Friday, October 19, 2018

Master Sommeliers' Scandal

(From the New Yorker)  By   October 18, 2018

The Cheating Scandal That Has Shaken the World of Master Wine Sommeliers

In early September, fifty-six nervous sommeliers in pressed suits and shined shoes assembled at the Four Seasons Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri. They were there to attempt the most difficult and prestigious test in their industry: the Master Sommelier Exam, a three-part, application-only ordeal that just two hundred and forty-nine individuals worldwide have passed—fewer than have travelled to space. The test includes a fifty-minute oral theory section, administered in advance, which ninety per cent of people fail; an elaborate assessment of service skills; and a famously challenging blind tasting. Some of this year’s sommeliers had been preparing for the Master exam for fifteen years; others were taking it for the sixth or eighth time. When the results were decided, the chairman of the Court of Master Sommeliers, the nonprofit organization that administers the Master exam, announced, over raised glasses of champagne, that a record twenty-four candidates had passed.
Then, five weeks later, on October 9th, the court made a scandalous revelation: it had been discovered that one of the test’s proctors, a Master Sommelier, had leaked “detailed information” about the blind tasting to an unknown number of examinees. In response, the court’s board had unanimously voted that the leaker would have his Master title revoked. (The person’s identity has been reported by an industry publication but remains unconfirmed by the court.) More controversially, the court also stripped twenty-three of the twenty-four newly anointed Master Sommeliers of their titles, pending a redo of the blind-tasting portion of the test. (One person was spared because he passed the tasting in 2017.)

Revelation of deceit in fine wine’s most sacrosanct circle has rattled the tight-knit world of sommeliers, who pride themselves on presenting a decorous, unflappable face to those outside their ranks. Sommeliers have entered a period of mourning for their defrocked colleagues. (“Friday tasting group felt a little heavy this morning,” one wrote on Instagram.) The drama has also enthralled those outside wine industry, in part because recent works like the movie “Somm” and the TV series “Uncorked” have exposed a broad audience to the perverse difficulty of the Master exam—psychologically, physically, intellectually—and the masochistic dedication it requires. Like athletes dissecting their winning play after the big game, this year’s class of new Masters gave interviews detailing their strategies for success: twenty to thirty hours of studying per week, coaching from sports psychologists, “mountains of credit-card debt.” Master status comes with the industry’s top bragging rights, plus a hefty raise. (On average, Masters earn double their previous salary.) But for many sommeliers it is an honor imbued with almost spiritual significance—the oenological equivalent of running a marathon, winning an Oscar, and being canonized, all rolled into one. “For some people,” one sommelier told me, “this test is life.”
The court has said that it will reinstate the Master title to those who pass the tasting portion of the test again. Yet, more than the other sections of the exam, blind tasting is a “headfuck,” as one sommelier who’s taken it multiple times told me. No matter how much preparation is done, there is no guarantee that a sommelier who nails it one time will be able to repeat the feat the next. Candidates have twenty-five minutes to describe, analyze, and identify six unmarked, pre-poured glasses of wine. Their performance can be thrown off by elevation, by the time of day, by an errant sip of too-hot tea, by an unlucky lineup that doesn’t play to their personal strengths, or, in this case, by the added pressure of hoping to clear one’s name of any whiff of scandal. “Being asked to retest with your Masters reputation on the line in conjunction with the sheer difficulty of the exam sounds like any wine professional’s nightmare,” Cristie Norman, a certified sommelier, explained in Eater. “It’s more than likely that some, if not most, of the twenty-three will not pass again, but this does not necessarily mean they cheated the first time.”
Nineteen of the twenty-three Masters who had their status revoked have appealed the court’s decision. In a letter, which was obtained by the Chicago Tribune, they demanded an apology and the reinstatement of their titles. (On Facebook, one ex-Master was offered the name of a good attorney.) Exchanges on industry discussion boards usually buzzing with study tips and pairing suggestions have devolved into quarrels over the court’s handling of the misconduct. “An organization that treats its new members like this needs to be seriously overhauled and revamped,” one wine pro said in a discussion forum on the Web site GuildSomm. “If it happened once, how do we know it has not happened before?” another GuildSomm commenter asked, in reference to the cheating.
This is a rare instance of open rebellion against the court, which for more than forty years has been a powerful gatekeeper within the élite world of sommeliers. There is no school you can attend to become a sommelier. Gaining the necessary skills to advance through the court’s certifications—which are not mandatory, but can open doors—is a bit like studying for the MCAT but also a bit like jockeying for a country-club membership: you have to get on the good side of the existing Master Sommeliers, an insular, overwhelmingly male cohort who can provide a leg up to aspiring Masters through mentorship and coaching. (Eighty-four per cent of the Master Sommeliers in the U.S. are male.) Many veterans of Master exams have also found the grading to be perplexingly opaque—those who take the test never receive an exact score, for instance, leaving them to wonder whether they flubbed the theory section by two points or twenty. A once-aspiring Master Sommelier who attempted the exam and flunked the service portion told me that she was informed by the judges that she failed because her demeanor seemed different from usual, even though none of the judges had ever seen her work in a dining room before. For some, the cheating debacle has inspired broader questions about the court’s outsized control over the lives of sommeliers. “It’s good this has been exposed because there is so much exclusivity,” one person who has taken the Master Sommelier exam told me. “It’s wine, not saving lives. Why is it harder to become a Master Sommelier than a doctor?”
Several younger sommeliers who have worked toward court certification told me that the cheating debacle has rattled their trust in the organization. They wonder whether the indiscretion has irrevocably tainted the court, whether they should endure the pain of studying if a fairly earned diploma can suddenly be revoked. (Still, none was willing to criticize the court on the record.) Among the twenty-three Master Sommeliers who’ve lost their titles, some intend to reconvene their study groups, uncork fresh bottles, and resume their rigorous blind-tasting training as soon as possible. One of them, Vincent Morrow, wrote on GuildSomm that he is worried about having lost a month of preparation, and about the fresh expense of buying practice wines, which cost him seven thousand dollars ahead of the September exam. But, he added, “I’m not opposed to a retake; I plan to do it immediately—I want my name cleared, and I wish a complete investigation and the cheaters coming forward would do it for me.” Not all feel so optimistic. “I will probably be one of the candidates who will not retake the exam,” one of the demoted Masters told the wine-news site SevenFifty Daily. “I want to find a different industry to work in. I want this to be over.” 

Thursday, July 12, 2018


Sherry is a fortified white wine grown and produced exclusively in a very small region of Spain called Jerez, just outside Cadiz in Southern Andalusia. Unfortunately, because the name was not legally protected until 1996, “Sherry” has become synonymous with sickly, sweet wines from South Africa, California, and Cyprus. Sherry is now defined by law as the English name for the wines of Jerez, and, far from being sweet, most Sherry is among the driest of all wines.
Sherry is made primarily from the Palomino grape and sometimes, for sweet versions, with Pedro Ximenez. The wine is fermented to about 11 percent alcohol, and then blended with brandy to bring it to 15 percent or higher. The four most common styles of Sherry are:
  • Fino: This is the palest and driest. Alcohol 15-17. Sugar grams per liter: 0 – 5
  • Amontillado: Slightly darker than Fino. Alcohol 16-17%. Sugar g/l: 0 – 5
  • Oloroso: Darker, fuller bodied slightly oxidized. Alcohol 17-22%. Sugar g/l: 0 – 5
  • Pedro Ximénez: Dark, full-bodied and very sweet. Alcohol 15-22%. Sugar g/l: 212+
After fermentation and the fortification with brandy, the Sherry is aged using the solera system in which the barrels of aging wine are stored in a pyramid style with the oldest on the bottom and newest barrels on top. Wine to be bottled is drawn from one third of the oldest, bottom barrels, which are then topped-up with wine from the layer above and so on, until there is space in the top layer of barrels for the new wine to be added. Consequently, over the years and decades, the wines of various vintages are blended together, which is why a bottle of Sherry never has a vintage year on the label. In some cases, some of the content of the bottle could be more than a hundred years old. Dry Sherry is a popular drink all over Spain, not just in Andalusia, and has been extremely popular in England since long before Shakespeare celebrated it in his plays.
Sherry is the 'Shakespeare' of wines. Both offer the widest variety of styles, from the driest Fino to the sweetest Pedro Ximenez, or the broadest comedy of Bottom to the most sublime tragedy of Lear. They are both unique and have no peers; the solera system is unique to Sherry, and the sheer volume and range of the written word is unique to Shakespeare. Not only does Shakespeare make more than thirty-five direct references to Sherry in his plays, but during his lifetime, Sir Francis Drake “liberated” 2,900 butts of Sherry (2.25 million bottles) from the King of Spain, and brought them home to England. The richness, the range, the historic parallels, will forever unite the Bard of Avon with the sack of Jerez.
Shakespeare’s most famous Sherry drinker, of course, was Sir John Falstaff, who called it “sac” and attributes the bravery and military success of Prince Hal to his consumption of Sherry. He also adds that Sherry produces “excellent wit,” while it “warms the blood.” In conclusion, Sir John avows that if he had a thousand sons, the first thing he would teach them is to reject all small thin wines and to devote themselves to Sherry.
Part of the payment to England’s Poet Laureate, since the time of Shakespeare’s drinking companion, Ben Johnson, has traditionally been a barrel of Sherry. England’s current Poet Laureate, Carol Anne Duffy, was presented with 720 bottles of Sherry in 2012. Sherry is typically drunk as an aperitif before meals.

Thursday, June 14, 2018


China it is one of the oldest wine-producing countries on the planet. However, wine has not been an important aspect of Chinese culture until very recently. Already within the first two decades of the new century, China has become not only a major producer but also a major consumer of wine. Within the next decade, China could prove itself one of the leading players in the world of wine.

Although grape wine has been consumed in China for at least 4,600 years, a stronger version containing up to 20 percent alcohol, called Huangjiu, or “yellow-wine,” made from fermented rice and cereals, has always been more popular. Additionally, the Chinese have always consumed a distilled version called Baijiu, which has a 40-60 percent alcohol content. Alcohol in China is typically consumed in the form of toasts, drunk in small shot glasses and tossed to the back of the throat—the complete opposite of everything described in Chapter One of my book.

Modern Vitis vinifera grapes were probably first introduced by the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great in the third century BC, and planted in the extreme west of China in what is today’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Marco Polo referred to the local wines when he passed through this area in the thirteenth century. This Uighur populated province (ironically the most Islamic part of China) is still the major wine-producing region in the nation, even though it clings to the edge of the Gobi Desert. One of the vineyards covers twenty-five thousand acres at 262 feet below sea level!

Following Deng Xiaoping’s Economic Reforms in the early 1980s, agricultural land was de-collectivized, private entrepreneurs were permitted to develop vineyards, and foreign investment was encouraged. At the same time, a growing middle class was becoming exposed to the outside world, traveling to Europe and bringing back knowledge about foreign cultures—including wine.

The French brandy house, Remy Martin/Cointreau, established a joint venture in 1980 which eventually became Dynasty Wines, producing over one hundred types of wine products in China. Initially, Chinese wines were limited to the export market, but with the growing wealth of the domestic market in the twenty-firstt century and a fast evolving appreciation for wine, 90 percent of Chinese wine is now consumed domestically. While the disposable income of the growing middle class accounts for the consumption of home-grown Chinese wine, it is only the extreme wealth of the Chinese billionaire class that can account for an obsessive consumption of French, especially Bordeaux, wines. The Chinese love of Bordeaux wine is delightfully explored in the 2013 movie Red Obsession.

Although most Chinese wine comes from the Xinjiang Autonomous Region on the border with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, a new northern area, Ningxia Province, also bordering the Gobi Desert, is rapidly becoming the center of China’s fine-wine industry. With 160,000 acres of vineyards planned by 2020, Ningxia will be three times the size of Napa. The French luxury goods giant LVMH has recently invested $28 million in a state-of-the-art winery called Chandon. An international competition named "Bordeaux Against Ningxia" was held in Beijing in December 2011, when experts from China and France tasted five wines from each region. Ningxia was the clear winner, with four out of five of the top wines. The best wine in the whole competition was the 2009 Chairman's Reserve, a Cabernet Sauvignon which even Robert Parker rated as “not bad.” It is unclear whether the name referred to Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book.

Another rapidly expanding wine-growing area is Shandong Province on the coast of the Yellow Sea, which, with 140 wineries, already produces 40 percent of Chinese wine. The latest company to invest in Shandong is Bordeaux’s Domains Barons de Rothschild, which harvested its third vintage in 2015. Based on Rothschild’s previous successes in California and Chile, Shandong Province is a region to keep an eye on.

In just the past decade, China has become one of the world’s top ten wine markets, and is actually the largest consumer of red wine in the world, as well as being the sixth largest producer of wine. Between 2006 and 2015, China’s wine consumption grew by 54 percent. According to Sotheby’s, it is no longer London or New York but Hong Kong which is now the world’s largest market for fine wines at auction. Furthermore, China is one of the world’s biggest consumers of Bordeaux’s Premier Cru wines, and has had a significant effect on the price structure. Chinese billionaires have long had a predilection for Château Lafite (like the English aristocracy before them), followed by Château Latour, Château Mouton-Rothschild, Château Margaux and finally by Château Haut-Brion. This preference for Lafite has had the unfortunate consequence of making Lafite the most popular target of international wine-fraud, resulting in a number of recent scandals and uncertainty in the Chinese market. There is a growing tendency among Chinese billionaires, therefore, to focus on the previously overlooked Château Haut-Brion wines (Jefferson’s favorite), because its unique bottle shape makes it more difficult for criminals to reproduce.

But despite China’s seeming integration into the international wine market, it retains certain Chinese idiosyncrasies. For example, the reason that Chinese are almost exclusively red wine drinkers has less to do with their appreciation of tannins and more to do with red being a lucky color traditionally associated with good fortune and good health. The Chinese still serve wine in small, shot-sized wine glasses, and, although it is a sign of progress that wine is replacing strong baijiu spirits at business banquets, it means that when that priceless 1959 Château Lafite is being poured, all the guests can toss it back in a hearty group toast without even needing to taste it.