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.”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.
“It requires a level of dedication that’s almost a sickness.”
For this original group of 24, those early job offers and promotions got rescinded.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.
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?