MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
This next story is a tale of scandal and cheating and really, really good wine. Let me introduce you to the Court of Master Sommeliers. Sommeliers, as you may know, are the people who help you pick wine in a restaurant. The creme de la creme of sommeliers, as it were, take a test to become master sommeliers. Only 274 people have ever passed. This year, 24 did. But this is where our story takes a scandalous turn.
And I'm going to let Karen MacNeil pick it up here. She is author of "The Wine Bible," a guide to wines that many sommeliers study as part of their training. Karen MacNeil, welcome.
KAREN MACNEIL: Thank you, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So there are several parts to the master sommelier diploma exam. We are focused on the tasting portion. Tell me what happened with the 2018 exam.
MACNEIL: Yes. Well, it was startling, as you can imagine. Here were candidates who took the tasting part, only to discover - to be told a few days later that the test had been invalidated. And why had it been invalidated? Well, it appears that one of the people grading the exam had passed some kind of information to one of the test-takers that would have allowed that test-taker an unfair advantage.
KELLY: He slipped an answer, or she slipped an answer - is that what you're saying?
MACNEIL: Yes, exactly.
KELLY: Describe the test. I mean, what do you have to do to pass?
MACNEIL: It is so hard. So you're in a room with the other candidates. You're poured six wines. The wines could be from anywhere in the world. And you have to name what that wine is, the grape variety or varieties it's made from and the vintage.
KELLY: You're blindfolded, too, on - so you can't even see it, right?
MACNEIL: Absolutely. You are doing this entirely blind.
KELLY: Can't they just take it again? You said it's a half-hour test. They could just take it again and presumably pass.
MACNEIL: Well, that's where the master sommelier is very different from an actual, let's say, typical Ph.D. If you were taking a test in physics - right? - you'd study all the material. Now you know the material. It would be a hassle to take the test again, but you could do it. An MS exam is much more like being, in a certain sense, a professional athlete. Every part of your body has to be on that day.
KELLY: And some days you have a good performance, and some days you don't.
MACNEIL: Yes. So while undoubtedly all of these candidates really do know their stuff, they're going to have to once again perform in the way an athlete in the Olympics might.
KELLY: And the distinction between a master sommelier who has passed this test and become certified, you make more money. You have access to different jobs than you would have otherwise. Is that right?
MACNEIL: Yes, and significantly more money. Someone who has studied and is working as a sommelier on the floor of a restaurant but without a credential, that person's going to make about $55,000 a year on average. A master sommelier can make three times that.
KELLY: Without sounding flip, I can think of worse exams to have to take twice than sitting and drinking some of the world's finest wines.
MACNEIL: (Laughter) Well, you're not drinking them. You're tasting them and...
KELLY: This is true.
MACNEIL: ...Spitting them out. When you tell people that you - for a living, you have to taste 4,000 wines a year...
KELLY: Right. They're not exactly drowning in tears for you. Yeah.
MACNEIL: But think of all the times you've tasted great wine. And if someone asked you to write an essay on it, what...
KELLY: Oh, I'd tell you the vintage year. I would have no idea, of course.
MACNEIL: (Laughter) It's actually quite hard to do. And, you know, when you do get that certification, the master sommelier certification, you have every right to feel enormously proud.
KELLY: That is Karen MacNeil, author of "The Wine Bible." Thanks so much for talking to us.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story incorrectly states that the candidates of the Master Sommelier Diploma Examination were blindfolded. While the test does conceal the identities of the wines, the candidates are not blindfolded.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.