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Delhi Wine Club

Posted: Monday, February 08 2010. 10:45

Demystifying the Institute of Masters of Wine

With only 270 successful candidates in its 55 year history, the Institute of the Masters of Wine has a lot of mystery, awe and admiration for those in the world of wine. John Salvi MW, a senior member of the institute gives a light-hearted insight into the coveted Diploma and the Institute.

Photo By:: Adil Arora

John Salvi MW

Before I start to write about the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW), which is often regarded as the seat of learning and the pre-eminent source of international wine knowledge in the world today, I would like to preach a brief homily.

Wine is for pleasure, please

Wine is for pleasure, wine is for enjoyment, and wine is for companionship, friendship and love. Wine maketh glad the heart of man. Wine is not for pomposity, mysterious rites and one-upmanship. Unfortunately all art forms-painting, sculpting, music-attract pomposity and wine, which calls for the use of the senses of taste and smell, does the same.

Long gone are the days when wine was an essential part of the calorific intake of the labouring man and woman. Wine is hedonism. All those who aspire to become Masters of Wine, and above all those who have done so, should forever bear this in mind and avoid becoming pompous and boring about it and talking to people as though they were speaking “ex cathedra”.

Let all of us, beginners or experts, show humility and enjoyment when we drink our wine, just as a fine winemaker shows humility when communing with his vines.

History in Brief

Shortly after the Second World War (1939-45) the British Government decreed, in its questionable wisdom, that all trades, butchers, bakers or candlestick makers, should have an education system. Those who did not put one in place would have one imposed and run by the Government.

Not a single trade wanted that and all of them set up their own education system. The wine trade founded the “Wine Trade Education Trust” who put in place wine learning courses at various ascending levels.

There are ancient guilds and liveries in England that date back to the Middle Ages and who controlled their trades in those ancient times. One of these is the Livery Company of the Vintners, which received its Royal Charter from the King of England in 1437. Today the Vintners Company flourishes and owns and enjoys one of the most magnificent ancient halls in the City of London where several hundred years ago no less than five kings sat down to dinner together.

The City Livery Companies provide the Liverymen who elect the sheriffs and the Lord Mayor of London. I am fortunate to be a member of the Livery of the Vintners Company and a Freeman of the City of London. Three ancient privileges that I enjoy are the right to fish off London Bridge, the right to be drunk and disorderly within the boundaries of the City of London without being arrested and (most useful!) the right to insist upon being hung with a silken rope if found guilty of murder or of making pregnant the unmarried daughter of the reigning monarch!

To be serious again, two organisations, the Vintners Company and the Wine and Spirit Association of Great Britain, decided that there should be a more senior and extremely difficult exam for those in the wine trade whose knowledge was deep and profound. These two bodies organised for the first time, in 1953, an examination process known as the Master of Wine examination.

Institute is instituted

Two years after this inaugural examination, in 1955, the Institute of Masters of Wine was formed by the people who had passed the exam. Until there were enough Masters to set and mark their own exam this was done by the Vintners Company with the help of senior members of the Wine Trade. My father was one of these, but retired before I started to take the exam in 1966.

Since its foundation, the Institute has become a truly global professional membership body. All members of the Institute have passed the examination and agreed to abide by the Institute’s Code of Conduct (see below), thereby gaining the right to use the title Master of Wine (MW) approved and authorised by the British Government and its Ministry of Agriculture.

The Institute is a non-profit body, funded by annual subscriptions from its members and by the generous corporate support of a variety of companies in the industry (AXA in Bordeaux for example). The widespread international support for the Institute is a valid endorsement of its aims, as well as being an expression, by those organisations, of the importance they attribute to high-level professional education for the wine industry.

The Institute is governed by a Council of Masters of Wine, made up of elected and ex-officio members with specific activities delegated to various committees. Institute activities include official visits by members to wine-producing region of the world, seminars, comparative wine tastings, and the organisation of high-level international symposia (the next one will be in Bordeaux in 2010).

The Institute also maintains a substantial library of contemporary and rare books on wine, which is housed at the Guildhall in London (the seat of the Lord Mayor of London), and is open by appointment to members and students but also to the public at large.

In addition to the Institute’s official activities, individual members contribute to the promotion of wine knowledge by lecturing and giving tastings at wine events all over the world and at the Diploma courses organised by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust in many countries.

Institutional supporters of the Institute

The following short list is largely to show how totally worldwide the support for the Institute has become since its inception 56 years ago.

The Madame Bollinger Foundation (Champagne)
CVBG Dourthe-Kressmann (Bordeaux)
Constellation Brands (Worldwide)
E&J Gallo Winery (California)
Ets. JP Moueix (Bordeaux)
Gonzalez Byass (Sherry, Spain)
Louis Jadot (Burgundy)
San Pellegrino (Italy)
Taransaud Tonnellerie (France)
Villa Maria Group (New Zealand)
Viňa Errazuriz (Chile)
The Vintners Company (UK)
Waitrose Ltd (UK)
Wines of Hungary (Hungary)
Austrian Wine Marketing Board (Austria)
The Symington Family of Port Companies (Portugal)
Reh Kendermann (Germany)
Berry Bros & Rudd (UK)
Lallemand (France)

A few Milestones

1953:  Six out of 21 candidates become the first masters of Wine.
1955:  The Institute of Masters of Wine is formed.
1970:  I pass the exam together with the first female MW.
1984: Following a vote by all members, the Institute opens the exam to people working      outside the wine trade (such as winemakers and journalists). The first non-trade MW is Jancis Robinson. It also goes International and the exam is opened to candidates from overseas.
1988:  The first candidate from outside the UK becomes an MW.
1992:  The education programme and the exam are delivered on three continents (Australia, Europe, and North America).
2006:  An Endowment Fund is established to secure the Institute’s financial stability and to promote its strategic goals.
2008:  The Institute welcomes the first 3 Masters of Wine from Asia.
2009:  John Salvi’s article about the Institute of Masters of Wine appears in delWine.

Fame and the Famous

Fame brings problems with it as all famous people know. When I took the exam it was in the early days. Nobody had ever heard of it. We ancient MWs took the exam because it was there, because it was a challenge and because we were totally passionate about wine.

I remember a dinner at Château Cheval Blanc, when it still belonged to 40 little old ladies. Seated between two of them, our hostesses, I was highly amused when one of them asked me confidentially “Mr Salvi, what exactly are the Masters of Wine, are they Sommeliers?” 

Yves Glories, the much regretted and recently deceased rector of the Bordeaux University of Oenology once winked at me very hard when he was asked “what is your opinion of English wine, Monsieur Glories?” He answered with a superb display of airy insouciance “gracious me, do they make wine in England now?”

Today both the Institute and the title are known throughout the wine world and beyond and one of the most important reasons for taking the exam is to further one’s career and move up the ladder. This does not necessarily imply the same passion about wine and this is a shame.

Great and famous winemakers always talk about passion and humility and Masters of Wine should do the same.

Career Options for MWs

If we look at the 270 masters of Wine in the world today -we have  had 8 new ones recently in 2009, it is always interesting to see what they do with their lives, how the title of Master of Wine has affected them and what careers they have chosen.

In the early day, before the exam became well known, most MWs, particularly as in those days the qualification was restricted to the English wine trade, just continued with what they were doing and the qualification had little influence on their path in life.

In more recent years one of the favourite employments, both for the employer and the employee, is that of wine buyer. As the supermarket trade gradually bought up the private wine merchants throughout the United Kingdom and became ever more huge and powerful until they controlled over 70% of the UK wine trade, they all felt that it gave them status to have Masters of Wine as buyers. Today some of them even have a panel of four. It is perhaps the ideal job for a young and dynamic Master of Wine as it is well paid and utilises his talents to the full.

Today we also have no less than 30 MWs who are oenologists, wine makers or wine consultants and the Institute is, and has been for over 25 years, an observer member of the International Union of Oenologists and I am their representative. A large number own fine wine businesses, importing, trading, buying and selling.

Some are teachers and lecturers and if one is good at it, and can teach wine with skill, charm and humility, it provides an excellent job and a substantial income. It can be fairly said that today members of the Institute truly cover all aspects of the global wine trade.

Pause for Humour

I think that I am the only Master of Wine in the world to have received a written letter of censure from the Institute when I was a candidate. During the tasting exam we were given (blind) a very fine sherry. Later, when we were sent the list of wine tasted, it was shown to be a Williams and Humbert Dos Cortados.

It was so good that I drank three quarters of a bottle of it during the exam. This would not have mattered if some of the other candidates had not complained that there was not enough left in the bottle for them to taste. I received a letter informing me that this was conduct unbecoming to a potential Master of Wine. I was so proud of this letter that I framed it and hung it behind my office desk for many years, side by side with my eventual Master of Wine Diploma!

Visions and Goals

Yes, this is pompous but essential! The Institute strives to uphold the highest standards within the global wine industry by promoting knowledge, understanding and appreciation of wine, along with responsible consumption.

The international presence of MWs throughout the world, who are regarded as experts in the art, science and business of wine in all sectors of the wine trade, should ensure that the Institute remains relevant and dynamic.

The Institute holds that the Master of Wine qualification is of at least the same level as, for example, a Bachelor or Masters degree in oenology. For this reason applicants are required to have at least five years of professional experience in wine.

Activities of the MW Club

One of the most important activities is visiting wine regions and vineyards to learn about wine making and viticulture. These visits are organised for both students and Masters of Wine. In 2009 Masters of Wine had the possibility of visits to Geisenheim (the research station in Germany), the Alto Adige, Champagne, Bordeaux and New Zealand. This year it will be the Douro, Tokaj, the Rheingau and the Rheinhessen, and Burgundy.

There will also be a symposium in Bordeaux, in 2010, “Forging Links”, with a fabulous programme and speakers from all over the world. Among these, after an opening speech by Alain Juppé, Mayor of Bordeaux and former Prime Minister of France will follow Michel Rolland, Egon Müller, Alessia Antinori, Miguel Torres, Jean-Bernard Delmas, Jean-Claude Berrouet, Jancis Robinson, Olivier Humbrecht, Jacques Lurton, Paul Draper, Alvaro Palacios, Paul Pontallier and many others.

These symposia are held every 4 years and the last one was in Napa, California. It should be a great highlight.

Another important activity is the Tasting. Informative and sometimes comparative tastings are organised and commented by well known and great producers from all over the world. Every year, in November, is the great annual Claret tasting featuring a four year old vintage with all the Grands Crus Classés of 1855. This year it will be the great 2005 vintage.

In January each year there is a vertical tasting of one of the first growth Bordeaux wines or their equivalents from other Bordeaux areas. Recent ones have been Château Ausone conducted by Alain Vautier, Château Lafite offered by Charles Chevallier. Château Mouton Rothschild was conducted by Hervé Berland and Château Cheval Blanc by Pierre Lurton followed the next year by Château d’Yquem also by Pierre.

Last year it was Château Margaux by Paul Pontallier. This year, it will be Château Haut Brion with Jean-Philippe Delmas.

THE Examination

It would be very boring to go into any detail about the exam, but may be of interest to those who dream of becoming an MW one day. It consists of 4 papers, each of 3 hours duration. Papers 1 and 2 are entirely on the production of wine – viticulture, vinification and oenology. Paper 3 is on the business of wine and Paper 4 is on contemporary issues.

This is followed by a practical examination, which consists of 3 papers each of 135 minutes, each with 12 wines to be tasted blind. Wines from all producing countries in the world may be included. The paper is designed to assess the organoleptic competencies and knowledge of wine of the candidates through tasting.

Candidates should be able to demonstrate wide knowledge of the wines of the world using analysis and evaluation. Part of the Practical Examination may be the identification of faulty wines and methods required for correcting those faults.

Definition of wine

To the Institute of Masters of Wine the definition of wine is “the alcoholic beverage obtained from the fermentation of FRESHLY gathered GRAPES”. Nothing more and nothing less and we regard this as very important indeed.

For more information, visit Exam papers are also available if readers wish to test their own knowledge. Address queries to The Institute of Masters of Wine, Mapfre House, 2-3 Philpot Lane, London EC3M 8AN. Telephone +44 (0)207 621 2830 and fax +44 (0)207 929 230.

John Salvi MW



Yegas Naidoo Says:

Subhash you are so prolific with your Newsletters and as the contents are serious they are  often in a queue for my reading attention [ I generally read all the articles and not merely skim through them as I might do others]. As a result I have only,  this morning,  picked up this  article.  What a superb article written with humour and propped up with  suitable  & relevant levels of serious factual information. Very good indeed I have circulated to several other relevant parties. Many thanks for touching this interesting subject. Yegas  

Posted @ March 03, 2010 11:50


Dr. D. P. Nerkar Says:

We would be very happy if we could have collaboration of your Inst. with our Wine Inst.of Bharati Vidyapeeth University at Sangli, Maharashtra,Sangli,India

Posted @ February 12, 2010 16:01


Alok Chandra Says:

A brilliant and humorous note about the wine world's formost institution - thank you, Mr. Salvi, and thank you, Subhash

Posted @ February 12, 2010 11:32


tarsillo Says:

interestingly, the Italian sponsor is a producer of sparkling... water. Is this a classic case of addinging water to the wine (institute)?

Posted @ February 11, 2010 16:49



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