Scandal in wine world: 23 new Master Sommeliers stripped of titles after cheating discovered

The wine world was shaken, not swirled, when scandal broke out Tuesday afternoon.

In a letter sent out Tuesday, titled “Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas Board of Directors Takes Unanimous Actions to Preserve Integrity of Examination Process,” the prestigious Court of Master Sommeliers — the nonprofit governing body of the sommeliers around the world — said it had invalidated the results of 2018’s tasting portion of the exam. On Sept. 10, the 24 members of the class of 2018 were inducted as master sommeliers, but Tuesday’s news now casts into question the testing system. San Francisco Chronicle wine reporter Esther Mobley first broke the news.

According to a release from the court, “The Board of Directors found sufficient evidence that the tasting portion of the 2018 Master Sommelier Diploma Examination was compromised by the release of detailed information concerning wines in the tasting flight.” SF Chronicle’s report points to an unnamed master sommelier — who qualified as a Master Sommelier test proctor — leaking answers to the notoriously difficult tasting portion of the exam to an unnamed candidate of this year’s exams. Of the class of 24, 23 were stripped of their new status — Morgan Harris, of San Francisco’s The Angler, took the tasting portion last year and was exempt.

The action strips away the titles of two Chicago-area wine pros — Dan Pilkey and Jill Zimorski. In the release, Devon Broglie, Master Sommelier and chairman of the board, wrote, “We are committed to developing an expedited process so that all eligible candidates can retake the tasting examination.”

Shortly after ostensibly passing his Master Sommelier exam, Pilkey posted on Facebook a breakdown of his 15-year journey to the Master Sommelier test, beginning in 2003. According to his post, it took him eight years to get the coveted MS pin. For many sommeliers, climbing the ranks of the Court of Master Sommeliers means better paying jobs, career growth, respect of peers and much more. Invalidating the honor seems like wiping away years of hard work and training.

Movies like “Somm” (the third in the series has just been released) brought increased attention to restaurant and wine culture, with sommeliers ascending the cultural zietgiest as so-called rock stars of the wine world. The film called it the “hardest test you’ve never heard of,” but the news of cheating among the ranks calls into question the last few years of testing. Though the Court of Master Sommeliers, which has named just 274 master sommeliers since 1969, wrote that the “Board of Directors has barred the Master involved from participating in any Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas programs or events and has voted unanimously to initiate the process of terminating membership pursuant to the organization’s bylaws,” it’s unclear if other breaches of test integrity exist. The move to invalidate September’s certification is, as noted by the court’s release, an attempt to maintain the integrity of the exams.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

jbhernandez@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @joeybear85

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