What do Ronn Wiegand, Gerard Basset, Doug Frost have in common?
Well, if you’re a cork dork, you already know, and if you’re not, you don’t care.
Digression: I know a guy with both a law degree and a medical degree, and sometimes I stare at him and marvel at the fact that half of him is smarter than all of me. Still, after a shared evening of immoderate imbery when I sideswipe some sober sap, I get great personal satisfaction in introducing him to the victim: “This is my nasty, but highly-successful attorney, and speaking of nasty, if you need to stop bleeding from that nasty intracranial hemorrhage, he can probably help with that, too.’
Were I to be driving Ronn, Gerard or Doug home, the best I could come up with would be: ‘Sorry about the fractured skull and all, but did you know that of the 82 permitted varieties of Port grapes, only 30 are actually recommended by the Method of Punctuation of the Plots of Land of Vineyards of the Region of Douro?’
The Master of Wine program and it’s gruesomely grueling qualification exam first found life in 1953 when 21 candidates sat down to write five theory papers and three practical papers on wine—the business end, the science side and the relevant issues of the day. Only six passed. Now, you might conclude that such a dismal failure rate was due to a lack of foresight among these initial candidates, but no—less than three hundred others have qualified since, and at a smaller percentage rate than passed the first.
Why? Because it’s friggin’ difficult, that’s why. The current test consists of a four-day masochistic mental and mouthful marathon administered by the London-based Institute of Masters of Wine during which slaughterable sheep (75 of them in 2011, of which 11 passed—this year’s exam is June 6 – 9) prepare four three-hour question papers and participate in three 2 ½ hour blind tastings and, should they pass, are required to write a ten thousand word dissertation based on original research.
Wearing an ‘MW’ after your name is a remarkable consummation of study, skill-sharpening and simple savvy, no question—and some of the coolest people in the biz have earned this bragging rights. Some of the biggest peckerheads in the biz have too—but that’s a different story. The point is, to demonstrate the level of OCD level required to secure a spot where you’re even allowed to take the exam is pretty intimidating.
And pretty expensive. The IMW requires that you first qualify, then enroll in a two year, guided ‘self study’ program to prepare for the finals, and this will set you back around $5000—$2,200 alone for a four-day seminar introducing the program. And then there’s buying the study wines, which I can’t see being less than a few thousand more.
That said, should you FUBAR one of the first two sections, you can ante up and try again. Fair to say, hardly anybody gets to the dissertation stage on the first try, and those that do are near legend.
The exam, therefore, becomes to wine geeks what a triathlon is to athletic overachievers—something that only alpha personalities even consider considering. Says Anne Pickett, an (unsuccessful) MW candidate: “This is one of those esoteric things you just decide to do to better yourself. If you pass, great. If not, at least you tried.”
How hard is it? In 2005, two-thirds of those who sat one or both parts of the two-part exam failed to pass even one part, and with an almost Faustian glee, the IMW states that its test is ‘the hardest test of knowledge and ability in the world of wine’.
And compared to the ‘other’ celebrated wine pro credential, the Master Sommelier certification?
Ronn Wiegand pronounces, “…Master of Wine is vastly more difficult, and I would emphasize ‘vastly’ by a factor of three.”
A Title Only Albert Winestein Could Love…
So, non-mathematicians, what that means in layman terms is that if Master of Wine is literally impossible to pass, Master Sommelier is figuratively impossible to pass. The chief difference between the two is that the The Court of Master Sommeliers, testing three levels of sommelierhood, is primarily concerned with standards of beverage knowledge, social skills and proper restaurant service—and somewhat less with the wine ‘business’ (except for running a solvent wine program) or instant viticulture recall. Oddly, I think, a knowledge of Havana cigars is required, which in the United States are illegal.
Candidates at the Sommelier second level are required to prove three years of wine service, and five years for the third. Going-for-the-brass-ringers must pass a $525 introductory course and the two ‘middle’ courses at $325 and $995 before the court will gracefully accept another $900 to allow you to sit for ne plus ultra Master Sommelier exam, even though your chances of failing it are somewhere around 90%.
For the ten percenters—and worldwide, that stacks up to a scant 160 individuals—there is the promise of prestige, awe and speaking engagements, but I think that in order to cash in, chutzpah is as vital as the diploma.
Again: What Do Ronn Wiegand, Gerard Basset, Doug Frost Have in Common?
They are the only three human beings in the solar system—potentially in the entire cosmos—to have passed both the Master of Wine and the Master Sommelier exam.
Like that of my hotshot buddy Dr. Ambulance-Chaser, M.D., P.L.L.C., Q.U.A.C.K., this is a truly unfathomable accomplishment, akin to winning the Van Cliburn Piano Competition after carrying your Kuhn-Bösendorfer Grand to the top of Mt. Everest.
So, What’s The Problem Then?
Only this: There are three of them.
I am an American, and Americans have hated ties ever since we charlie foxtrotted the Korean War—they exist only so that boxing promoters can make money. Ties are idiotic: Like, everyone has a favorite Stooge, a favorite Dog Night, a favorite Beatle (oh, yeah—only two left), and frankly, as a Catholic, if I’m forced to choose? I’m going with the Holy Ghost.
So, like they do in sports, I’m proposing a Sudden Death Overtime Wine Certification program in order to crown one—and only one—of these chumps ‘champ’.
Devised by yours truly, it consists of a single question which I will pose (against my business sense) absolutely for free. Gentlemen, start your crusher/destemmers…
‘How many sub-atomic particles are contained in an average merlot pip?’
Whoever answers first gets the distinction of tacking a new title—named for moi—after MS and MW:
MSG: Master of Sour Grapes.