Inside the Wine World’s Most Mysterious Cheating Scandal

Internal division, a public reckoning, and cheating allegations have left the Court of Master Sommeliers in pieces. Some want to look past it. Others want it all to burn.

Mar 4 2021, 12:00pm

One morning two years ago, Elton Nichols woke up in the Four Seasons Hotel in St. Louis, ready to finally pass the test that would change his life. Already among the country’s top wine experts, he would be taking the Master Sommelier exam in a few hours. He’d sat for it several times before, and, like nearly everyone else who attempts it, hadn’t yet passed. Nichols and the 140 other candidates had each dedicated years of their lives and well north of a hundred thousand dollars traveling, learning, testing, and studying at the feet of respected Master Somms—and splurging on a lot of expensive wine to taste. All this to become one of less than 300 Master Sommeliers on earth and join the Court of Master Sommeliers, the world’s most prestigious wine organization.

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Instead, Nichols’ life—and those of his fellow students—changed in ways they never could have predicted. As he prepared for a morning run the day of the test, he felt his Apple Watch buzz on his wrist. It was an email from Reggie Narito, a kind and well-liked mentor who was a board member at the Court and a proctor for the exam. Nichols had only known Narito vaguely, having flown down for the day from Seattle to Narito’s home in the Bay Area to taste wine with him several times in the summer, which isn’t terribly unusual for an aspiring Master Sommelier. Why would he, of all people, be emailing Nichols on the morning of the big test?

“Heads up” was the subject line; “PG” and “CndP” was all the body of it said. But Nichols understood exactly what this meant. He couldn’t unsee it, and he sure as hell didn’t like it. The Tasting exam is the notorious, most difficult portion of the Master Sommelier test, and these were two of the six varieties of wine (pinot grigio and Châteauneuf-du-Pape) he’d be asked to identify on the test. Narito was inexplicably slipping Nichols the answers.

“I thought, ‘I don’t want this, I don’t need this, I didn’t ask for this,’” Nichols recalled to VICE.

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He panicked. If one of the exam proctors was engaged in cheating, to whom could Nichols possibly go? He deleted the email, went for that run to clear his mind, and then passed the exam that day, along with 23 others, earning the Court of Master Sommeliers’ coveted little red oval lapel pin. Nichols said he didn't use Narito's answers—in fact, he got one of those wines wrong on the exam. So at first, that unwelcome email didn’t seem to matter.

For about a month following that test in September 2018, Nichols and 23 other new Master Sommeliers had their best lives materialize before them. Upon reaching the summit of the wine world, they began fielding job offers, salary raises, and promotions from wineries, distributors, and Michelin-starred restaurants. Strangers and distant acquaintances sent them untold notes of congratulations, event invitations, and bottles of expensive wine. Life had become a euphoric blur punctuated by the frequent clinking of Riedel for these new stars of the wine and hospitality world.

But then a month later, the Court took away everyone’s hard-won titles. It turned out that Narito had emailed two others in addition to Nichols—one of whom didn’t pass the test. The Court did this in the name of “integrity,” it said, yet the organization conducted no outside investigation and didn’t give anyone a chance to demonstrate their innocence—even those who were never emailed. To this day, the Court has treated them as criminals rather than colleagues. What did the world’s most reputable wine organization have to hide? And who exactly were they protecting?

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A little over a year ago, I began contacting dozens of sommeliers about the 2018 cheating scandal that had turned into a cold case. Eventually, a common thread emerged: Cheating had likely happened before, and it appeared the Court was going to great lengths—disqualifying everyone who’d passed that year—in order to cover up past alleged cheating incidents, during which its chairman and other board members had themselves passed the test.

The apparent cheating wasn’t the end of it. In the past year, the Court of Master Sommeliers has had some of the most shocking institutional norms and legacies of its 43-year history publicly exposed. In October, the New York Times published a report in which multiple women accused former board members and influential members of the Court of unwanted sexual advances, sexual assault, and rape. Twenty-two women eventually came forward, one of them doing so because, according to the Times, “she did not trust the board’s ability to investigate itself.” It wasn’t just quid pro quo—Master Sommeliers have the power to make or break people’s careers.

Following the allegations, the Court’s entire board resigned, and some of its most senior members forfeited their titles or had them suspended; over the summer, several well-regarded Master Sommeliers relinquished their titles after the Court delayed making any public statements supporting the Black Lives Matter movement because of internal hesitancy, and then only did so after social media outcries and bad press. “It took them three weeks to do that, and it took them three days to annul an exam without an investigation,” Richard Betts, a respected former Master Sommelier who gave up his title in the wake of it all, told VICE last summer. “That tells you where their priorities are.” 

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Though the Court has faced an unusually public reckoning lately for some of its sins, the very integrity of its legendary exams remains in question ever since that 2018 scandal when one of their own was caught giving answers none of the students had asked for. Some students who had their title taken away just want to be able to market themselves as Master Sommeliers again and hope the Court will restore their credentials. Longtime sommeliers I talked to are split about their feelings for the Court’s future. Some prefer to look past the old board and the rotten apples and focus on the good, educational elements of the organization. Others want to help it rehabilitate its fallen reputation. And then there are those who see the Court as irredeemable and want to watch it burn.

The American branch of the Court of Master Sommeliers is more than four decades old, but the original was started in Great Britain even earlier by several trade associations that sought highly educated members of the service industry who could better sell their products. As much as the public thinks of a Master Sommelier, they probably conjure images of suited-down men with esoteric lapel pins, Grantchester-knotted ties, and sparkly tastevins around their necks—hospitable gentlemen who stalk the mahogany wine cellars and white-tablecloth dining rooms of steakhouses and Michelin-starred restaurants across the land enlisted to gently upsell America’s upper crust as they peruse the wine list. 

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The sommelier’s world is much larger, though. Sure, many work at the world’s top restaurants. But others endorse and hawk product for top wineries; they earn lucrative consulting fees; they buy for gourmet supermarkets; or, working for distributors, they use their cachet to sell wine to such places (most importantly the subpar swill, since the best wine sells itself). Sommeliers, in other words, are conscripted to serve a clientele that demands the best things. That’s why surveys show that a Master Sommelier’s salary is double that of an Advanced Sommelier’s salary (the next level down): about $160,000 per year versus around $80,000. And so aside from the prestige, the promise of becoming a Master Sommelier—there are only 269 of them in the world—is that all that time and money invested will pay off for a few of the thousands of people who put in the work.

So how does one become a Master Sommelier? It isn’t totally unlike becoming a Shaolin warrior monk. The 2012 documentary Somm highlighted the demanding lifestyle—and drew thousands of aspiring sommeliers into the Court of Master Sommeliers’ lucrative certification programs in the past decade. In order to simply have a chance of passing, candidates must constantly drink, discuss, and study wine with others to the detriment of outside relationships; they toil in restaurants while their friends go off to med school or fancy offices; they spend big every year on wine, travel, and entry-level exams, then endure years of failing the Masters Exam until a few finally pass its three legendarily difficult portions. 

“It requires a level of dedication that’s almost a sickness.”

There’s Theory, a 50-minute oral exam, which is a bit like the most intense wine category ever on Jeopardy! Then there’s Service, a mock restaurant-floor test in which students must display impeccable knowledge, manners, and sangfroid while serving tables of Master Somms posing as nightmare dining customers. Finally, there’s Tasting, which many succinctly describe as “a mindfuck”: It’s a sampling of six unidentified glasses (three white, three red) over 25 stressful minutes in which the candidate must identify each wine’s region, vintage, and varietal aloud using deductive reasoning—enumerating each wine’s clarity, viscosity, bouquet, and all its tasting notes. Adding to both the mystique and opacity of it all, the correct answers are never officially revealed.

“It requires a level of dedication that’s almost a sickness,” explained one prominent Master Sommelier, who wished to remain nameless. “You see people’s obsessiveness and the drive to get through it. If you fall into that type of personality, it’s almost the perfect exam for you.”

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Passing the Tasting portion requires experience and a freakishly calibrated tongue, but also a savvy knowledge of which lingo to use before the judges. Aspiring candidates spend many days and late nights studying flashcards with fellow students and flying around the country to taste wine alongside Master Sommeliers. The dynamic between mentors and students is typically fraternal: Certain Masters spend many hours every year teaching classes at all levels, tasting wine with candidates, and grading the exams. 

A month after that 2018 Theory exam, a woman who received Narito’s email yet failed the test came forward to the Court of Master Sommeliers through a lawyer, email in hand. The board hastily arranged a meeting; and on the following Monday, the Court broke the news that because of a breach, all test-takers who passed were, as of that moment, no longer considered Master Sommeliers. Narito’s cheating wasn’t widespread. In total, only three people received his email, and they hardly knew each other; so as the remaining new Master Sommeliers scrambled for clarification, they wondered why this otherwise hospitable organization, stuffy and maybe sycophantic as it is, would kick the entire class to the curb.

The Court said little about its decision publicly. But when it released a statement, one comment from then-chairman Devon Broglie stood out. “Maintaining the integrity of the examination process must be our highest priority, lest we risk diminishing the value of, and the respect earned from, becoming a Master Sommelier,” Broglie wrote.

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Narito swiftly departed from the Court but little else happened. Under the apparent guidance of a crisis management company called Kith, the Court conducted no independent investigation, nor gave its newest members much of a chance to exonerate themselves. A printout of the minutes from the board meeting, obtained by Newsy, is blacked out as if it were a CIA document.

These behind-the-scenes machinations with little to no transparency appear to have been standard procedure at the Court, where power players exercised authority for their own depraved ends. As the saying goes about absolute power, these board members appeared determined to hold onto it. While the wine industry celebrates the astonishingly few sommeliers who become Masters, there’s a large, overlooked network of sommeliers across the country who didn’t quite make it. One of them was a character with little to lose who knew that something untoward had happened at the Masters Exam in 2009.

Short, solid, tattooed, and with a man-bun up top, Arthur Black doesn’t cut the figure of an ordinary sommelier. He endearingly describes his upbringing in Indiana as “a stone’s throw away from white trash.” He travels to the Himalayas for spiritual retreats, and once to Southeast Asia to drink a grain-based spirit made with the corpse of a jackal. Black is also a wine savant who confidently passed Theory exams with minimal effort and won sommelier competitions. He could be confrontational, many knew, and his disdain for pretentiousness did not always mesh well among Master Sommeliers. Despite Black’s talents and his work for the Court, it did not welcome him with open arms.

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From his backyard in Indianapolis one afternoon, Black explained how Masters who’d known him for years still ordered him to wear a name tag around them at official events, simply for not being a Master himself. One year, Black sat down for a Tasting exam only to be told that the test, full of inscrutable wines poured seemingly just for him, “was designed to teach you a lesson.” Another year, Black received a letter in the mail from the Court congratulating him for passing the test. Was it an error or a joke? Neither would have surprised him. (The Court apologized for it).

Black took the Theory exam in 2009. Back in those days, the Court didn’t sequester students or take their phones during the exam. It was a tradition for students to rush out of it and write down all the questions they remembered, as a study guide for their colleagues in the future. But that year, someone who’d taken the test in the morning emailed the questions to friends who were scheduled to take the test later that day. Black had heard whispers about it and even was forwarded the email days later.

That evening, after the test, Black played billiards with a high-ranking board member he won’t name. “What do you know about the breach of Theory knowledge on the exam?” the board member asked Black. It was a strange question. It meant the board likely knew that day about cheating and yet they never went on to void the results or penalize anybody, like in 2018. (Tellingly, the Court began sequestering students following Theory exams starting in 2010.) Since some who passed this exam went on to become board members and the chairman who presided over Narito’s email scandal, wouldn’t they have been determined to cover up the 2009 exam at any cost? Any outside investigation into Narito’s exam cheating would have likely uncovered this often-whispered-about cheating in 2009. And anyway, Narito had so many students over the years and thus a potentially very deep rabbit hole. Numerous Master Sommeliers would be under suspicion.

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Faced with the potential of a nuclear-grade fallout, it was in the Court’s best interest as an organization to simply cut ties with Narito and move far, far away from such a visible cheating incident, no matter the consequences. Indeed, the 2018 students who had their titles indefinitely suspended were flippantly described by one Master Sommelier to another as a “casualty of war.”

When the Court unilaterally suspended the Master Sommelier titles for the class of 2018 because of Narito’s email, the students got on a conference call, started an email thread, and got organized to try to appeal the decision as a group. Nichols was still on these emails, and it was killing him inside. After several sleepless nights, he decided he’d turn himself in. Nichols submitted a statement to the Court, and after thanking him, the board made a curious request: Don’t tell anyone you received the email.

Nichols wanted to tell the owners of the restaurant he worked at so that they could distance themselves from the scandal. And he wanted to tell the rest of the group. But he was beaten to it when someone connected to the Court approached a member of the email thread named Dan Pilkey, whispering that there was one person in Pilkey’s group who hadn’t come clean. Only in hindsight did the group suspect the Court orchestrated this in order to divide and conquer.

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“I emailed everyone and I said, ‘I learned that one of you was compromised and I know who it is,’ when I didn’t. ‘And I’m going to go ahead and give you 24 hours to come forward,’” Pilkey said.

As others chimed in, the walls were quickly closing in on Nichols, who told them everything—including that the Court told him to keep quiet. It did not go down well. 

“You can’t open the email, dude, and look at it and then go take the test,” Pilkey told VICE. “You just can’t. You go to the grocery store and you buy a beer and the guy gives you $50 or $100 back for the change, what do you do? Do you put it in your pocket or do you say, ‘Hey man, you got the wrong change here’?”

This group found it especially shocking that the Court would strip everyone’s titles without evidence simply because the candidates theoretically could have shared Narito’s answers to the Tasting exam among themselves. Nevertheless, this group of suspended Master Sommeliers offered to have their phones examined for forensic evidence, to take polygraph exams, or to simply remove the two compromised wines from the scoring. They urged the Court to launch an independent investigation. The Court did none of it. Narito had sent the emails from his work account, and his former boss offered all of his emails to the Court’s board as evidence, but the Court refused them. The Court then banned Nichols and one other man who received the email from Narito from the organization for five years. For the rest, the Court only offered them a chance to retake the exam at no charge—which is a bit like summiting Mount Everest, returning to base camp, then being told to do it all over again. Some retook it and got their titles back. Pilkey and others failed.

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“The board refused to look at evidence that could exonerate individuals,” Pilkey said. “They were unwilling to work with [Narito’s former CEO], who has said explicitly that he has Narito’s emails from the exam dates—and he has more emails that might be of value. However, the Court never investigated these options. They turned a blind eye to finding out what happened and if something like this occurred previously.”

Why did Narito share answers that, by all accounts, no one asked for? What would drive a generous man whose life was wine, mentorship, and affiliation with the Court to do something like this?

For this original group of 24, those early job offers and promotions got rescinded. They were suddenly seen by the wine industry as guilty by association, no matter if they’d gotten that email they didn’t ask for—or indeed, had ever even met Narito. Among those I spoke to, some sought therapy. Some sank into a deep depression. Old friends in the group became enemies. All went on to exist in a sort of purgatory in the wine world: They’d actually passed one of the world’s hardest tests but weren’t allowed to be recognized for it.

Soon after the retest, things got worse for Pilkey. The Court ordered him to remove his “M.S.” title from his social media accounts. Pilkey, angry about it all, dug in.

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“Go ahead and sue me,” he said he told the Court. “Bring it.”

The Court did just that in June 2019, suing him in an actual court—a federal one in California—for intellectual property and trademark infringement. Pilkey’s lawyer, found and paid for by a group of respected Master Sommeliers who’d become critical of the Court’s handling of this whole mess, got the case swiftly dismissed on a technicality: The judge ruled that the Court of Master Sommeliers’ legal eagles had sued Pilkey—who lives and works in Chicago—in the wrong jurisdiction.

That September, the Court sent its members an updated code of ethics to sign. Some saw it as a loyalty oath: it gave the Court the ability to revoke a Master Sommelier’s title if they publicly criticized the organization.

Following The New York Times’ sexual-assault story, the board was forced to resign and a new board was elected in December with a mandate to eliminate the toxic sexual power dynamics and to be more inclusive. The board has been conducting periodic listening sessions in an effort to be more open, but it hasn’t yet addressed the 2018 cheating scandal.

The Court denied an interview request for this story; a representative said the body had nothing new to say about the email cheating scandal. Narito has kept a low profile since the 2018 test, and he did not respond to several interview requests. In their silence, meanwhile, questions persist. Why did Narito share answers that, by all accounts, no one asked for? What would drive a generous man whose life was wine, mentorship, and affiliation with the Court to do something like this? No one else seems to know. But there are plenty of theories.

Given that Narito sold wine for a distributor, some speculated that it’d be good for business if he’d helped would-be M.S.’s along since those he helped pass would supposedly feel obligated to buy wine from him. But people who knew Narito don’t buy that theory. Others say that perhaps he gamely competed against other mentors for which of them could help the most candidates become Masters and got carried away. But given that mentors don’t appear to have been keeping tally—and that the patriarch of the Court (a man named Fred Dame, whose Master Sommelier title was suspended in the wake of the New York Times story) was not only the most respected mentor but also reportedly Narito’s mentor—this doesn’t seem especially likely.

One sommelier who wished to remain nameless out of fear of professional retribution knew Narito personally and has a more nuanced, complimentary take. From past conversations, he suspects Narito became jaded with the Court’s selective manner of admittance and might’ve gone rogue, deciding to help students whom Narito felt truly belonged in the Court finally get over the line. In other words, it was a charitable but ill-considered gesture that went horribly wrong.

Others wonder whether Narito was taking orders from someone on the board. One former board member was in a relationship with the original whistleblower who received Narito’s email yet didn’t pass the test, and came forward. According to this theory, it would follow that when caught, Narito became the fall guy for it all.

Regardless of why Narito cheated, many people VICE spoke to were astonished that he’d sent those answers to the test from his work email account. To them, this carelessness suggests it might not have been the first time he’d done it, or that he was at least comfortable doing so.

If the Court’s new board is interested in ever letting the entire 2018 group wear their red lapel pins again, it isn’t saying so. And after the Machiavellian maneuvering, the snake’s lair of sexual aggression revealed in the Court, and that delay by the Court last summer in affirming its support for Black Lives Matter, several in the 2018 group no longer seem particularly interested in being Master Sommeliers.

Nichols won’t entertain the idea, but he’d still like for things to be made right for the others. “Now that there’s a new board of directors, I’m hoping some traction can be made in making things right for the people who didn’t get the email back in 2018,” he said recently.

Pilkey is conflicted himself. “All I want is for someone to look at it and say, ‘Y’all didn’t cheat, you passed, that’s why we gave you a pin. And if you want to come back in, you can, but that’s your choice to make,’” he said. “That’s what I want to hear.”

“I always justified the years of waiting tables and taking shit restaurant jobs by saying to myself, ‘One day, it’s gonna be worth it,’” Pilkey explained. “I really wanted to be a part of it, but then they showed their true colors by being aloof and evil to their own people. So at the end of the day, it’s like, why do I want to go back?”

Tagged:

wine, cheating, court of master sommeliers

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