Wednesday, March 23, 2011

MS vs. MW

Guest Blogger Doug Frost

For those of you who may not have heard of Doug, he is one of three people in the world to hold BOTH the Master Sommelier (MS) and Master of Wine (MW) accreditations. A professional writer, teacher, and advisor in the wine industry, Doug is also a major player, along with noted spirits guru F. Paul Pacult and others in Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR), a professional organization offering training, education and certification in the fine spirits and mixology fields. Doug also happens to share many of our beliefs about the de-mystification of the enjoyment of wine, and is not easily offended by our sometimes irreverent observations and opinions. Without further ado, we present Mr. Doug Frost.

Which wine expert initials are better?

About once a month for the last nearly two decades, I have been asked the same question by a curious reporter or industry member: what's the difference between a Master Sommelier and a Master of Wine? And then, the follow-up, whether spoken or implied: which is harder?
The answer? It depends (you knew that was coming, didn't you?). If you have restaurant experience and expertise, you'll find the Master Sommelier exam to your liking. If your time in the wine industry is as a retailer, wholesaler or importer and if you like to write lucid, terse essays, you'll feel at home attacking the Master of Wine exam.

As one of the few people (so far, but that should change soon) who is both an MS and MW, I refuse to say which is more difficult. Why? Because, like I said, it depends. A wine professional, no matter how brilliant, can't (imho) pass the MS exam without extensive time on the restaurant floor. The greatest sommelier in the world can't pass the MW exam unless he or she studies essay writing and attains skill and expertise in that arena.

So each exam has its challenges; the impact of those challenges depends upon the test taker and to say one is harder than the other (as one of my fellow MS/MW's has maintained in the past) seems odd to me, like saying that playing cornerback is harder than playing running back.
But here's the interesting part: the Master Sommelier program has been far more successful in the U.S. than the MW program. While there are only about two dozen MW's in America, there are more than 100 American MS's. As the MS degree is based upon the skills crucial to the restaurant business and as the U.S. is rich in excellent restaurants (again, imho), lots of MS candidates can practice their skills and can achieve excellence. But skilled essay writers are in short supply, especially in the retail and wholesale sector. I'm not accusing; just saying.

Both the MS and the MW require a great deal of blind tasting, though the MW demands a far greater number of wines than the MS. These days the MW also includes a dissertation, which at a minimum lengthens the amount of time it takes to finish the MW. Is that why there are fewer American MW's?

Not really. There is a certain transparency to the MS program: there are lots of active, mentoring Master Sommeliers and the concept and practice of excellent wine service is no particular mystery. Writing a proper MW exam, well, it's not something most people understand unless they have made a detailed study of such essay writing. But just as there are sharp sommeliers throughout the country who are fighting to become MS's, there are equally smart folks who are working on their MW's. It's just a matter of time before there are plenty more of each. Heck, I've got my bets on a few specific men and women (sorry, no names) who will shortly become MS/MW's. Despite the more cynical attitudes out there, we're all eager to see that happen. Why? Most of us who become one or the other (or both) spend a lot of time helping others prepare and pass the tests. We could use some extra hands.

--Doug Frost, MS/MW

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