ready when you join. But students will need to add to that to purchase wines, to fly to places. And that will depend. Wine buying is one of the biggest expenditures as student but depends on your job – if you’re buying and tasting as part of your job, your output will be smaller. But if you’re a student in more challenging place like Oman or Turkey, where tax on wine is a lot, and you’re importing wines, obviously you’re going to need to account for more. So those things depend. But most people would say around £30-40,000 is probably what you might spend over the course of the programme. But you need to make a financial plan for you!
PR: Sounds considerably more expensive than in our time! Or maybe we were just lucky. Time-wise, if people come to you and say: how much time do I need on a weekly or monthly basis, what do you say?
SH: Don’t underestimate it. It’s a lot. It depends on background – how much do you already know about viticulture? If it’s not very much, it will take a long time to get enough knowldge. Our syllabus is public, all previous exam papers public, all on website: have a look at them and see how much more knowledge you’d need to confidently answer them, and that will give you a good insight into how much study you need to do. To be honest, it’s a lot, a significant investment in time.
PR: What’s the global spread of students and MWs and how is that changing?
SH: Really exciting question. Changes a lot. The institute started 1953, was always based in the UK at first. And it wasn’t until 1988, Michael Hill Smith MW was the first international MW. Then 22 years after the study programme opened internationally, 100 MWs outside UK. Just keeps increasing. At the moment, now 416 MWs, spread across 31 countries. So a big spread – still are big pockets especially in UK and US, big groups of MWs. And the student body also really diverse. We see when get one new MW in a new country, get new students and network, really exciting. Eg happened in Spain recently, lots of students there. Students in about 32 different countries at moment currently studying, but increases if count students taking deferral years, a lot doing that due to Covid this year. And we have around 16 different languages spoken over the theory papers. So it’s a really broad geographical spread and really exciting – places like Asia, South America, South Africa, seeing more students apply every year, which is exciting.
PR: would you like to see this grow? Is the message: wherever you are, whoever you are, you can do this?
SH: Absolutely. The IMW gets its strength from the spread of its members and experiences they bring and a diversity of opinion and experiences and of places you live is brilliant, will only help the IMW grow. So absolutely. What’s also exciting – there are still lots of firsts to come if you’re a student. Just had first Italian MW based in Italy…which was really exciting…
PR: we’re going to be speaking to Gabriele in the next programme! And hopefully we’ll be seeing lots more MWs in Italy in the future…
SH: We still have lots of first to come. Applicants from a few new countries this year – you could be the first MW in the country you’re form. It’s exciting.
PR: What about diversity? The IMW has said it needs to improve.
SH: We do. It’s something we’ve recognised, particularly over the past year or so, that it’s something incredibly important. And that we want to be very proactive in encouraging more diverse students thus more diverse MWs. We’ve for example quite publicly said we don’t have a Black Master of Wine yet – but we hope to soon, we do have some students who identify as Black, so we are hopeful they will pass. We are trying to do more to be able to encourage applications from a wider pool of students – cos it’s important that it’s reflective of the industry and we do have a diverse set of students joining us. We’ve set up the Diversity Inclusion & Transformation Committee, who are thinking really hard about how we can make sure the programme is welcoming, inclusive and open to everybody who’s ready to take it. Some really exciting things come out of that this year. We’ve got a scholarship in collaboration with Golden Vines for people who identify as BAME and BIPOC, so some really significant scholarships for people to join the programme. One of those been announced, some more to come. Those sorts of things are really important. We’ve done outreach sessions to students applying from those backgrounds to talk to them about the programme. So it’s something that we really need to work on, we’re doing it proactively at the moment but it will take time: as it takes 3 years to become an MW, so it will take time to see people joining at the other end. But it’s something we are really committed to and talk about a lot in internal and council meetings.
PR: Sarah Harrison: thank you.
SH: No problem, thank you very much!
Peter Richards MW (PR): What’s the secret to becoming a Master of Wine?
Adrian Garforth MW (AG): Tenacity: you really need to be committed because it’s a lot of work, and there’s so much to know. What’s more it’s not absolute information. Every part of the wine industry is evolving as we speak. If you don’t approach it with a smile on your face and a sense of fun…you beat yourself up. The number of people I’ve met who were in study purgatory…ugh. Saddest thing. I say: just step back, put a smile on face…
PR: Do it for the love of it, do it with a smile on face. Love that. Are you actively trying to grow the number of people passing the exam, and if so how?
AG: Good question. The pass rates within the institute historically have been remarkably low. In some ways, asking people to come on the programme to pay good money to study…the risk of succeeding was really really low. I feel strongly that if people are paying good money: we need to make sure first of all that they’re the right sort of candidate, and that they really run the risk of succeeding. That’s hard: you might have the ability to climb Everest but not everyone makes it. But we need to select them first. Then after that we need to make sure the education programme we deliver is as good as it can be. It’s self study so we’re not telling you what you need to know, but the guidance and support we provide needs to be of the highest order. And if it’s not right, we need to have proper feedback mechanisms. We set out in 5-year plan we wanted to grow membership by 5%, we’re probably hovering around that at the moment. I don’t have a problem with lots more Masters of Wine. I think there’s a massive opportunity – with this very complicated wine industry we inhabit, having great people, not just MWs but MSs, diploma students etc: having great people is what’s really going to galvanise the industry, drive it forwards, and get more people engaged, and make it successful. Having good people is really good for the industry, having more Masters of Wine has to be good for the industry a well.
PR: What would you say to someone considering doing the MW?
AG: Fantastic! I’m really pleased. Just enter it with your eyes open I would say. Speak to people on the programme. Speak to some MWs as well. We’re not short of opinions. It’s a pretty big undertaking. But don’t scare yourself. Some people on the programme are petrified, some people think they can do it easily and have scared themselves off before they’ve even started. Just understand it, it will take up a big part of your life. Wine kinda takes over, but not in a bad way. Wine is sociable, wine is fun…
PR: So let the wine take over! Adrian Garforth: thank you.
AG: Thanks Peter!