Every year, the Court of Master Sommeliers adds a few new members to its ranks. With a dismal 8 percent pass rate, the test to become a Master Sommelier is widely considered one of the hardest tests in the world. That difficulty has led to a level of prestige for the 236 Master Sommeliers. Yet looking back to the origins of the Court of Master Sommeliers, it’s clear that the organization was almost immediately bound to be held in high esteem.
It all started in 1363 with the Twelve Great City of London Livery Companies. The companies were essentially guilds where members took care of each other before government support programs existed. Members of each of the original 12 companies were almost like a family, where members could rely on each other if anything ever happened.
One of those 12 companies was the Worshipful Company of Vintners. It was established to help normalize the import, regulation, and sale of wine. For hundreds of years, members of the Vintners company ran the wine trade until a series of deregulations stripped them of their power and weakened the organization. Still, the company continued to play an important part in the world of wine.
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In 1953, the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the Wine and Spirits Association gave an exam about the wine trade to 21 people. Six people passed the test and were given the title of Master of Wine. Two years later, those six people became the heads of the Institute of Masters of Wine. The Masters of Wine included winemakers, buyers, journalists, shippers, business owners, consultants, academics, and wine educators. What it didn’t include was members of the wine service industry, and the Institute wasn’t alone in that regard. The Vintners Company, the Institute of Masters of Wine, the British Hotels & Restaurants Association, the Wine & Spirit Association of Great Britain, and the Wholesale Tobacco Trade Association also lacked a service component. But all of the organizations needed knowledgeable members of the service industry to push their products, Brian Julyan, the chief executive of the Court of Master Sommeliers, explains in a video.
To sell high-quality wine, the organizations wanted a highly educated service industry, and the country had lacked a large professional service class since the war. To solve this problem, the organizations gathered together in 1969 and created a test at the Vintner’s Hall in London that was designed “to encourage sommeliers to become professional, to study,” Julyan says. And it worked.
By 1977, the Court of Master Sommeliers had evolved into an internationally recognized organization. But they still had a problem: The test they’d created was too hard, and very few people were gaining entry to the Court. To solve this problem, they added an “Advanced” level, then an “Introductory” level, and finally a “Certified” level.
Today, aspiring Master Sommeliers must pass each level before being considered for the test. Still, very few people ever make it that far. There are only 236 people in the world who have passed the three sections of the test — service, theory, and tasting. No matter its prestige and hierarchical background, though, it’s still about service.