This week’s wine news: A comprehensive look at the sommelier cheating scandal, plus the wine tariff sinks French wine imports and wine list foolishness
• Sommelier cheating scandal: The trade website SevcenFiftyDaily takes a long, thorough, and comprehensive look at the 2018 sommelier cheating scandal – some 4,000 words. It’s mostly well done, fair, and reaffirms the suspicions that those of us had about the lack of transparency surrounding what happened: The “events of the past year raise broader questions about an organization—and the title it confers—that’s one of the wine world’s most powerful. And not just for the trade: With the 2012 release of the film Somm, which details the efforts of four Master Sommelier candidates to pass the exam, and its subsequent appearance on streaming services like Netflix, many consumers have come to view the MS title as the standard of wine culture.”
• Plummeting exports: The 25 percent U.S. tariff on some European wine has pounded French wine exports to this country, says a French government official. They dropped 44 percent by value in November 2019 from the previous month, after the import penalty went into effect on October 2019. The story also says that the “tariffs have been especially painful to producers at the lower ends of the market, where a 25 percent price hike can turn an affordable bottle into a once-in-a-while luxury.” We should know something this week or next about the next stage in the trade war after the World Trade Organization rules on a complaint by the European Union about illegal U.S. subsidies to Boeing. It was illegal EU subsidies to Boeing competitor Airbus that started this mess.
• Incomprehensible wine lists: A recent Vinepair podcast takes on a subject guaranteed to make the Wine Curmudgeon crazy: The “many wine lists floating around out there that seem to revel in being inscrutable to all but the most sophisticated and educated wine drinkers.” The podcast talks about the problem, explains why it doesn’t have to be one, and offers more pointers on buying wine in a restaurant.
How did the sommelier cheating scandal get to the point where people are afraid to talk about what happened?
Newsy’s Mark Greenblatt broke last week’s story detailing the possibility of more trouble at the Court of Master Sommeliers in the wake of last year’s sommelier cheating scandal. That’s when someone gave the list of wines for the blind tasting portion of the test to at least one candidate. Then, the results of the exam were “invalidated” and the sommelier group insisted all else was fine. We’ve heard nary a word since then.
That’s when Greenblatt, a long-time investigative reporter, got interested. There should be more transparency when something like this happens, he says, just as with any sort of accreditation process. People who work hard to get the MS initials deserve at least that much. And that it hasn’t happened, says Greenblatt, may speak to larger problems within the court, including possible conflicts of interest.
What struck me during our conversation was that so many sommeliers and candidates are afraid to talk to Greenblatt for fear of retribution from the court. Hence, the need for anonymous sources and leaked documents – hardly something that should happen in the wine business.
We talked about what has happened in the wake of the Newsy story, the followup that Greenblatt is working on, and why no one in the wine media did much with the story after it first became public. If you want to email Greenblatt, click this link.
Click here to download or stream the podcast, which is almost 11 minutes long and takes up 4.3 megabytes. The sound quality is excellent.
• Podcast with Newsy journalist Mark Greenblatt: People are afraid to talk about what happened
Newsy website reports that sommelier cheating scandal may be part of more extensive problems at Court of Master Sommeliers
Remember last year’s sommelier cheating scandal, which grabbed the cyber-headlines and then mysteriously disappeared? The Newsy website reports that the scandal may be part of larger problems at the organization that oversees the master sommelier program.
“[S]everal current master sommeliers are going public for the first time by speaking to Newsy,” reports the website. “They have grown concerned about more ‘systemic’ problems plaguing the Court of Master Sommeliers, the nonprofit governing body that administers the group’s exams.”
The report – you can watch it in the video at the top of the post or read the transcript – outlines what appears to be an attempt to stonewall outsiders from finding out exactly what happened. All we know is that someone gave the list of wines for the blind tasting portion of the test to at least one candidate, the results were then invalidated, and the sommelier group said all else was fine.
Since then, the court has revised its code of ethics to include a provision that would punish master sommeliers who criticized the organization: Newsy reports that the new code “warned of ‘disciplinary action’ for ‘any action or utterance’ by a master sommelier that ‘could be construed as detrimental’ to the Court’s good name.’ ”
Says one master sommelier in the report: “I took that as, you know, ‘Be quiet. Don’t question our authority or we’ll kick you out. There are some fundamental things that are wrong.”
None of this is surprising. I made a few phone calls in the aftermath of the scandal, and couldn’t even get anyone to talk off the record. They didn’t want to talk at all; as one well-known master sommelier told me, “I advised them to go public, and they ignored me. It’s their problem now.”
The reason for the group’s behavior is not surprising: money and power. As I wrote last year, “Sommelier-ing has become an industry in and of itself – movies, even. Sommeliers are the current rock stars of the wine business, perhaps even more quoted and revered than the celebrity winemakers who used to dominate the discussion.”
But the minute it looks like those MS initials are worthless, all of that collapses. So the court, according to the Newsy report, has done all it can to make sure no one finds out exactly what happened. And, if anyone does find out, to punish them for telling the rest of us.
It’s also not surprising that a Mainstream Media outlet had to pursue the story. There’s little incentive for the Winestream Media to follow up on the scandal. It has almost as much invested in turning sommeliers into rock stars as the sommeliers do. Who do you think put all these people on a pedestal in the first place?
First, fame and fortune, and now a sommelier cheating scandal
Wine’s biggest secret is that it’s a business, just like coal mining or car manufacturing. That’s because it pretends to be something else, this huge family of wine lovers where yes, we have to make money but that’s not the main reason we do it. Which is just more hypocrisy to anyone paying attention, and which the sommelier cheating scandal amply — and sadly — demonstrates.
Know that I’m not tarring the innocent with this brush. The cheating scandal, revealed last week by Esther Mobley in the San Francisco Chronicle, involved a master sommelier giving a list of the wines to be used for the blind tasting portion of the 2018 exam to one of the candidates. The accused has apparently been struck off the Court of Master Sommeliers, and everyone who took the test will have to take it again. No one has said that the cheating goes past that, though Mobley noted that 24 people passed the 2018 exam, compared to 274 in its almost 50-year history. Still, the organization that runs the certification has seemingly been open and transparent about what happened.
Sommelier-ing has become an industry in and of itself – movies, even. Sommeliers are the current rock stars of the wine business, perhaps even more quoted and revered than the celebrity winemakers who used to dominate the discussion. Or, as this story amply demonstrates – “curated by a master sommelier for taste” – why not cheating if those are the results? Talk about pedestals; only someone with initials after their name can decide if wine is worth drinking.
Consider that someone who earns an MS can make twice as much money – high six figures, in fact – than someone without the distinction. Which, regardless of anything else, is all the incentive one needs to cheat in 21st century America. Because, as a good ol’ Texan famously told me at the bar at Louie’s, “If you have to ask how much money is enough, you don’t understand the question.”
The best perspective on the sommelier cheating scandal came from someone who must take the exam again. The person, who asked not to be named, told the SevenFifty Daily website: “I will probably be one of the candidates who will not retake the exam. I know this is not the intent, but I feel like a martyr. I am embarrassed, though I did nothing wrong. I want to find a different industry to work in. I want this to be over.”
How sad is that? Isn’t wine supposed to be fun?