Transparency, in wine certification

by  |  20-11-2020  |  2 Comments

I moved to Berkeley, California to complete a degree in English Literature at the University of California. Coming from a podunk town in the interior of California where most academic challenges top out at giving correct change to a shop clerk, I’d generally received high grades. So, it was admittedly a shock when I received back my first essay, marked with a very pointy grade of ‘C’. Not really knowing what went wrong, I looked at the notes (of which there were many) and I talked to the Teaching Assistant who graded it. She explained to me the reasons why I’d received a C by pointing out what I’d left unaddressed, how my argument wasn’t fully fleshed out, and how the paper wasn’t up to UC Berkeley standards.

My pride was quite wounded but the red marks on papers continued. I buckled down and reworked my entire approach to reading and writing. My arguments got leaner. My points got firmer. Slowly my grades increased to getting A’s and I ended up graduating with a final grade average which, as I had no intention of attending graduate school, was plenty fine considering that UC Berkeley has the best-ranked English Literature program in the United States.

Not again? Yes, again.

What does this tale of academic growth have to do with wine? Well, it relates indirectly to the sordid, sad affair of the Court of Master Sommeliers America Abuse Scandal as this is the third time a massive controversy has rocked this association in the last two years and their intial response was a lesson in how NOT to address a problem.

Anyone who has earned one of the titles from this “Court” wonders if it’s going to be able to bounce back from this massive and unacceptable impropriety or if it’s finished for good. It’s the lack of transparency which has been its undoing and yet the entire entity is built upon this as being unknown and mysterious foments those who want to conquer it.

The problem is however, transparency and in turn, accountability which are key to growth and improvement–theoretically a reason why anyone goes about earning wine certifications. Without either and the “invite only” aspect added on top of this, you end up with something doomed to failed, as the CMS Americas is damned-near getting close to doing.

I know what being damned-near failure is like from my days at UC Berkeley. If I hadn’t received feedback and learned what I did wrong, I absolutely wouldn’t have graduated. An openness to show me what I didn’t do correctly is what allowed me to greatly improve in a challenging atmosphere. But in the wine world, or at least that of CMS, this black box approach has been allowed to continue and in turn, opened it up for massive abuse as shown by the examples described in the New York Times article. And there are undoubtedly more.

Because, let’s not forget that just one year ago it looked as if there was going to be a reckoning about the gross sexism in wine. That clearly hasn’t happened and was just swept aside to fester out of sight, despite the fact we all knew it was still there, horrible, and not at all dealt with.

Not academic

Perhaps it’s not fair for me to use an example from a well-regarded academic institution because one of the big problems in wine certification (and this isn’t emphasized often enough) is that neither the Court of Master Sommeliers, nor the Institute of the Masters of Wine are actual government-accredited education bodies providing official certifications comparable to a university degree. Thus that “Master” bit isn’t really anything of the sort. They’re private entities with the people giving the exams usually being those who have absolutely no background in education–they just passed the exams previously and are “accredited” by the entity itself.

This is a problem, but it’s one that can be overcome if we understand where the fault lines exist in these organizations as while the CMS-A is clearly the worst offender, there is no one system that’s ideal in how it operates.

A court without the rule of law

From the minute you start out on the Introductory Sommelier path with the Court of Master Sommeliers, you don’t really know how you stack up. That’s an undisputable fact.

This first exam is a multiple-choice affair of 70 questions. This infers that there is only one, objectively right answer and yet, not only do you not get to see your final exam once graded, you don’t even get to know your final score. So already you’re placed into a state of trusting that those who graded you did it fairly as you just get a Pass or Fail. I think most people accept this given that the pass rate is around 90% and the concept of being unfair seems like it doesn’t apply.

If moving on to the Certified Sommelier, you get a bit more feedback in terms of a paper with some notes of your overall results, but that’s it. You don’t get to see how your tasting of the four wines was scored. You don’t get to see what you got right and wrong on the theory test. And you most assuredly don’t get to know how you were graded on the service test.

At the Advanced level, once the test has been finished, a Master Sommelier sits down with you individually and goes over how you did. Some have a style of holding you in suspense and others give you the bad or good news immediately. Whichever way they go about it, I don’t envy them as people are very keyed up at this moment and breaking down into tears (both men and women) or wanting to punch a wall (again, both men and women) is rather common.

That said, they could really do themselves a great favor by giving people more details as the idea here is that you’re planning to go on and attempt the Master Sommelier exam so feedback is pretty important. Results are usually stated as “You passed” or “You were just over” or “Just under” or “Under by a bit”. In theory, there are scores behind these phrases, but they are not shared with you and this is really where the problems sit as it gives a sense that there’s a lot of subjectivity to the grading, which there shouldn’t be.

This is of course amplified at the Master Sommelier level because there’s the big question of who is even “invited” to attempt the exam. If you’ve passed the Advanced, you’re not automatically on the list to attempt the Master. What the actual qualifications are, no one knows exactly and this was a big fear for the women in the CMS Americas in that, if they didn’t play along with all these guys or sleep with them when it was intimated or demanded, would they then be ostracized and never allowed into the hallowed halls of the Master Sommelier? It’s a justified question to ask oneself to which the answer seems to be that yes, this was very much the case.

Alpana Singh for example was outspoken and didn’t play by the “boy’s club” rules only to find herself very much on the outside looking in, despite passing the Master Sommelier exam at the remarkably young age of 26–on top of having become the youngest ever certified sommelier in the United States at 21.

Beyond the exams however, there’s the issue of how to study for them as there are no actual classes or set curricula from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Yeah, sure there are “classes” before you take the Certified and Advanced, but these are just one-day review sessions. Study is self-paced and on your own, but without guidance from those above you, it’s nearly impossible to succeed, especially for tasting practice.

With classes not readily given nor some transparent manner to access this knowledge, you end up in a situation with those at the top abusing their power and offering up “private tasting sessions” which as it turns out have been just pretexts to get young women into bed.

Something less lawless, WSET

In contrast to the CMS, the WSET offers an exceedingly structured approach to wine education and it’s been used by literally tens of thousands of people around the world. Unlike the CMS, it’s a much more open system and what’s expected at each of the four levels is laid out well. Accreditation of the physical school in London is done by the British Accreditation Council, but it’s unclear how that applies to the program at large.

But, much like the CMS, you’ll never get to see your final exam scores, even with the multiple-choice exams at the lower levels. I’ve been told by exam providers that the reasoning behind this is so that there doesn’t get to be a situation where a known set of the questions is out in public circulation and people just flashcard those questions to pass.

Honestly, this could translate into several hundred cards at WSET II and probably more than a thousand at WSET III but everyone is making flashcards to study anyways. At the very least, some kind of numerical score should be very possible and yet, like the CMS, you don’t receive it. You are again at the mercy of trusting that the organization has graded you fairly.

The exams are graded very slowly as they process them all at central locations and as far as I understand, London serves to grade all of Europe. Wait times of two months are pretty typical and that’s less than ideal. What’s worse than that is that if you don’t pass an exam, you have to either pay to have it regraded or, if you want feedback on it, you have to pay for that as well. Either way, while your wallet will be lighter you’ll not get a score or any exact sense of what was right and wrong which comes up as a constant issue in private, for-profit schools vs. public institutions.

As I pointed out via my university adventures, constructive feedback is exceedingly crucial to the learning process, for the development of knowledge and ability. But for the WSET, the one saving grace is that depending upon the instructor, they will hold several mock exams prior to the actual exam and they give you full feedback at this smaller scale to get some sense of where you sit. Is it the same as getting back a graded full exam? No, but it’s definitely a far fairer system than the CMS wherein you need to privately ask for help from the people who are grading, as well as allowing you to take the exams perpetuation a mafioso economy.

The MW Institute

There’s a reason that the Institute of Masters of Wine will soon have double the number of members than the Master Sommeliers and it’s not just because the MSs have been resigning en masse during the past couple of weeks due to the NYT revelations. Despite costing more and taking more time than the MS route, it’s a system that, as of late, has been striving to make a top-level wine certification more balanced (if such a thing is possible) for those who choose to pursue it.

It wasn’t always like this and until the early 1980s, unless you were in the “wine trade” you wouldn’t be admitted and until 1988, you also had to be British in order to be awarded the title! Given their dwindling numbers, they probably realized that people like journalists, educators, and others working in wine-related jobs should be allowed in–as long as they were British. In this 1980s period of transition towards opening up, they would let foreigners take all the classes and do all the work, but they wouldn’t give them the title. Sounds a bit unfair, doesn’t it?

Times have clearly changed and it’s been to the benefit of the IMW to be far more open and somewhat more inclusive, with nearly half of the people holding the coveted title being women, but they’ve stopped short of being fully transparent or fully inclusive. And yet, I’ve recently seen a lot of MWs wagging their fingers at the CMS Americas in this recent scandal, seeming to relish in the CMS-A’s admittedly stupid turn of fortunes.

It would require an additional article, but there have been plenty of problems in the IMW and, if I’ve been informed correctly, there are people who have had their title revoked during its existence although only one or two made much in the way of headlines. It’s worth pointing out that no matter how lush your lawn may look you should check what’s under it before taking your neighbors to task. And, if you don’t have effective mechanisms for dealing with offenses other than hiding them away when they happen and the results of any investigations are never shared in any form publicly, you’re not being transparent.

It’s clear that answering tough questions with silence doesn’t work. If anyone needs proof of that, look at how terribly the CMS Americas has handled the response to all the scandals it’s been in these last two years.

Open it up

We’re at a point of reflection that the entire wine trade needs to be thinking about currently. Trying to act like everything is objective and above reproach clearly hasn’t worked. All we’ve ended up with are small member clubs that give the appearances that they want to keep them as small as possible as within scarcity lies power and as we’ve seen exceedingly clearly, abuse follows.

There are uncomfortable conversations that many men in the wine industry still need to have with themselves. “Awareness” is bullshit as to quote John Oliver in an interview with Anita Hill about sexual harassment, “I’ve been aware of Coldplay for years and yet, they’re still here.” Same goes for these issues in wine and we all need to sit down, realize we’re not nearly as “woke” as we think we are and be open to change.

Opening up, being fully transparent and accountable both to members and actual or potential students is the only solution to this ongoing necrosis. There has to be a doing away with the concept of certification bodies being incredibly insular and painting themselves as “elite institutions” when all they are, are private clubs, designed to let in only the “right” people. To keep on following this line of thinking amounts to little more than a poorly-worded suicide note for the (certified) wine trade and we all know we can do much better than that.

Comments

2 responses to “Transparency, in wine certification”

  1. artworkworld says:

    While you don’t get your marked exam back in the WSET program, you do receive a grade. Instead of A-F there is something like Pass with Distinction, Pass with Merit, Pass, & Fail. Those marks have a numerical rating similar to the A-F system. it isn’t perfect, but it is more transparent than suggested.

    • Miquel Hudin says:

      I don’t really agree given that their own invented system doesn’t match up with the A-F system in terms of the actual grade and not getting an actual points-based score when most of the WSET have pure, points-based questions leaves a lot to be desired. Most everyone goes along with it despite not liking it purely as there isn’t a better alternative at the moment.

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