The Somm Cheating Scandal

By Robert Whitley

October 16, 2018 6 min read

There is a simple solution to the cheating scandal that rocked The Court of Master Sommeliers last week — simple but difficult.

When the CMS board of directors voted unanimously to rescind certification of the 23 candidates who passed the rigorous tasting exam in St. Louis last month, earning the prestigious master sommelier title, it did so to protect the integrity of the institution. It was the correct decision.

The CMS board announced that a master sommelier (MS) leaked the details of the wines to be tasted to one or more of the candidates, a MS who served as a proctor during the St. Louis tasting. The board refused to divulge the name of the suspected leaker.

The board said disciplinary would be taken against the leaker, including expulsion from the Court of Master Sommeliers, but only offered the 23 defrocked MS candidates a refund on their testing fees and two opportunities to retake the tasting portion of the test.

There is something fundamentally unfair about that decision because it punishes the innocent candidates who passed the test in good faith. Not only are they left twisting in the wind but they also now have a cloud of suspicion over their integrity and good reputation. Not to mention they don't receive the financial reward that comes with an MS title: An MS averages roughly $150,000 per year in income. An advanced sommelier, the next level down, reaps on average about $85,000 per year.

There are four levels of sommelier certification, with master sommelier at the pinnacle. There are fewer than 300 in the world. There is a reason for that. The training required of each candidate is time consuming and expensive, and requires discipline and tremendous personal sacrifice. Many master sommeliers took the exam for years before they finally passed.

MS candidates are tested in three areas: service, theory and tasting. The tasting portion is by far the most difficult. Each successful candidate must taste six wines blind and identify the grape variety (or varieties), region of origin and vintage. It is no small feat to pass this portion of the exam. Those who do have endured years of blind tastings with colleagues and MS mentors.

Passing the tasting exam once is a remarkable achievement. Passing it twice, with the added pressure of proving that the first time was neither a fluke nor the result of inside information, is not a slam dunk.

The candidate or candidates who were beneficiaries of the leak know all of that. They know the pain they have caused their colleagues and friends. And they have a moral obligation to step forward and admit their culpability, which would effectively let the innocent candidates off the hook and allow them to get on with their lives and careers.

That would be a courageous decision and possibly bring an end to a promising career. But it would be the right thing to do.

On the other hand, the person or persons could remain silent and hope the MS behind the leak never names his cohorts. That would make the cheater (or cheaters) a pariah in the wine industry forever.

Cheating on the exam is bad enough. Taking your friends down with you is even worse.

Best Value

Edna Valley Vineyard 2016 Pinot Noir, Central Coast ($17) — California pinot noir under $20 is hard to find. Good pinot noir under $20 is even harder. Edna Valley Vineyard's 2016 pinot noir from the Central Coast is a remarkable wine for the price. It exhibits ripe cherry fruit, excellent balance with impressive length on the palate, and a subtle hint of wood spice. Rating: 94.

Tasting Notes

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.

Dutcher Crossing 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon 'Taylor Reserve,' Dry Creek Valley ($50) — Dutcher Crossing flies a little bit under the radar, although its wines have always been solid over the years. The 2015 Taylor Reserve cabernet should make a little noise, however. This is a stunning cab that exhibits richness and depth without losing its elegance, a nice trick if you can do it. With complex red- and black-fruit aromas and a subtle hint of wood spice, it's an immediate hit that should hold its form and even improve over the next decade. Rating: 95.

Ghost Pines 2016 Merlot, Napa County-Sonoma County ($23) — The Ghost Pines brand comes from the E&J Gallo family of wines, and that means it has tremendous access to exceptional vineyards in the Napa and Sonoma regions. This is apparent in the absolutely delicious merlot that is beautifully textured and shows ripe plum and cherry fruit, a pretty note of wood spice and outstanding balance, all at a very fair price. Rating: 94.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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