A Master in the making



As 13 oenophiles obtain their Master of Wine – with many more chasing the coveted title – MW student Stuart Fyfe reflects on the path to obtaining those two little letters, paved with rigorous examinations putting both a candidate’s theoretical knowledge and tasting ability to the test.

The first Master of Wine exam took place in 1953, formed out of the need to improve wine education in the UK wine trade and to recognise the industry’s most talented members. The Institute of Masters of Wine was created two years later by the people who passed the first exam. To this day, it is still seen as the pinnacle of wine education not just in the UK, but all around the world. It has over 340 members in 24 countries and 2015 saw a record number of candidates – 26 in total – passing the notoriously difficult exam.

Two years ago I was accepted onto the Master of Wine study programme to begin my own journey towards the MW and, having sat the exam in June, it has led to me reflect on the past 24 months.  Having worked in the wine industry for eight years I felt ready to push myself and start trying to climb the MW mountain. The course is a two-year, self-study programme that finishes with four days of exams, consisting of three tasting papers and five theory papers. Following this, a research project on a chosen subject is required. In order to help prepare you for the exam, there is a seminar each year. These intensive, week-long courses consist of 12-wine blind tasting sessions in the morning, where you need to identify the grape variety and region of origin, as well as commenting on the quality of the wine and its commercial appeal. The afternoon is dedicated to the theory questions, covering everything from production in the vineyard and the winery all the way through to how the wine arrives in a customer’s cellar or at your dinner table.

When I started the course I felt that I was reasonably prepared for what lay ahead and knew that it would be two years of focus and hard work. From reading the course syllabus you get a very good idea of the breadth of knowledge required but what I was not prepared for was how quickly the course goes by. Two years sounds like a long time, but in reality it is a very demanding timeframe in which to cover all the different aspects of grape growing, winemaking, the business of wine and issues facing the wine industry today.

Despite the long hours of study and tasting practice (around 15 per week split over evening after work and weekends), being on the programme has also opened up a number of incredible opportunities that I would not otherwise have had, as well as allowing me to meet some very interesting people in the wine industry. From viticulturists and winemakers to brand ambassadors and journalists, my fellow students are a very diverse group of people from all around the world.

I am well aware that I will have my work cut-out for me over the next couple of years – but, while I prepare for the next year of the programme, I know that the experience I have gained and the people I have met have turned me into a much better wine professional than I was two years ago.  And – as much as I have enjoyed delving in to the theory and endless blind tasting – I still get pleasure from being able to open a good bottle of wine with friends.