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Becoming a Master of Wine (MW)


Joel Butler MW

February 16, 2014-“Through its Members and activities, the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) promotes excellence, interaction and learning, across all sectors of the global wine community.”  This is the Mission statement of the Institute of Masters of Wine, created in 1953 to encourage greater professionalism and expertise within the Wine Trade of the UK, and now globally.  With 314 MWs today, attaining this high certification remains a great challenge, yet contrary to much of the hyperbole voiced by media and critics, it is quite do-able, provided one is diligent, motivated and prepared to work.


I was one of the first two resident Americans to pass the Examination in 1990, and have mentored several successful applicants since then. I tell potential candidates that becoming an MW requires a strong time commitment, certainly financial ones, and a desire to enjoy the learning process over the three-five years it takes most candidates to pass. Experience, through travel, normal book learning and ‘bottle learning’ are critical to success, but more important is your own curiosity and desire to broaden your knowledge and grow.  Attending graduate school is the closest analogy I can make.


The Master of Wine qualification is a professional one. Applicants are also required to have at least five years of professional experience within the wine industry. While the MW is not an “academic” degree per se, the format of the Exam does derive from the British academic system, where independent study, the accent on critical thinking and strong communication skills are deemed very important to showing mastery.


Becoming an MW requires passing a three part Examination: Five three-hour Theory (essay) papers covering everything from viticulture to commercial aspects and contemporary issues within the wine world; Three two-hour plus Practical tasting papers of 12 wines each, double blind tasted, these all taking place over a 4-5 day period. Finally, when one has passed both of those Exams, a Research Paper on an original topic, to be completed within one year of passing the Theory and Practical exams.  Once these are passed, signing the IMW Code of Conduct is the last act before officially becoming an MW.


The Theory examination in essay format is divided each day into different topics from viticulture to quality control and the importance of brands. Generally there are six questions offered, of which three must be answered, one of which is compulsory.  If you haven’t written essays since school days, it strongly pays to practice!  The good essay answer presents an exposition of the issue, evidence in the form of strong argument with concrete examples to prove your point, and a conclusion that makes the case for your argument based upon the proof.  It provides the answer to the question “So What?”  revealing that you understand not just the what, but the why, when, where, and how.


To pass the Practical Exam, one needs to think like a detective, be able to use lateral thinking (theoretical knowledge aligned with tasting ability) and coherently demonstrate deductive reasoning to answer the questions asked about each wine.  These often include grape variety and origin, but more importantly now, your ability to evaluate quality/maturity, discuss the commercial placement of a wine, and analyze the wine-making style/fruit character of the wine in order to more accurately discuss a wine with a potential customer.  All wine styles are examined. Being able to taste accurately and quickly, then funnel your thoughts rapidly to paper are critical to passing the Practical papers.

That’s what it takes to become a Master of Wine.

IMW Florence 2014

Mr. Butler’s career in the wine industry spans 40 years including as a wine buyer, importer, educator and judge.  He writes about wine for U.S and international publications and co-authored the award winning book “Divine Vintage:  Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age” published by MacMillan Palgrave in 2012.  He is a Board Member of the Institute of Masters of Wine and coordinates the annual North American seminar program.  Check out his web site at

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