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Master Sommelier test marred by cheating, leaving people 'devastated'

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"Devastated” is the word Geoff Kruth used to describe the people who were awarded the master sommelier title last month, only to have it stripped away after the results of a portion of the exam were cast out this week.

The board of directors of the Court of Master Sommeliers unanimously voted to invalidate the results of the difficult tasting segment after evidence surfaced that the confidentiality of the wines was breached during the testing process.

An unnamed master sommelier, serving as a proctor, reportedly leaked the answers.

Twenty-three people had just been inducted to the Court of Master Sommeliers on Sept. 10 after passing the test in St. Louis, but the board’s action means they will have to relinquish the title until they retake the tasting section of the exam. The board said it plans to expedite the process for the candidates involved.

The title of master sommelier marks the highest recognition of wine and spirits knowledge, beverage service abilities and professionalism in the hospitality trade.

“It’s fair to say anyone would be devastated,” said Kruth, who passed the tasting portion of the exam after two tries in 2008. “The first thing I thought of is those nightmares you have that you really didn’t finish college. We can assume they’re all very upset and it’s a very unfortunate situation.”

Kruth is the president of GuildSomm, an educational website for wine professionals, which he launched in 2009. He was featured in the 2012 documentary film “Somm.” He’s also the proprietor of Geyserville’s Lost & Found boutique winery that produces 1,500 cases of pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah annually.

“The entire sommelier community is shocked by the entire thing and saddened,” he said.

GuildSomm is not affiliated with the Court of Master Sommeliers. Kruth said he’s not privy to all the information the board has, so he can’t comment on its decision disqualify the tasting portion of the exam. But as a master sommelier, Kruth can give insight into the tasting segment of the exam, giving us a peek into what these 23 candidates tackled.

Candidates, Kruth said, endeavor to describe and identify the six wines in the tasting. The descriptors include visual appearance, aroma, palate, and winemaking techniques. Identifying the wine requires candidates to name the varietal and the general region the wine hails from, the vintage and the quality level in terms of classification.

The flight represents classic wines from classic places and there are in the neighborhood of 50 to 100 classic wine styles, Kruth said. Examples include: pinot noir from Sonoma County, pinot noir from Burgundy, tempranillo from Rioja, malbec from Argentina and albarino from Spain.

“To prepare, it’s typical for people to be tasting wines in this format on a daily basis for many years,” Kruth said. “I did for six years before I passed. Typically, people who pass can describe and identify five or six of the wines correctly, but there are many factors involved in scoring.”

The tasting can be tricky, Kruth said, because it’s easy to get thrown off by focusing on one feature of a wine rather than many to identify it. But if you keep a multi-faceted mindset, it’s easier to pinpoint the wine.

“People think it’s either luck or a magic trick, but it’s not,” Kruth said. “You’re building a case based on objective criteria so you can come to a reasonable conclusion of the variety and growing conditions.”

The Court of Master Sommeliers was established in England in 1977, and the first master sommelier exam given in the United States was in 1987.

These four stages are involved in earning the master sommelier title: 1) Introductory Sommelier Examination, 2) Certified Sommelier Examination, 3) Advanced Sommelier Examination, and 4) Master Sommelier Diploma Examination.

“Maintaining the integrity of the examination process must be our highest priority or we risk diminishing the value of, and the respect earned from, becoming a Master Sommelier,” said Devon Broglie, master sommelier and board chairman.

“Our credential is known throughout the hospitality industry worldwide, and it guarantees that the holder of the master sommelier title is among the most qualified of all wine industry professionals. A compromised examination does not provide that guarantee.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.