The IMW owes its origin to both the Wine and Spirit Association and the Vintners’ Company, one of the twelve great City of London livery companies which received its first Charter in 1363.
Soon after the Second World War, these two organisations recognised that they needed to improve the standard of education in the British wine trade, and to formally certify its most talented members. They organised the first MW exam in 1953. Of the 21 people who took the exam, six passed. Reg Barrett MW, Leonard Dennis MW, Geoffrey Jameson MW, Rob Kewley MW, Geoffrey Nobes MW and Kenneth Simonds MW became the first ever Masters of Wine.
Two years later the Institute of Masters of Wine was formed by the six MWs who passed the inaugural exam.
The study programme and exam have always been open to both women and men. Sarah Morphew Stephen MW became the first female Master of Wine in 1970. Today, one-third of the world’s MWs are female (149). 1979 was the first year that equal numbers of women and men passed. In 1986, for the first time, there were more women than men among the new MWs. The gender split of new MWs in the last 10 years is 52% male, 48% female.
The MW exam was opened to people working outside what was then known as the ‘traditional’ wine trade in the early 80s. This meant winemakers and journalists could apply, and Jancis Robinson MW OBE became the first ‘non-trade’ Master of Wine. To apply for the study programme today, you need to have active professional involvement in wine, which spans the broad diversity of wine professions that exist in the global industry – from the production of raw materials to education, production, retail and communication.
Developing its inclusivity, the IMW opened the exam to anyone outside the UK, and in 1988 Michael Hill Smith MW from Australia became the first international Master of Wine.
Two years later, the first Masters of Wine from the USA, Joel Butler MW and Tim Hanni MW, passed the exam. There are now over 50 MWs based in the USA, more than any other country outside the UK. The highest percentage of students in the MW study programme is also based in the USA.
As the MW study programme grew internationally, the exam was delivered on three continents for the first time in 1992 – Europe, Australasia, and North America. The exam continues to be held in London, Adelaide and San Francisco today, along with seminars and course days in Australia, Austria, France, Germany, the USA and the UK. The students in the study programme are from more than 40 different countries.
Cathy van Zyl MW became the first Master of Wine based on the African continent in 2005. Cathy was joined by Richard Kershaw MW in 2011, as the two Masters of Wine located in South Africa.
The first Masters of Wine based in Asia, Jeannie Cho Lee MW and Debra Meiburg MW from Hong Kong, and Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW from Singapore (now based in the USA), passed the exam in 2008. Jeannie and Debra are now joined by Sarah Heller MW and Jennifer Docherty MW as the four Hong Kong-based MWs. Elsewhere in Asia, Richard Hemming MW, Annette Scarfe MW and Ying Tan MW are based in Singapore, Kenichi Ohashi MW in Japan, Julien Boulard MW, Cassidy Dart MW, Edward Ragg MW and Fongyee Walker MW in China, and Sonal Holland MW in India.
In 2010, just 22 years after the study programme was opened internationally, more than 100 Masters of Wine were based outside of the UK. There are 201 MWs living or working outside the UK today.
New Masters of Wine are announced twice a year, in February and August. The new MWs are then officially welcomed to the IMW at the annual awards ceremony in November, held at Vintners’ Hall in London. 2015 was a record year for the IMW, announcing 24 new MWs from 10 different countries.
In 2017 the Masters of Wine Endowment Auction raised over £1 million from both a live auction of super lots, and an online auction. The money raised is for an Endowment Fund, held by the Masters of Wine Endowment Company, originally set up in 2006. The fund means the IMW can extend its range of activities in the global wine world, enhance the support it gives to members and encourage the MWs of the future.
Every four years the IMW hosts an international symposium, a rare opportunity to network, taste and learn from a rich variety of international speakers, as well as rubbing shoulders with many Masters of Wine. The 2018 symposium saw the world of wine gather in the Rioja region of Spain, and previous symposia have been held in the UK, Perth, Vienna, Napa, Bordeaux, and Florence. The next symposium will be held in Adelaide, co-hosted with Wine Australia, in June 2022.
In February 2021 Gabriele Gorelli MW became the first Master of Wine based in Italy.