On Oct. 9, Michael Meagher received a phone call from his friend and mentor Ron Edwards. It wasn’t a good one. Edwards, a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) Americas, was calling to share the news that another member had leaked information during the latest master sommelier (MS) tasting exam, held from Sept. 3-5, and that 23 of the people who passed the test were having their titles revoked.
“Ron and I both broke down on the phone crying,” Meagher said. “It hurt, hearing the anguish he was being subjected to.”
Meagher is the founder of the Boston Sommelier Society and the wine consulting company Sommelier On-Demand, and one of only two master sommeliers in Massachusetts. He, along with Brahm Callahan, who is the beverage director for Himmel Hospitality (Bistro du Midi, Grill 23 & Bar, Harvest, and Post 390), passed the grueling exam in 2015.
It’s a near-impossible test that is broken up into three separate parts: theory, practical, and tasting. In order to take the master exam, each candidate also must have passed the introductory, certified, and advanced sommelier exams, all of which are incredibly difficult on their own. There are only 274 people in the world who can currently claim the title of MS and, until last week, the process for obtaining such a distinction was a highly revered one.
On Oct. 10, the San Francisco Chronicle broke the story that a member of the CMS “disclosed confidential information pertinent to the tasting portion of the 2018 Master Sommelier Diploma Examination prior to the examination.” It was impossible to tell which, or how many, of the test takers had received the information.
In response, the Chronicle reported, 23 of the newest 2018 members who passed the exam had their membership rescinded (the 24th, Morgan Harris, is able to keep his title, because he passed both his practical and tasting exams in previous years and completed the service exam this year). According to a news release from the CMS, the candidates will get the chance to retake the tasting exam either later this year or next year in early spring or summer, and will have their $995 exam fee refunded. The court will also waive the fee for the retest, and will offer travel assistance for the retest.
“It’s a terrible thing for us master somms,” Meagher said. “I know the world looks at me differently today. I’m going to work doubly hard to ensure that our reputation remains what it was — and maybe it can even be improved.”
One reason why this cuts so deeply for the sommelier community is because of the years spent studying — not just for one, but for all three MS exams. The tasting portion alone demands that each candidate tastes six wines, identifying the country of origin, grape varieties, district, and vintage, all in 25 minutes or fewer. It took Meagher six years to successfully complete all three parts of the MS exam; Callahan took three years. The preparation, both said, requires an all-encompassing lifestyle.
“I have an academic background and thought I was a smart kid and could understand the way I studied,” said Callahan, who received his master’s degree in classics and ancient history from Boston College. “[For the exam], you’re not only required to be masterful in Bordeaux, but also sake, Australian [wines], spirits, beer. In my arrogance of thinking I was smarter than I was, I didn’t do due diligence in the areas I wasn’t interested in.”
The feeling of passing the test, he said, was one of relief — and then, oddly enough, a sudden emptiness.
“On the day of the test,” he said, “you’re the sharpest knife in the drawer. The moment that you pass is this massive relief … But what do you do now? You’ve built your entire life around studying; it’s an addiction in the best kind of way. Now you have this void — and what do you do with that void?”
During his own years of study, Meagher laminated maps to hang in the shower and used flash cards while he was at work.
“For a lot of the time it seemed more important than my job,” he said.
After Meagher passed the MS exam, he read books and watched movies and swapped out wine for gin and tonics.
And, for both Callahan and Meagher, they began paying it forward by mentoring other aspiring advanced and MS candidates.
“[That’s the] whole thing that’s difficult for me to process with what’s going on right now,” said Callahan, who has four mentees sitting for the MS exam next year. “I’m so careful with how I mentor them. I wouldn’t want the world to think they passed because of me.”
Meagher said that while the CMS as an organization knows the identity of the guilty member, other members haven’t been told — though rumors are flying around.
“I can’t imagine going to a candidate and giving them answers or insight,” he said. “It cheats them. We always have this nightmare where you wake up one morning and find out you didn’t earn it somehow.”
Meagher has offered support to his friends in the affected class, and continues mentoring those who are striving to achieve their own titles.
“I’m always actively helping people out,” he said. “For me, one of the greatest reasons to become a master is that now you can help so many other people have a rich experience.”