The Institute of Masters of Wine marks 70 years since the first MW exam
“I was taking the Bakerloo line on the first morning of the exam filled with obvious nerves and tension. The train stalled pulling out of Oxford Circus and we were held there for a number of minutes, my stress levels rising accordingly. The train driver got out and walked along the carriages looking for the issue. He stopped at my carriage, with the doors open and pointed at me. “Oi mate, can you stop leaning on the emergency stop button please?!” – Ray O’Connor MW
The Master of Wine (MW) exam is renowned for its complexity, but also for being the doorway to membership of an Institute synonymous with knowledge, community, and excellence within the world of wine. This year, we mark the 70th anniversary of the first MW exam, which took place on 11 May 1953. Since the inaugural exam, 500 people have passed and gained the accolade of ‘Master of Wine’.
Soon after the Second World War, the Wine and Spirit Association and the Vintners’ Company 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. These six members went on to form the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) two years later.
In honour of the 70th anniversary, Master Vintner, Mr Edward Berry, said: “The Vintners’ Company is immensely proud to have played such an important part in the instigation of the Institute of Masters of Wine. Both organisations continue to fulfil such a relevant part in the wine trade today.”
The Institute’s members were all male until 17 years after the first exam, in 1970, when Sarah Morphew Stephen MW became the IMW’s first female member. Reflecting on the exam, Sarah recalls having to undertake the three tastings each morning, then handwrite the exam over three afternoons. Sarah recounts: “On the final day we were given the answers to the three tasting papers, and I well remember sitting exhausted, with some other candidates, on Mansion House tube station bemoaning the mistakes we had all made. Then, Phillip Goodband MW strode onto the platform declaring “clean sweep!”. Due to her unique situation, she later had a twenty-minute phone call with the then Chairman, Michael Broadbent MW, about how to handle press. Now there are 149 current female MWs, with 157 having passed since the first exam.
The MW exam has developed significantly over time, reflecting the changing nature of the global wine trade. Whilst the wines and questions change each year, the daunting blind tastings have been a constant.
Jean-Michel Valette MW remembers taking the exam “on top of the world, or more precisely on top of the World Trade Center”, where the first exam outside of the U.K. was held, in 1991 in New York City. His main thought at the time was that he lacked “red wine discernment”, noting that ”all the red wines somehow tasted the same”.
The study programme is self-directed, which means that, MW candidates are wholly responsible for developing the knowledge that is required to pass. On this journey, students’ are supported by intensive course days and seminars provided by the Institute, along with mentorship from current MWs. However, success in the exam lays largely with their dedication, and each student has a unique way of motivating themselves for the task. Susan Lin MW’s favourite memory from the exam was listening to “the third movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 (known as the “Emperor”) as [she] walked the twenty minutes from [her] hotel to the exam site.” She digresses: “If Beethoven could create such incredible music despite all that he suffered – he was purportedly quite hard of hearing by the time he composed this concerto – then I could at least make it through the MW exam.” To her avail, Susan passed the exam, and to this day she likes to think that Beethoven’s piece “gave [her] just the right dose of majesty, exuberance, and gravitas needed to rise to the occasion”.
The MW exam is delivered each year thanks to the dedication of the Education team in the IMW executive team and the range of MWs who support the programme through sitting on governance committees. Of these, the Exam Committee (ExamCom) are responsible for setting and marking the exam each year. ExamCom. Neil Tully MW, Chair of ExamCom offers his thoughts on this esteemed occasion.
Neil said: “As we reach this milestone, I am conscious how each year our exam defines the benchmark for MW expertise. The standard never wavers. And yet, we are always looking to keep our exam current and relevant, assessed with rigour and fairness. I would like to acknowledge our teams of some 50 examiners who every year devote a great deal of time and energy to upholding these standards. I could not have imagined upon passing in 1993, that I would 30 years on still remain so close to our exam!”
Stage two students will currently be preparing for their exam, which will take place around the world in June 2023. Eugene Mlynczyk MW shares that “studying in the MW programme never seemed ‘perfect’ to [him], as he always felt there was more to do, and so encourages students not to ‘doubt your[selves] too much, instead trust in yourself’, and hopefully students can ‘smile as [he] did, along with [his] fellow Masters of Wine in 2015”.
The IMW would like to thank everyone who has allowed the MW exam to take place for the last 70 years, and we look forward to its continuing success. Every year, the exam is published on the IMW website for anyone to view. The archive currently dates back to 2000 and can be found here. To celebrate the 70th anniversary we are also sharing the first examination papers which are available for download here.
Read full anecdotes below:
I have exactly one photo from an MW exam week. This is Sarah Jane Evans MW and ex-Executive Director Penny Richards at the end of a long week of exams in 2014.
Susan R Lin MW
The best part about each morning of the exam was listening to the third movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (known as the “Emperor”) as I walked the twenty minutes from my hotel to the exam site. The music soars with ineffably joyful triumph. If Beethoven could create such incredible music despite all that he suffered – he was purportedly quite hard of hearing by the time he composed this concerto – then I could at least make it through the MW exam, I reasoned, despite my likely not being a fraction as talented as he was. My ‘victory music’ propelled me into each day. At the end of it all, my efforts paid off. Nobody can deny the work it took to pass, but I’d like to think that Beethoven No. 5 gave me just the right dose of majesty, exuberance, and gravitas I needed to rise to the occasion.
Eugene Mlynczyk MW
Studying in the MW programme never seemed ‘perfect’ to me. To be honest, it always felt that there was more to be done: more visits with producers, more tastings and essay after essay. Even in the year I passed this seemed to be the case. So, in the end, don’t doubt yourself too much, instead trust yourself and then you can smile as I did along with my fellow Canadian Masters of Wine in 2015 as pictured below, Marcus Ansems MW and expat extraordinaire Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW.
Sarah Morphew Stephen MW
At that time, the Master of Wine examination was taken under the hospices of the Vintners Company, so the written part of the exam was taken at the Vintners Hall, and, because the light was better, the tastings took place on the top floor of the New Zealand Embassy in Haymarket, St James’s.
Probably the biggest difference was that the examination had to be handwritten; I still have the Parker pen I used that week. So no sign of a computer or method of correction. The tastings were held in the first three mornings, exam papers over three afternoons with the essay on the last day. On the final day we were given the answers to the three tasting papers, and I well remember sitting exhausted, with some other candidates, on Mansion House tube station bemoaning the mistakes we had all made.
Then, Phillip Goodband MW strode onto the platform declaring “Clean Sweep”!
Seven of us passed that year including Phillip of course, Julian Brind MW, Simon Smallwood MW, and John Salvi MW. I am proud to say that it was six years before the two next female Masters of Wine appeared in 1976.
The award ceremony was conducted in the court room of the Vintners Hall, with court of the Vintners Company in full regalia, a surprising number turned up to see the new phenomenon. The great Vintners Seal was wound down onto the certificate which was presented by The Master of the Vintners Company, followed thereafter by a welcome champagne reception in the great hall.
On the day that the results came out I was floating on air. The phone rang and Michael Broadbent MW, who was Chairman of the Institute that year, spent twenty minutes telling me how to deal with the press, and more importantly, how to deal with the other male Masters of Wine!
Looking back, sitting the exam had always been my ambition, but in those days you had to be 25 years old, and been actively working in the wine trade for 5 years. There was no study programme, only sessions called the Wine Trade Lectures given by well-known Masters of Wine. By this time, I was working for IDV so the exchange of information was really valuable. There were very few books on wine which, happily, was rectified by Jancis Robinson in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Jean-Michel Valette MW
Sitting one’s first MW exam is exhilaration enough… to be doing it on top of the world, or more precisely on top of the World Trade Center, was doubly exciting. In fact, I liked it so much I returned for a second go at the practical the following year.
The year was 1991, long before security checks and metal detectors in most places, but not there. After proving bonafides, we whizzed up to the famous Window on the World with its big glass walls opening vistas onto greater New York. Hard not to get distracted by everything below. This was the first year the MW exam included venue outside the UK.
David Stevens MW was our impeccably dressed proctor. Andrea Immer (later to become one of the US’s most respected MS’s) our friendly and more than competent organizer of logistics. A dozen or so fellow nervous candidates, a good many of whom are now members. That was it, in a space that otherwise held hundreds.
What do I remember? Other than helicopters flying below… that all the red wines somehow tasted the same, and that David Stevens MW frowned rather noticeably when he spied me drawing a graph on one of my essays. The examiners didn’t seem to mind the graphs or other pictures, but they did think my red wine discernment a bit lacking. Has anyone else ever gotten an F?