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Dublin, Ireland
Hi, I'm Dermot Nolan, and I became a Master of Wine (MW) in 1997, and resigned from the Institute of Masters of Wine in 2023 after being an MW for exactly 26 years. I opened a wine shop in Dún Laoghaire, Ireland, called The Wine Library, which closed in 2018, and this is my personal wine blog. I will do my utmost to be fair and responsible in my posts – please read my Who Pays article in re the ethics of wine trips and writing. I have worked in wine education, retail, and consultancy since 1990. I was a Director of the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) from 2008 to 2014 and was also a member of the Events Committee, founder of the Trips Committee, and member of the Governance Committee. Having had problems with potentially libellous comments from unidentifiable posters, I now require that if you post a comment, you must identify yourself properly or it won't be published. Please note that I do not review products or services on request so kindly don't ask. I value my independence and I believe my readers (few that they may be) do so also.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Fit for purpose...

Are Harpers wine blogs fit for purpose?
No. Not a bit, judging by a recent example, namely one entitled “Is the Institute of Masters of Wine fit for purpose?” by Mr Stephen Forward. The main reason for my negative response is that he states the Institute (IMW) is an elitist club, accessible only by invitation and is not fit for purpose. He further states that IMW is not relevant to the modern wine industry.

Funnily enough Messrs Christian Seeley of AXA, Etienne Bizot of Bollinger and Johnny Symington all disagree with Mr Forward on this point. At a summit meeting between IMW Council and our Supporters in January of this year this very topic was raised and all the supporters present felt that IMW was relevant and that its major strengths were its knowledge, independence and integrity. Shame Mr Forward didn’t interview any of these gentlemen before writing his blog.
As for accessible only by invitation this is blatant nonsense and so not worth any further discussion. Elitist also falls since there is being elitist – rejecting others for no good reason – and being an elite – those demonstrably at the top of their profession. How anyone can contend that a global organisation with members spread across a large number of countries and nationalities is elitist is beyond me. Yes, a number of our members are OBEs and AMs and MBAs but the vast majority are pretty ordinary people.
Fit for purpose is an interesting choice of words as I cannot find in his blog any clear definition of the  purpose for which he feels IMW is unfit. He states that we have failed in our original remit to improve the standard of Education in the British wine trade. Wow – try telling that to WSET who have a number of MWs in their staff and who regularly employ, directly or indirectly, a substantial number of MWs globally (not just in the mother country) to deliver their programmes from Level 1 to Level 4.
He states that there are no jobs for which the MW qualification is a prerequisite – this is generally true but there are also few jobs in the wine business advertised seeking candidates with a wine MBA, for example. Yet, in both cases, many employers are keen to have their staff seek these qualifications so, while not a prerequisite, the qualification is seen as relevant to various high-level functions within the industry.
However, the bulk of Mr Forward’s argument is based around his interpretation of remarks made by Jancis Robinson MW in relation to this year’s examination. I have not read her article but I will assume the quotations used are accurate. His key point is the use of the phrase “deceptively simple”. From this he infers that the Examiners seek to trip up or deceive students and, given the overall thrust of his blog, that this is in keeping with the IMW seeking to keep out the rabble.
Here is a deceptively simple question which anyone can answer – what are the prospects for peace in the medium term in the Middle East? I can offer an answer to that, as could Mr Forward. However, I would warrant that those answers, well thought out though they may be, would pale beside an answer from Mr Robert Fisk, say, whose deep knowledge of the region would grant him far better insight than I would have.
Mr Forward has misunderstood, or chosen to misconstrue, the words used by Jancis Robinson MW. The Examiners seek answers which display a depth of analysis and an ease of communication which marks out the future MW. The IMW seeks those who form opinions, not simply follow them. No matter how many well-prepared students sit the Examination only the very best will display those characteristics. The questions are normally quite straightforward but the quality of answer ranges from little more than a decent WSET Level 4 Diploma answer to a truly interesting and insightful MW answer. It is not deceptive in the sense of trapping the unwary student, it is deceptive in that too many fail to think deeply enough about their subject.
He then trots out the old chestnut of a 10% pass rate, so I will take this opportunity to nail that one forever. In the years from 2002 to 2013 the number of new MWs, as a percentage of those sitting the Examination ranged from 2.15% (2004) to 18.13% (2011). The average was 10.11%. Aha! Cry all the detractors – that’s what we said – a pass rate of 10%! Well, it’s not. To pass, students also have to write a Third Paper so the number of new MWs cannot be directly related to the numbers sitting the Examination. In the years 2005 to 2013 some 748 people sat the Examination and 81 of those (10.83%) achieved full passes. Aha! The 10% again!
But hang on there. A substantial number of students sit the Examination a number of times. By my calculation the absolute minimum number of distinct people sitting in that time frame is 269. Those 81 full passes now make up 30.11% of those sitting. The true number is extremely difficult to establish without breaching the confidentiality of the whole process but I would estimate it is closer to 25% than 10%.
IMW has failed, though, as an educational body – which is pretty good going since an educational body is not what IMW is! We do not set out to educate students (although we persist in using the term “Education Programme” when I have always used the term “Study Programme”) but it seems to me that there is a perception that we are meant to educate. This perception is probably understandable amongst people who have never engaged with IMW but it is astonishing when students feel that we should educate them. The path to becoming an MW requires a substantial degree of self-study and self-discipline; far too many start out with stars in their eyes but fail to appreciate fully what is required. Too often they become disillusioned and blame IMW when, in fact, the fault lies on their side. Regardless of some very real failings on the part of IMW it is the student alone, in the examination hall, who chooses to write the inaccurate or irrelevant sentence, who chooses to misinterpret the wine in the glass before them – ultimately, unpalatable though this may be for some, it is the student, alone, who is responsible for their own failure.
I have told students on many occasions, bluntly, that they will fail. I then point out that the key issue is not that this happens but how they respond. Can they determine why they failed and can they adjust accordingly? Can they maintain the required standard in areas of strength while they work on weaknesses? Will they travel to wherever is required in order to gain the knowledge they need? Regardless of what anyone, student or informed, well-researched outsider, may think the only reason students fail is that they have not done enough or they simply are not good enough.
This last point is one that few critics of IMW are prepared to face – simply put, not everyone who sits the Examination is actually good enough to pass. How many youngsters start out on the career path of professional footballer and how many get to play for the Premier League Champions? How many people work in any company and how many make it the position of Managing Director? There are always those who fall away. In some cases it is because life circumstances have changed, in some it is because they realise that they are not going to pass. I have the greatest respect for anyone who sits the Examination as they have put their reputation on the line. Many people whom I hold in great regard have tried and failed - but that does not in any way change my views on their specialist knowledge or tasting ability. It seems, however, that many critics of IMW feel that we should accept nearly everyone who comes our way. Why? Why has any one person the absolute right to become an MW? That right is earned by way of the full examination process, and is hard earned at that.

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