A look at why the Court of Master Sommeliers is a club, not a professional organization…
In the last 10 or 15 years, the wine industry has become obsessed with certifications. They’re like a badge of honor – if you have them, you’re a somebody, if not, you’re a nobody. Those who do get these honorifics make big sacrifices: the Court of Master Sommeliers Master Exam has been cited as one of the most difficult exams in the world, one that can cost participants 10 years of their lives and tens of thousands of dollars in travel, test fees, books, and wine. At the end of it, only an average of 8% of candidates pass this certification exam.
Given the accusations around lack of integrity and extreme exclusivity, the Court of Master Sommeliers America has experienced recently, I think it’s time we looked at the entire view of what this organization is, what they claim as their mission, and look to other industries to learn how professional certifications are conducted.
Let’s start with those other industries.
When things get stressful in the wine industry, we often say “we aren’t saving lives here.” That phrase has stuck with me. So, as I was thinking about the issues of professionalism with the Court of Master Sommeliers that Don Kavanagh from Wine-Searcher and I addressed in our podcast, and the systemic exclusivity that has been highlighted by the recent resignations from Master Sommeliers, I decided to dig into the pass rates of certification tests for people who really do save our lives. While I was at it, I looked at another important stat, how people who manage money for others fare on their certifications (arguably a far more important job than serving someone wine since you could ruin someone’s life if you do it wrong…).
The following are examples of the first-time test taker pass rates for 2019 of Internal Medicine and Subspecialty Certification Examinations. To be clear, these are, in fact, people who save lives:
- Internal Medicine: 91%
- Cardiovascular Disease: 92%
- Critical Care Medicine: 92%
- Infectious Disease: 98%
- Medical Oncology: 90%
- Registered Nurse (2020 stat): 89.61%
And for finance professionals, it was a bit less generous:
- Chartered Financial Analyst (considered the hardest exam in finance and potentially in all of the business world): 42%
- Certified Public Accountant: ~50%
And with the exception of the California bar exam, the hardest exam with a pass rate of around 36% over the last three exams, the bar exams to certify people who can defend our liberties is around or over 50% in all states.
As a reminder: the Court of Master Sommeliers Master Sommelier exam: 8%
The numbers say it all but honestly: what the hell is going on here? As I see it, there are three conclusions we can make:
- A majority of people who take the Master Sommelier exam are either total idiots or totally unprepared.
- The Court of Master Sommeliers does a horrendous job of preparing students for the exam they offer. The lack of support means a low pass rate.
- The exam is not an exam for a professional credential, but rather a testing ground for membership into an exclusive club that seeks to keep more professionals out than it hopes to support.
Having met many people who have taken and failed the exams in the Court’s course of study, I can tell you that it is not #1. And although #2 is part of the issue, because most of their program is based on self-study, there are study groups and mentors given to the Master Sommelier candidates, so this is only partially the problem. That leaves us with #3.
Let’s answer an important question that doesn’t pertain to wine credentials only: Why do credential programs exist?
Theoretically, certification and credentialing programs can enhance knowledge and professional competency. They seek to test competency and raise or maintain standards in a given industry so there is common ground on what is good practice for that particular profession. The Court of Master Sommeliers purports to ‘elevate the quality of beverage service throughout the hospitality industry.’ They do this mainly through certification programs, and on the surface that seems to fit the idea behind credentialing.
I spoke to Dr. Jason Fertig, Associate Professor of Management at University of Southern Indiana and an expert on credentialism. I asked Dr. Fertig about the Court of Master Sommeliers exams. He said that beyond the fact that a test so difficult doesn’t appear to test competency needed to be a wine professional, the program could actually be damaging to the wine profession:
“Rather than enhancing the profession by encouraging passionate, capable people to become certified and to make a commitment to long-term learning (since in wine there’s no re-certification or requirement to keep your skills sharp – it’s one and done), these exams are like the extreme sports of wine. As is the case in so many industries where certifications reign supreme, experience and character are often better indicators of competency than exams and the credential that follows.” Yet in wine, we’ve decided that this certification makes or breaks people.
In the medical field, in nursing, in financial fields, there is a sense that a certification will test candidates on things they need to know to be a competent professional. These exams create objective standards that every professional in the field should know. And because the knowledge is practical and applicable, the pass rates are higher. Further, there are generally continuing education requirements to maintain certification. None of these items is the case with the certifications of the Court of Master Sommeliers. Even the objectivity of the exam can be called into question: the Master Sommelier exam is all oral. That means the group of judges makes subjective decisions in the exams about who is in and who is out.
What are they certifying in the Court of Master Sommelier exams and what is the effect on the wine industry? Most Master Sommeliers never work on the floor of a restaurant after they get their certification – they start their own wine brands or restaurants, become consultants, or work for big companies who pay well (and I don’t begrudge them that!). The idea of improving hospitality is moot. Rather than making the industry an inclusive place where there are standards for high levels of knowledge about wine or service that many people can achieve to be better professionals, we’ve deified a small group of people with arcane knowledge who can blind taste a row of wines and candle decant a wine out of a basket while simultaneously answering questions about cigars and Cabernet. By creating this club of “masters,” the wine industry has made esoteric and generally un-useable knowledge a gold standard. But it’s often fool’s gold.
I say that the Court of Master Sommeliers is an exclusive in-group that marginalizes others who can’t get into their club. This organization and anyone seeking the credential needs to realize that by any normal educational or credentialing standards it is not a professional certification in the wine industry, it’s a club. If the wine industry wants to be more inclusive, to create professionals who make the wine space a better place for everyone who interacts with it, and to maintain and draw new people to wine, it’s time to leave the Court of Master Sommeliers to be like the secret societies in college, and then create a true professional certification that really does raise the bar in hospitality and universally improve wine knowledge.