Tuesday 7 September 2021 2:46 pm

What does it really take to win the title Master of Wine?

There are only 419 living Masters of Wine in the world, and a further 77 who are no longer with us, which means that more people have been in space than have successfully passed this rigorous test of wine academia. 

This total includes the three Masters of Wine who joined the ranks just last month, two of whom are from the UK. New Zealand’s Michael Henley was added to the list alongside the UK’s Siobhan Turner and Claire Blackler, both of whom paused in their celebrations to speak to City AM. 

On average it takes five to six years to achieve the Masters, with an extremely low first-time pass rate; indeed, you need to pass an exam to even be allowed onto the course to begin with. It consists of theory and practical exams as well as an in-depth research paper on a wine-related topic on the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences. Finally, anyone with the MW at the end of their name must sign a code of conduct, agreeing to act with honesty, integrity and use every opportunity to share their understanding about wine.

Siobhan Turner and Claire Blackler both became a Master of Wine
Siobhan Turner and Claire Blackler both became a Master of Wine

It is not something to be undertaken lightly. “It took me 10 years,” says Blackler. “I passed the theory on my first attempt, which came as a bit of a surprise but passing the practical took another five years. If I had known how challenging, how long, how much it would cost, how many times I’d fail, I never would have started”. It all seems worth it now, though, with the MW giving her “the ultimate credential as an educator. I didn’t do this for a career change or advancement, but it does bring more interesting opportunities”. 

Turner had run the International Masters of Wine programme for nine years before resigning to pursue her own MW. She says those thinking of starting need to “make sure you have a solid grounding in the wines of the world, and an understanding of trends. Be willing to work harder than you thought you would need to, or at times you thought possible. I always said when I was speaking to students, before I started the course, that you don’t find the time to do this, it’s not at the back of the closet or in that drawer you never look in. You have to carve it out, sometimes from some painful places of your life, and it’s important to understand that before you begin”.

“Find a mentor and use them” advises Blackler “there are lots of people prepared to help so ask them. I would have benefitted from knowing it is about exam technique and satisfying the examiner, but it is important that people know it is possible, even if it takes longer than planned”.

Now Turner and Blackler have those two all-important letters at the end of their names, what does the future hold?

“I hope in many ways that it’s more of the same,” says Turner. “I would like to expand my consulting business, and I’d love to build on my research project and work with some Canadian wineries.  I’ll also keep working on wine authentication with Chai Consulting”.

“The Masters was always about knowledge and personal development,” says Blackler. “This gives me extra confidence and credibility to work with my students and pay it forward. I want to help others learn and develop and I am excited to get involved in the MW community. I have had such a warm welcome already”. 

For two people so immersed in wine, whose knowledge and palates are so primed, the big question must surely be what bottle did they open to celebrate? “Champagne of course!” laughs Blackler. “It is a tradition in our family to open Billecart-Salmon for special occasions, so we had the Billecart-Salmon Brut Réserve”. 

“The past tense of that question is not quite correct!” adds Turner. “This is going to go on for some time. But when I found out, it was a Bollinger RD 2004, followed by a Grand Puy Lacoste 2010. Last night I opened a Bollinger Rosé 2007 and then a Cos Pithos 2019.”

I will certainly raise a glass to them both. 

Libby Zietsman-Brodie is the Founder of Bacchus & Brodie, Co-creator and Presenter of Boozy & The Beast: How To Drink Better -an irreverent series on wine without the snobbery and can be found pairing and pouring at No.9 Supper Club. Instagram: @a_little_sip_of_me_time