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Single student in 70 passes recent Master Sommelier exam

Only one person out of 70 Master Sommelier candidates from around the United States passed the most recent exam that took place last week in Dallas, Texas.

Iowa native Nick Hetzel who is currently the sommelier for Sage at Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas was the only applicant to achieve the prestigious MS title.

The result has raised concerns that, in light of the recent attention the Court of Master Sommeliers has received as a result of the movie ‘Somm’ and the tests’ rising popularity, it has become increasingly difficult to pass.

Kenny Koda, who has taken the exam every year since 2006, noticed what he calls, a ‘change in regimen’.

Speaking to Decanter.com, Koda said: ‘There used to be a bank of questions, and as those got passed around the test became predictable.’

Now, he says ‘candidates are expected to show that they can not only memorise things but explain why the wines from certain regions taste the way they do.’

Koda, who sells wine for a high-end producer in Napa Valley, added ‘it’s harder for guys like me who aren’t working the floor.’

Shayn Bjornholm, the examination director for the American chapter of the Court said; ‘Certainly, it is getting more and more difficult, but not because we are trying to make it more difficult.’

Bjornholm points to a combination of a rapidly evolving wine world and more — and younger —experts than ever before; adding; ‘We have the same standards but the whole world is blowing up.’

Dozens of Master Sommeliers, many who are running wine programs and visiting wine regions, are involved with writing the exams, which in Bjornholm’s assessment, keeps the test ‘fresh, relevant’ and ‘grounded in what is important.’ He says the recent failure of all but one examinee has given the Court ‘no pause whatsoever.’

‘We think the questions are fair. They are difficult, but we are happy with the level of difficulty we have established.’

Rachael Lowe, a 34-year-old Wine Director for two restaurants in Chicago, whose failed attempt in Dallas was her third since 2011, agrees, calling it difficult but fair.

‘It’s stuff you should know. It’s pretty well rounded’, she said.

The pass rate fluctuates year to year, hovering around 10% between 2001 and 2013. In 2005, 26% of candidates passed, but in 2010, only 3 passed out of 84, rivaling the poor performance in Dallas for a 10-year low.

In the four decades since the first exam, 202 candidates have earned the burgundy pin of the Master Sommelier.

Written by Courtney Humiston

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