The letters MW after a name lend an authoritative aura. But what are masters of wine actually like? And with a notoriously high failure rate and no professional teaching staff, why would anyone go through the rigours needed to become one? andrew jefford finds out

Masters of Wine are regarded by the public with the kind of awe generally reserved for secret agents or trapeze artists. Give them a glass of wine, the myth runs, and they can quote you grape variety, vintage, appellation and grower in less time than it takes you to remember your pin.

They stride the world, spotting the need for discreet micro-oxgenation here and decoding misconceived barrel-ageing strategies there before unearthing tomorrow’s Lafite in Macedonia or Georgia. Waitrose’s Inner Cellar and Wine Direct buyer Susan McCraith MW recalls: ‘I was sitting next to a man at dinner one night and he said “Are you one of those MWs?” I said I was. “Gosh, I’m not worthy,” were his exact words. I don’t like that side of it particularly, but there is no doubt people respect it.’

How did all this come about? The MW examination was co-founded by the Vintners’ Company and the Wine and Spirit Education Trust in 1953. Twenty-one candidates sat the first examination and six passed (none are still alive). That 30% pass rate, as it happens, is a lot higher than it has ever been since. The one thing most candidates realise, when they come to the end of their three or more expensive years of part-time study, is that they will probably fail. Of the 81 candidates who sat one or both parts of the exam in 2005, only five passed.

Fancy a go? Here’s what you would have had to tackle during one torrid week in June 2005. There are four three-hour theory papers. During these you would have answered questions such as why producers are increasingly concerned with pH in wine post-fermentation or the merits of outsourcing laboratory requirements, as well as writing short notes on spinning cone and sorbic acid.

The three practical papers took two-and-a-quarter hours each, and would have seen you trying to identify country, region and grape variety (or varieties) for wines such as 2003 Alta Vista Malbec from Argentina (tough), 2000 Alion from Ribera del Duero (tougher) and Pieropan’s 2004 Soave Classico (toughest).

Assuming you managed to stride over these hurdles with barely a wobble, you would then have to submit a 7,000-word dissertation. Only when that has been accepted (and I know of at least three recent dissertations which have been failed), can you head off to the print shop to get your new business cards made.

Unsurprisingly, the high failure rate is a sore point. The Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) maintains that if it compromises on standards, it will erode its own reputation and those of existing MWs. Journalist Stuart Walton, perhaps the IMW’s most vociferous critic, suggests that ‘the appallingly high failure rate could only be read as an indictment of the quality of tuition received. I still maintain that the extravagant levels of failure are more about guaranteeing repeat fees than they are about educational rigour.’

The problem for the IMW is that, unlike universities, it has no professional teaching staff and there is no long-term academic tradition of wine scholarship. All teaching and mentoring is done on an unpaid, voluntary basis by existing MWs. In that sense, it’s more like a medieval stonemason’s yard than a university, and it is entirely possible that a dissertation candidate may know more about their subject that the person marking it. English vineyards authority Stephen Skelton MW, for example, had to write two theses, having failed the first time. ‘The second was not as good, but was more what the MWs were looking for.’

But the idea that the IMW is a bacchic Mafia dedicated to protecting its own doesn’t bear scrutiny. All its tastings and events are open to anyone, provided they pay the ticket cost (visit www.mastersofwine.org/events.aspx). I’ve attended some myself, and they are not substantially different to the tastings of well-run local wine societies – except, of course, that a greater degree of studiousness and seriousness is required.

Past papers are available to potential candidates, so no one can be in any doubt of what they are up against. Successful candidates tend to be those who don’t underestimate the severity of the test awaiting them. Julia Harding MW, assistant editor of The Oxford Companion to Wine and Jancis Robinson’s co-worker on www.jancisrobinson.com, considered it a tougher challenge than her Cambridge degree in Modern Languages. Skelton passed the theory part easily (winning the Mondavi award for top marks), but had to take the tasting exam five times. ‘It was the hardest thing I have ever done,’ he says. ‘The mental challenge was considerable: it requires three days on top form with the ability to keep a level head while imbibing alcohol and to keep very focused on every word you write. No one who has not done it can begin to understand what it takes.’

So once you’ve got it, do the job offers flood in? Are leading wine companies waiting to snap you up the day after the results are announced? Not exactly…

Not a single potential new employer contacted Harding at Waitrose after she received her Tim Derouet Award for the top student of the year. ‘No companies or head-hunters contacted me since graduating with the Derouet,’ confirms Sam Harrop MW (see p57). Another Derouet winner, Carmel Kilcline MW of Percy Fox, believes the awards ‘are about personal satisfaction’ above all. ‘An MW doesn’t make you an auto-fit for all senior wine jobs,’ she says, though she admits some employers recognise that ‘passing MW exams is a testament to determination if nothing else’ and are keen to ‘tap into that dogged persistence’.

Stephen Browett of Farr Vintners is not one of them. ‘If we were recruiting, then knowledge of the market and experience in the real world would be far more important than any academic qualification. I’m struggling to think of any really successful merchants who are MWs. Certainly there are none in our part of the business – dealing in top Bordeaux.’ Browett has never considered taking the MW because ‘I only know a lot about a very small part of the wine world. Also, I can’t see the point in spending thousands of hours working for a title that means nothing. There are far more non-MWs in the wine trade that I respect.’

And that’s the challenge. The MW is a fiercely academic qualification for an industry in which the majority of workers are traders. Everyone recognises that passing it is an awesome achievement – yet, for at least one potential employer, it ‘means nothing’. Perhaps in the end it has more in common with mountain climbing than with other professional exams. Like wanting to stand on the top of Everest (which at least one MW, Jean-Michel Valette, has done), the courageous go for it because it’s there.