Court of Master Sommeliers

Court of Master Sommeliers

PO Box 6170, Napa, California, 94581 Napa California USA


Court of Master Sommeliers: An introduction

The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) is an organization established in April 1977 to sponsor improved standards of service, especially wine and cuisine pairing, in hotels and restaurants. Several trade groups founded the Court and wine companies in England. The founders include the Vintners Company,  The British Hotels & Restaurants Association, the Wine & Spirit Association of Great Britain, and the Wholesale Tobacco Trade Association.

The Court of Master Sommeliers is best known for its Master Sommelier exam, which they claim is the most challenging test in the world. The movie SOMM and the tv show “Uncorked” both feature elements of the Master Sommelier exam.

For the current scandals plaguing the CMS –including charges of racism and sexual violence– please refer to this page:  Master Sommelier Scandals

Master Sommelier

“In the future,” Mr. Gazzi said, “Britain’s wine butlers will be able to obtain a Master Sommelier’s Diploma to prove their expertise. This will lie open to practising wine butlers with at least five years’ experience and who are members of the guild.


All professional wine schools offer a range of certifications, the Court of Master Sommeliers included. Certification ranges from beginner levels (levels 1&2) to the highest (level 5). A breakdown of these certification levels can be found here: Sommelier Certifications.

Along with Court, several other certification programs offer Master Sommelier equivalent diplomas. However, the Court of Master Sommeliers trademarked the term “Master Sommelier” to prevent other schools from using the phrase. These programs can be compared here: Comparison of Sommelier Courses.

Master Sommelier Cheating Scandal

It is now known that the Master Sommelier exam has been compromised.

  1. Reggie Narito, MS, was an exam proctor for the Court of Master Sommeliers; he had the list of wines before the exam.
  2. He also held prep classes for Master Sommelier candidates before the September 2018 exam.
  3. He apparently shared the list of wines with several of his students via text or email.
  4. Two Master Sommeliers have confirmed that Narito shared the list of wines with some of the exam takers.
  5. After the cheating was discovered, Reggie Narito was stripped of his Master Sommelier title.
  6. An exam taker came forward after the exam and admitted to cheating and supplied evidence to the  CMS.
  7. A source within the agency has stated that this may not have been the first time people have cheated on the exam.
  8. Due to the scandal, the entire class of 2018 had their Master Sommelier certification nullified, 23 people in all.

For the current scandals plaguing the CMS –including charges of racism and sexual violence– please refer to this page:  Master Sommelier Scandals

Origin of the Master Sommelier

Although they own the trademark of the term “Master Sommelier,” the Guild did not invent the exam or the phrase. There were Master Sommeliers before the Court of Master Sommeliers was formed in 1977.

Master Sommelier certification was the work of an earlier group, The Guild of Sommeliers. They were pioneers in accrediting sommeliers; the first Master Sommelier (aka Level 5) exam was held in 1969. Even back then, it would take years to earn your level 5 diploma, which is still considered the highest level of wine certification available. The exam has earned its reputation as tricky, with many students failing every year.

How Much Does It Cost to Become a Master Sommelier?

As of 2017, the total cost of taking the required exams is $2,910. However, the actual price of earning the Master Sommelier pin is over $20,000. That is due to a series of hidden fees. The highest costs are wine, travel, and repeating exams: The average student will have to re-take exams between 2-6 times. Most will also attend a qualified wine school while taking the Court of Master exams.

  • Introductory Course (Exam and One Day Class) $525
  • Certified Sommelier Examination (Exam Only) $595
  • Advanced Sommelier (Exam and Three Day Class) $995
  • Master Sommelier (Exam Only) $795

Count on at least $150 to $300 a week with travel/books/wine/education costs to do this correctly.  Yes, that’s up to $15,000 a year.


Court of Master Sommeliers Exams

Unlike other wine certification agencies, the Court does not run a wine school. Instead, they offer seminars and exams held in hotel conference rooms.

Certified Sommelier Exam (Level 3 Sommelier Certification)

This exam is one of the more straightforward Level 3 sommelier exams. Knowledge of major wine regions, including history and major varietals, is enough to pass the written exam. Some knowledge of basic winemaking techniques (malolactic fermentation, for example) is also helpful. The written exam is multiple-choice, making it particularly easy for some students.

  • Written Exam (35 Minutes).  45 question multiple-choice exam.
  • Blind Tasting (30 Minute). The student has to taste and identify between two and four wines.
  • Practical Exam. The student will have to open a bottle of wine and make pairing recommendations.

While one of the more straightforward exams, it isn’t easy. We suggest attending a level three sommelier prep course at a qualified wine school. For a list of wine schools, go here: reviews of wine schools.

 Advanced Sommelier Exam (Level 4 Sommelier Certification)

The three-day seminar and the exam are held separately. Do not rely on the material given in the courses, as much of the exam contents are outside the scope of a three-day program. Less than 20% of students pass this exam.

  • Written Theory (1 Hour)
  • Blind Tasting  (25 Minutes)
  • Practical Exam (45 Minutes)

The exam lasts for two days.

The written theory section comprises 60 short answer questions and 24 multiple-choice questions.

To pass the blind tasting section of this exam, the student must be familiar with deductive wine tasting. The Court refers to this as “The Grid.” In the blind tasting portion of the exam,  you will have to identify the grape varietal of six wines. This will be the most challenging part of the exam. Therefore, it is strongly recommended you seek out a wine school (or tutor) specializing in a component tasting before attempting this program.

The practical section of the exam covers basic restaurant service. If you have a background in classic French service,  this will be the most manageable portion of the exam.

Master Sommelier Exam (Level 5 Sommelier Certification)

The pass rate for this exam is between 5-8%: Only several hundred students have ever passed it since it took place in 1969. Whether that makes the Master Sommelier Exam a great or deeply flawed one is up for discussion.

It is comprised of three sections that are held over four days. The candidate must pass all three exam sections to qualify for the Master Sommelier pin. The sections mirror the  Certified Sommelier Exam:

  • Verbal Theory (3+ Hours)
  • Blind Tasting (25 minutes)
  • Practical Exam (1 Hour)

The difficulty of this exam is in how it’s executed: it is entirely verbal. In the theory section, a team of Master Sommeliers will ask you around 100 questions, which you must answer very quickly. Expect questions about obscure wine regions, rare grape varieties, viticulture, and any other topic related to wine. A focus on obscure regulations is a vital component of the exam.

In the blind tasting section, you will be blind-tasted on six wines. Grading is based on identifying grape varietal, appellation, and vintage. As in the practical exam, you will be giving your answers directly to the examination team. For many, this is the hardest part of the exam.

The practical section is relatively easy for seasoned waiters.

 The practical exam usually includes – decanting, service of champagne, wine and food pairing, business scenarios, a blind tasting of spirits, snappy scenarios, and many more tasks.


Pros & Cons

There are several reasons that the Court may not be your top choice for sommelier certification. However, one cannot deny that it is the most famous certification agency around. Also on the positive side is that its exams are exceptionally well-designed. If you earn your Advanced Sommelier certificate from the Court,  you will have accomplished something worthwhile.

The Math Doesn’t Make Sense

Some significant negatives should be considered. First, over 80% of people fail the Advanced Sommelier Exam, and nearly 95% fail the Master Sommelier Exam. Compare this to the failure rate of a Medical Board Exam (15%) or the failure rate of a Bar Exam (25%).

Think about this for a minute. Should a  wine exam have a failure rate higher than one for doctors and lawyers, no matter how prestigious? While some may say the Master Somm Exam is “the hardest exam on earth,” isn’t it more likely it’s the most flawed exam on earth?   This is especially true when you consider that the maximum earning potential of a Master Sommelier is lower than the starting salary of a doctor or lawyer.

Minimal Education Opportunities

The Court has developed a series of fantastic exams. However, their educational component is sadly lacking. The steep failure rate of its exams can be attributed to a complete lack of education options for its students. A student will need at least two semesters of wine classes to pass the Certified Exam. The Advanced Sommelier exam requires five to six semesters of classes. That is at least a year and a half of classes. How many does the Court offer? Four days of classes, total.

Exorbitant Cost

The price of the exams is only the tip of the iceberg. The unspoken truth of passing the Advanced and Master programs is that the people who pass the Master Sommelier exam have hired a private tutor or have enrolled in a two-year professional program at a top wine school.

Ironically, if you attend another wine school, they probably offer the same certification provided by the Court at a much lower price. You are effectively paying twice for the same thing. 

Zero Grading Transparency

One of the most significant concerns is the lack of grading transparency. There is anecdotal evidence that people should have passed an exam but failed. However, there is no way to prove or disprove these claims, as the Court of Master Sommeliers is not transparent in how it grades exams, nor does it return graded papers for review. This lack of accountability is troubling, especially when compounded with the astounding failure rates.

No Accreditation or Oversight

Our review of the Court is based on how well they do their job: certify sommeliers. Movies or tv shows are fantastic, but they have only one job: issue professional sommelier certifications.

The Court of Master Sommelier is not a state-regulated trade school. Instead, it relies on the loosely defined “trade certification” category to issue its sommelier credentials. This poses several problems and opens up significant questions regarding the long-term viability of their certifications.

One of the most critical elements of government oversight is the ability to verify whether exams are fair and balanced. Without it, there is no way to know whether the Court uses unfair metrics to pass certain people and fail others. In addition, there are standards for trade certification, which we use to rate the Court. All those acronyms — ACAP, ANSI, and ADA–  are essential to the proper functioning of a certification body.

Just because it’s wine-related doesn’t mean a professional certification agency can ignore its responsibilities to the public and its constituents. Without complying with these regulations, the Court opens itself up to litigation. For more details, please see the supplied documents below.

  • Accreditation
  • Sommelier Certification
  • Wine Trade Certification
  • Quality of Instruction
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Court of Master Sommeliers