The sommelier cheating scandal: Once again, wine reminds us it’s big business

 sommelier cheating scandalFirst, 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?

2 thoughts on “The sommelier cheating scandal: Once again, wine reminds us it’s big business

  • By Burnsey -

    After taking the first level exam, and passing, friends asked if I was ready to study for level two. I responded by saying the first level proved that I had a strong overview of the wine world and anything after that becomes a money grab. Most of my knowledge came from the enjoyment of wine, and time in the business.
    There is a need for some sort of certification of wine knowledge, especially in the restaurant industry. In numerous server interviews, I inquired about the level of wine knowledge a candidate possessed, and of course all said they were very familiar. So I would then proceed to ask said candidate to explain the difference between chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, and many had no idea. Candidates with level one knowledge had some proof of having spent time studying about wine.

  • By Tom -

    When I first got into wine it was snobby and elitist. People who knew more than you would tell you whatever you needed to know, but they made sure you knew how dumb you were and how smart they were. I thought it should be easier than that, I thought it should be approachable. So I read up, tasted everything and anything as often as I could, and started helping others make informed decisions without making them feel stupid. I’ve spent my entire 31 years in the wine industry trying to make wine fun, enjoyable, and as simple as possible. With the rise of the somm, that is no longer the case. A pro golfer makes a difficult thing look simple, a somm makes a simple thing look difficult. Oh and one last thing, you don’t for a minute think this is the only time someone has cheated on this test do you?

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