There are currently 211 Master Sommeliers, 134 of who are from North America. The North American group is comprised of 115 men and 19 women.
This elite group successfully completed four course levels and passed a rigorous three-part exam. In the most recent North American exam for Master Sommelier, given in Dallas, Texas, only one candidate out of 70 passed. The pass rate worldwide for all who sit for the third-level exam is about 10 percent.
In the exam’s tasting portion, a candidate must blindly taste and describe six different wines and, in 25 minutes or less, correctly identify each wine’s vintage, grape varieties and country, district and appellation of origin. According to the testing results, even professionals who have devoted most of their adult lives to the study of wine have difficulty identifying wines tasted blindly, much less their origin and vintage.
That there are humans among us who can do so boggles the mind. Many wine professionals would be found totally lacking in this area, as was discussed in a recent installment of Grape Encounters, a nationally syndicated wine talk show (carried in our area on WFEB 1340 AM radio in Sylacauga) when host David Wilson interviewed Dr. Robert T. Hodgson.
Hodgson is a retired statistics professor from Humboldt University in California and owner of Fieldbrook Winery. Hodgson’s small operation produces about 1,000 cases of wine a year made from grapes sourced from vineyards across California.
Over the years, Hodgson has entered his wines in various competitions. As a statistician and academician, he was puzzled how his wine could win a gold medal in one competition and in another competition not even receive an honorable mention. To unravel the randomness of wine competition, Hodgson trained to become a judge at the California State Fair, North America’s oldest wine competition.
Hodgson often found himself on panels with some of America’s most prestigious critics. When he joined the competition’s advisory board, he convinced the board to allow him to embark on a four-year secret — albeit harmless — experiment.
Unbeknownst to the judges, among the the hundreds of wines tasted throughout the competitions, Hodgson had poured the same wine from the same bottle for the same judges three different times. Hodgson was astounded by the range of scores — from gold to no mention — awarded by the same judge for the same wine. Only about 10 percent of the judges were consistent in their wine rankings. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, this is the same percentage of those rare individuals who pass the final level of the sommelier exam.
Hodgson has not endeared himself to wine number dispensers. When asked about his findings in the Grape Encounters interview, Hodgson said simply that humans are fallible. In his estimation a competition wine is just as likely to win by a coin flip as to be consistently judged by a panel of experts.
In the end it comes down to drinking what we like by constantly experimenting with an array of wines. Our likes change from day to day, brand to brand, varietal to varietal, venue to venue. Wine critics experience the same changes in likes and dislikes. Value their opinion, but cast your personal vote by the bottle you take to the cashier.
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