When I got in trouble as a teenager, my parents directed me to “take the stand” behind a formal, burled wood dining table. We never actually ate there. It was purely for family court. Slinking into a stiff chair, dread heavy in my stomach, I’d endure an interrogation akin to a witness on cross-examination.
My dad was a trial lawyer, and I became intimately familiar with the legal profession. In high school, I worked in his office answering phones and filing papers. But overhearing his clients’ problems (wrongful termination, employment discrimination) and the strategy sessions on how to tackle them instilled a respect for the vital role of advocacy.
That was until I practiced law in New York.
Watching lawyers in bad suits fight over scraps before a judge, my illusions and idealism dissipated like smoke in the wind.
So I had a Fordham Law degree, but I loathed the profession. What to do? I always had a strong interest in writing, and I developed an equally strong affinity for wine. (What lawyer doesn’t?) I challenged myself to taste and learn more, completing all of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) courses, culminating with the three-year diploma.
It’s easier to earn a license to represent a defendant facing a death sentence than be certified as a Master of Wine by The Institute of Masters of Wine in Britain.
During this time, I quit law to break into wine writing. As successes in my new field mounted, it became apparent that the details of my job—traveling, tasting, interviewing and reporting—were tailor-made for the Masters of Wine (MW) program. I applied and was accepted.
What also became apparent, however, was that achieving one of the most recognized pinnacles of vinous “mastery” could be harder and costlier in money, time, and emotional energy, than becoming a lawyer. That’s not to mention arguably less financial return on the investment.
Let’s compare numbers. On September 1, 88 new candidates were accepted into the MW program. That same month, only 13 (13!) new Masters of Wine were inducted for the entire year. Those 13 brought the worldwide total of MWs to 354 recipients across 28 countries. (The institute does not release exam pass rates.)
Earning the designation requires demonstrated mastery of every facet of the wine industry, from viticulture, winemaking and marketing, in addition to the wines poured blind into your glass.
By contrast, America has a glut of lawyers. In 2015, the American Bar Association (ABA) reported 1,300,705 licensed attorneys. Obviously, there’s more work for attorneys than wine professionals, but that’s still an enormous number. In July 2015, 70% of first-time candidates passed the New York State Bar exam.
Comparing costs, law school initially appears more expensive. Annual tuition ranges from $17,000 per year (public university) to $43,000 (a top private school).
“Tuition” for the MW program runs around $4,000 per year. That includes a weeklong seminar advising how to take the exam, but does not cover the content tested. That’s because the MW program is self-taught.
“To be successful at either, you have to be motivated by a certain drive and curiosity beyond the norm. We do it, though, I think, because the challenges themselves, of becoming a lawyer or an MW, are enormously satisfying. Both are an exploration into incredibly deep spheres of knowledge.” —Anna Lee Iijima, Wine Enthusiast Contributing Editor, MW candidate and former lawyer
That cost doesn’t include airfare to get to the seminar (held in international cities like San Francisco) or hotels, which can contribute $2,000 to the bill. Add another $2,000 in testing fees, plus $2,000 more for travel and lodging near the examination site. That’s $10,000 before you’ve spent a penny on actual education.
Multiply those costs over several years, and suddenly, the price of law school no longer dramatically eclipses the MW program.
The next cost is time. To earn a law license requires three years of full-time school (with exception for the rare law reader), three months of study prep and two days for the exam. John F. Kennedy Jr. famously failed the New York Bar Exam twice. I passed on my first try.
Much like law school, the MW program requires a minimum of three years, but it can demand seven or eight, assuming that the candidate finishes.
After the first year, candidates take a one-day assessment to pass into Stage Two, which earns the right to take the four-day exam. Many fail that assessment or get held back a year. And it requires nearly as much studying as taking the bar exam.
So, it’s easier to earn a license to represent a defendant facing a death sentence than be certified as a Master of Wine by The Institute of Masters of Wine in Britain.
Compounding the torment, MW exams are offered just once a year, not twice like the bar. If MW candidates survive the notorious test, they can spend another year or longer to research and write a paper.
And then there’s the mental cost. And relationship costs. The MW pursuit is a long and lonely path, akin to night school without a defined ending or assurance of success.
It tests the limits of a candidate’s emotional stamina. How do you press on, studying year after year, in the face of failure? Do you spend your weekends with your tasting group and vacation days on study trips, or build sandcastles on the beach with your kids?
“There were times when I doubted everything. My sanity, my ability, my decision to embark on this program…I had certainly underestimated the cost, and there were times I felt my brain breaking from the strain.” —Anne Krebiehl MW
And once you receive your shiny, new initials, then what? With a law school diploma comes the likely earning power to pay back expensive loans. For a Master of Wine, that path is less apparent.
“There are obvious parallels between the kind of people who pursue law and the Master of Wine,” says Anna Lee Iijima, a contributing editor at Wine Enthusiast. She’s a MW candidate and former lawyer. “To be successful at either, you have to be motivated by a certain drive and curiosity beyond the norm. We do it, though, I think, because the challenges themselves, of becoming a lawyer or an MW, are enormously satisfying. Both are an exploration into incredibly deep spheres of knowledge.”
Wine Enthusiast Contributing Editor Anne Krebiehl is one of those 354 certified MWs.
“There were times when I doubted everything,” Krebiehl said of her experience. “My sanity, my ability, my decision to embark on this program…I had certainly underestimated the cost, and there were times I felt my brain breaking from the strain. On the other hand, I am glad for the appreciation of the world of wine it has granted me. I worked vintage in three different countries, spent endless weekends and evenings at blind tastings or huddled in my bed surrounded by books, putting everything else on hold. However, I also met fascinating people on the course who are now dear friends. It was a huge challenge and I am glad I faced it.”
For me, tackling the program is as much about the journey as the destination. The path to understand wine is never complete. The MW framework forces candidates beyond their expertise. It provides a broad, holistic perspective of the wine world’s interconnectedness by viewing earth from space and a granular understanding when evaluating a vineyard block.
This process makes us better, more rigorous wine professionals, whether we earn the initials or not. While the Institute discourages candidates (dubbed “tourists”) from joining to access benefits (trips, industry contacts, prestige of affiliation) without the intent to finish, for the sake of your sanity, the process must be viewed as a means of self-growth. Otherwise, repeated failures feel pointless and expensive. Law school, on the other hand, is a means to an end.
I see the Master of Wine as an amalgamation of a law degree and a Master of Fine Arts degree that bridges reason, practicality and business with art. I spend time with the architects of liquid beauty. They deliver a product that links people across divergent cultures and puts a little happiness back into the world.
I never met a person who wished they spent more time with their lawyer, but most regretted not having that second bottle of wine.