The Institute of Masters of Wine slowly opens up

How does soil influence wine quality? How does changing a trellising system affect vineyard health and yields? Following malolactic fermentation, what options are available to reduce alcohol levels in finished wine and how should they be deployed? Critically examine the extent to which the increasing emphasis on “natural wine” is a positive development for consumers.

A record 98 candidates tackled questions like these two weeks ago in London, Napa, and Sydney. Then they had to dive into three blind tastings of twelve wines each, over two hours each, trying to parse differences in white, red, and sparkling (gah–with four moscato wines in the sparkling flight!). After passing the exams and submitting a 10,000-word research paper, the students would have their names added to the list of 298 current MWs worldwide. (Impressive as it is, some have wondered aloud if passing is little more than just a bragging right from a career perspective).

The Institute has posted the entire exam to their website and it is well worth checking out. Since there are no instructions, students had to respond to one question in each section A and two questions from each section B of the “theory” section. In the “practical” section, students must score 195 (out of a possible 300) to pass. It amounts to a really huge volume of wine knowledge that takes years to compile–students aren’t allowed to sit the exams until after two years of study. Richard Hemming, who took the exams this year, wrote on that he has spent almost $10,000 this year in tuition, exam fees, and wine to prepare. He also spent 28 “working days” preparing since last September. Since it’s rare to sail through on the first try, each student has three tries to pass the exams, given annually.

A couple of months ago, the Institute of Masters of Wine took the bold step of investigating one of its members for violations of its code of conduct; the member resigned. Posting this year’s full exam adds to the transparency and relevancy of the Institute. Now, what’s left for the Institute to achieve its own Perestroika is to make available not only the titles of the 10,000-word research papers that candidates must pass to become MWs (called “dissertations”), but also the papers themselves.

In higher education in the United States, Ph.D. dissertations are archived and accessible via UMI and any student’s master’s thesis is likely found in their university’s library. Certainly much research in the US relies on government funding in some way, whether a grant or at a state university, so there’s a fiscal basis for the openness. But most importantly, it’s about sharing ideas and findings to advance our collective knowledge. While the Institute of Masters of Wine is a private institution, their students draw on the industry’s time and resources while doing their research. We all benefit from the fruits of the vine; making the successful candidates’ essays publicly available would be the best way to share the fruits of their research with both consumers the trade. Indeed, in this era of information openness and wikileaks, it’s hard to see it any other way.

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21 Responses to “The Institute of Masters of Wine slowly opens up”

  1. I agree it would be good to see the dissertations, but I have heard that the reason most never make it to the public domain is that they can contain sensitive commercial information. For obvious reasons, some people choose to write about their own area of expertise, and could therefore compromise their respective clients/companies. Externally funded research must be published for ethical reasons. Privately funded research is perhaps a slightly self-indulgent exercise in academic rigour, but undertaking this exercise hopefully gives the individual a transferable discipline they can apply in other areas of their work. If you want to see a real MW dissertation, Tim Wildman posted his here

  2. Hi Keiron,

    Thanks for stopping by. Yes, it does seem self-indulgent if the only people to ever read the project are the three (?) committee members. If the several hundred MWs and students can see the papers of successful students on the IMW website, then the papers are sort of public, thus running counter to the commercial secrecy argument. So I say go all the way, Mr. Gorbachev, and tear down this wall! 😉

    Going forward, if the Institute wanted, they could certainly make clear to all students that the research would be published in the public domain.

    Interesting that Tim Wildman posted his on his own website. Someone had just asked me on Twitter if it were possible for a student to do that, so I guess that’s our answer.

  3. I’m afraid I don’t quite follow how publishing the questions has anything to do with publishing the papers of candidates. The candidates themselves will NEVER get to see what they wrote in an exam, and the institute would never publish anyone’s papers. Equally, the exam questions have been made public in the past – I certainly was able to look at them a few years ago when I first joined the trade and was curious what all the fuss was about. My comments on commercial secrecy had nothing to do with the nature of the exams, purely what candidates had written in their attempts to pass.

  4. As one of the 98 who sat the exam this year I can confirm that it is one of the most challenging things that can be undertaken. This is not the first time the institute has publicly posted the exam. I know last year’s went up shortly after the exam was over as well. For students, the exams over the past decade and beyond are easily found on the student section of the website. You do, however, need to be a student to get to them. Just as a clarification, Practical paper 3 is referred to as the “mixed bag” paper as it can have any type of wine including sparkling, fortified, dessert, roses, whites and reds on it. This years just looked like a “sparkling” paper with the 7 sparking wines that were included. Trust me, we were all pretty shocked at that one but it was a fun paper to answer.

  5. Hi Kieron,

    Just a question of semantics–two countries (or more, with the Commonwealth) separated by the same language.

    I don’t think there’s anything to be collectively gained in seeing the students’ individual exams, just their research papers. Confusingly, we wouldn’t call those “dissertations,” which tend to be the 100,000-word variety for Ph.D.s, but rather research papers or theses.

    Does that clear things up?

  6. Hi Nova,

    Thanks for stopping by. I’ve never seen the whole exam posted outside the subscriber wall before, just a few questions from the “theory” section.

    Thanks for clarifying that section three on the “practical” exam section could be other than sparkling. You might have hoped for that to dodge those moscati/muscats!

  7. What I was confused by was this comment;

    ” If the several hundred MWs and students can see the papers of successful students on the IMW website, then the papers are sort of public, thus running counter to the commercial secrecy argument. So I say go all the way, Mr. Gorbachev, and tear down this wall!”

    Only the examiners see anyone’s papers, and they only see the candidate number. No-one could deny that due to the nature of the exam it is perfectly possible for a marker to have some idea of whose script they may be marking from time to time, but that’s as far as it goes.

    The issue of semantics is a fair one. The IMW “definition” of a dissertation is not the same as for a PhD from anywhere to the best of my knowledge. Let’s just say, this is just a question of semantics. We all have bigger things to worry about, I’m sure!

  8. P.S. How on earth did you get that photo in the post above? It’s surely the line up of wines and exam room from paper 3 in London this year? Whoever took it was at serious risk of being disqualified, if they were a candidate.

  9. Hey, I for one was not complaining about the muscats! Easy marks. I stuck my nose in the first glass and knew exactly which variety I was dealing with. Identification of location was harder but they really didn’t ask you to identify the location on that question. It certainly helped with the winemaking section of the question to figure it out. Muscat is VERY commercially relevant on the global market today and I imagine that is why the examiners chose to put it on the exam.

  10. Gah! Kieron, you introduce yet another word for which we have different meanings: script! We usually keep those for plays or movies. 😉 I guess we would call what the students hand in their answers, essays, or, perhaps, exam booklet.

    Pretty soon we’re going to need to publish a US-UK glossary for this subject!

    Fortunately, wine = wine.

    As to the photo, I hyperlinked the source for the image, which was the IMW.

  11. Nova – Muscat is relevant today but four years ago it was a different story. I tried to sell good dry Muscat to many people and the wine buyers would like it, but they’d order a case or two because they had to sell it after all.

    Suddenly, and I mean real suddenly, people “discover” Moscato d’Asti and Muscat sales are off.

    What does that tell us?

    I have zero clue what the MW people have to say about it, but if you’ve spent time in the wine business, you figure it means that we’re on some fashion wave. So Muscat will be popular for a while, then it will fade away. Interesting that the good folks doing the MW test put so many in the line up.

    I hope you did well on your exam.

  12. Hi Tyler

    Thanks for an interesting article! I am the Communications Manager at the Institute of Masters of Wine.

    Publishing student dissertations is something that we have looked at in the past, and in some ways we agree it might be of benefit to the wider wine community if we could. However, it isn’t that easy, for the reasons mentioned by previous commenters (principally the ‘commercial in confidence’ issue).

    The Master of Wine qualification is all about communicating and sharing knowledge, so the Institute is very keen to present an open face to the world. For instance, we now have a Facebook page ( which we keep updated with photos, articles, and news from individual MWs. We also tweet to over 10,000 followers from @mastersofwine.

    This is in addition to all the information on our website, and of course our outreach via Events (including master classes worldwide), trips, and press.

    I would be delighted to talk to you direct. Please do drop me a line or give me a call – details are under News & Media on our website.

    All the best


    Ben McKeown

  13. […] Colman urges the Institute of Masters of Wine to “make available not only the titles of the 10,000-word […]

  14. A little confused on the blind tasting from a quality stand point. There are some really bad wines on the list and nothing from Washington State or Oregon. Also from Piedmont I would expect a Barolo to be represented not an Asti.

  15. Ben,

    Thanks for dropping by. I had contacted Siobhan Turner a couple of times prior to posting about the dissertations and she did not reply. So it is good to have some sort of a response from the IMW.

    Unfortunately, I find it hard to reconcile the Institute’s desire to “share knowledge” with the reluctance to post even the titles of the “dissertations.” Why do you allow the students to undertake something under the pretense of sharing knowledge and then treat it as if it were a business consulting project? Really, there’s a disconnect there that I don’t get–perhaps you can explain why the capstone achievement for this educational qualification should remain private.

    Maybe you could put the question to current MWs or your 10,000 followers on Twitter?

  16. Nova – congratulations on immediately picking out the muscats. Yes, that was good that you didn’t have to name the origins since a Gallo representative told me that they are having trouble getting it from anywhere! Funny you found the winemaking question to be a tip-off.

    Greg – good to see you here; thanks for your perspective.

    John Glas – yes, there are few “commercial” wines, which certainly makes a question about origins more difficult since they can lack specificity. As to your point about inclusion or omission of various regions, I suppose they can’t get everywhere on one test with only 36 slots for wines. If we had access to five years of tests, it would be more representative.

  17. Hi guys!

    Great post and even better comments I must say!

    This is the first time I checked the exam and I must admit is surprising that there are no spanish wines. Even in the practical part 3.

    Don’t get me wrong this is only curiosity not me being a chauvinist! 🙂

    Salut i un Brindis!

  18. Hi Tyler,

    The issue in re the availability of Dissertations is the commercial sensitivity of some of the information included. A number of people in the trade impart some very sensitive information on the basis that only the Examiners get to see it. Consequently, even MWs are often unable to view Dissertations.

    The copyright of all Dissertations rests with IMW so it is purely an IMW decision to decide on publication or not; it is not up to students or MWs to do so. While many MWs would prefer to have the Dissertations available to the membership this is not currently possible.

    In relation to our desire to share knowledge, I should point out that this is a general aim and does not refer to specific Dissertations, exam scripts or other information as such. Rather, it is an aim of the IMW to do our best to bring people from differing areas of the world of wine together to allow for sharing of knowledge.

    In terms of opening up, I am constantly amazed at the view that we are secretive in any way, or even mysterious. I have always answered questions about IMW fully and am always prepared to give as much information as I can. In my experience, those who find us in need of opening up have rarely actually been in touch and are often repeating other people’s (usually outdated) opinions. I’m sure you can vouch for my ability to speak out LOL!

    All the best,


  19. The points above are well made and I agree there could always be more dialogue between the trade and the IMW. We are in an era of increasingly close partnerships between academic institutions and private enterprise. Universities and the like certainly generate commercially sensitive research (and more importantly generate funding, patents, or ideas with commercial value) while still contributing to the wider body of knowledge via published papers, articles and academic journals.
    There is a view that the dissertations generated through the MW program are primarily a store of academic rather than commercial wealth, and one could argue that in this light that some MW dissertations are not commercially sensitive enough.
    There are already a number of commercial sponsors of the IMW and I am quite surprised that they have not been more innovative and sought to generate real commercial value for themselves and the wider industry by introducing research topics and ideas to the dissertation program. Such an approach may also establish or enhance a newly minted MW’s reputation for excellence in a particular area, highlight the relevance of the IMW in new ways, while generating valuable and genuinely useful applied research.

  20. In my travels, I have had the pleasure of knowing well many MWs. I respect their knowledge and palate very much, particularly those in the business of making or selling wine. A tall task to pass that test…makes them worthy of our respect.

  21. […] much less actually pass it.  I was reminded of this while reading the comments generated by a blog from Dr. Vino last […]


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