Test scan­dal a ‘dev­as­tat­ing’ set­back in ef­fort to be­come mas­ter som­me­lier

Hous­ton man will get an­other shot at tast­ing exam

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Dale Robert­son STAFF WRITER

Hun­dreds upon hun­dreds of hours go into pre­par­ing for the Mas­ter Som­me­lier exam. It’s the tough­est test of wine knowl­edge a per­son can be put through — and to pass it, which, for most, re­quires mul­ti­ple at­tempts, leaves one equal parts ex­hil­a­rated and ex­hausted.

Mas­ter Som­me­lier, or MS, sta­tus, achieved by only 274 ap­pli­cants world­wide since the first exam was given in 1969, comes with a small oval, un­pre­ten­tious lapel pin rimmed in red with the head of Bac­chus in the cen­ter. No more prized a pos­ses­sion ex­ists for those who have earned the right to wear it.

“Even when you’ve passed,” said David Keck, one of Hous­ton’s four res­i­dent Mas­ter Som­me­liers, “a night­mare all of us have is wak­ing up in a cold sweat that some­one has taken our pin away.”

But, that’s ex­actly what’s hap­pened for Pap­pas Bros.

Steak­house wine di­rec­tor Steven McDon­ald, who had seem­ingly be­come Hous­ton’s fifth MS last month in St. Louis. He’d been told he had aced the most chal­leng­ing por­tion of the three-part exam, blind tast­ing. That means McDon­ald had cor­rectly iden­ti­fied six wines as to their grapes, re­gion of ori­gin and the year they were picked, and he did so in­side of the 25-minute time limit.

This week, how­ever, McDon­ald re­ceived a let­ter from Court of Mas­ter Som­me­liers board chair­man Devon Broglie — as did 22 of the 23 other pre­sump­tive new Masters from around the coun­try, con­sti­tut­ing the largest class ever — in­form­ing him that the re­sults would be in­val­i­dated. Some­one, as­sumed to be among the exam proctors and, there­fore, an MS, had shared in­for­ma­tion about the wines be­ing tasted to as­sist one or more of the ap­pli­cants, said Broglie, who is also the Austin-based global wine buyer for Whole Foods Mar­ket.

“I can’t imag­ine what Steve is go­ing through,” said Guy Stout of South­ern Glazer’s Wine & Spir­its, who en­dured mul­ti­ple stum­bles of his own be­fore be­com­ing an MS 13 years ago. “Man, I keep think­ing back to how we all hugged out af­ter the an­nounce­ment.”

McDon­ald, 38, has sat six times in all for the var­i­ous parts of the gru­el­ing test, which also re­quires ap­pli­cants to show their wine-ser­vice skills and ex­pound upon wine the­ory in an oral exam. He needed only to get through the tast­ing in St. Louis to be done. When con­tacted af­ter he’d been told he’d made it, he said, “I feel like I’m float­ing.”

Now, he’s fac­ing a sev­enth gor­ound. “It’s shock­ing and dev­as­tat­ing,” McDon­ald said. “There’s noth­ing else for me to say. It’s hard to ac­cept, but I’ll be OK. (Pap­pas Bros.) is 100 per­cent be­hind me.”

The Court of Mas­ter Som­me­liers Amer­i­cas board had stated that it had “unan­i­mously voted to in­val­i­date the re­sults of the tast­ing por­tion of the 2018 Mas­ter Som­me­lier Diploma Ex­am­i­na­tion for all can­di­dates,” be­cause of “clear ev­i­dence” that a Mas­ter had breached the con­fi­den­tial­ity of the wines pre­sented for tast­ing.

Al­though CMS has not yet of­fi­cially ex­pelled any Mas­ter for their role in the scan­dal, Regino “Reg­gie” Nar­ito Jr. has been re­moved from the list of Masters on the ad­min­is­ter­ing body’s web­site. Nar­ito told wine-searcher.com via email, “I have no com­ment at this time.” He had pre­vi­ously said on his blog: “Of the 24 pass­ing can­di­dates, four were stu­dents of mine.”

CMS, for its part, said through an of­fi­cial, “The board has not of­fi­cially named any­one at this stage.”

Nar­ito re­ceived his MS pin in the same year as Stout, 2005. He is a for­mer board mem­ber and has also ap­peared in the film “Somm” and the Esquire Net­work’s TV series “Un­corked.” Stout called Nar­ito “a dear friend” and said he was “re­ally sad­dened it was some­one from my class. I was hop­ing it was some­body’s whose legs I could go break. I’ve al­ways thought Reg­gie was a great guy.”

McDon­ald has been try­ing to be­come the third MS with the Pap­pas restau­rant group, join­ing his Hous­ton col­league Jack Ma­son and Bar­bara Wer­ley, wine di­rec­tor at the Pap­pas Steak­house in Dal­las. The other Mas­ter is Keith Gold­ston, who moved here a lit­tle over a year ago to as­sist in the open­ing of Mas­tro’s Steak­house and the rest of the restaurants that are part of the new Post Oak Ho­tel com­plex near the Gal­le­ria.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2017 GuildSomm sur­vey, a Mas­ter Som­me­lier earns an av­er­age salary of $164,000 per year, while an Ad­vanced Som­me­lier (the level be­low) earns an av­er­age of $87,000.

Keck, cur­rently in the process of open­ing three new spots in Mon­trose un­der the Good­night Hos­pi­tal­ity ban­ner, achieved his MS sta­tus in 2016. Like Stout, he said he couldn’t of­fer in­for­ma­tion on what hap­pened to cre­ate

“such a huge mess.”

“But what I can say is that this ex­am­i­na­tion is the most sa­cred part of our or­ga­ni­za­tion,” Keck said. “It’s the No. 1 thing that we hang our honor and our in­tegrity on. If you’re sit­ting for the ex­ams, you’re putting your faith in the or­ga­ni­za­tion to do the right thing. You’re sub­scrib­ing to the sys­tem, so com­pro­mis­ing the out­come in any way is a huge be­trayal to all of our col­leagues. The darkest part of hell is re­served for be­tray­ers.”

Stout sug­gested he has “enough faith in the guys I’ve helped, in­clud­ing Steven, that if I asked them, ‘Were you aware of any­thing?’ and if they said no, then I’d say, ‘Here’s your pin.’ ”

But Keck said it’s not that sim­ple and be­lieves do­ing the test over from scratch is the only op­tion that will en­sure a fully valid re­sult. He’d been up “un­til about 3 a.m. (Wednesday) night talk­ing to Steven,” try­ing to help him get his arms around the dis­tress­ing devel­op­ment.

There’s some good news, though. The CMS in­tends to stage the re-tast­ing as soon as pos­si­ble, waive the $995 fee and of­fer as­sis­tance with travel ex­penses. McDon­ald called that “only fair.” Just one of the 24 pre­sump­tive new somms an­nounced in St. Louis, Mor­gan Har­ris from San Fran­cisco, will be keep­ing his pin. He had passed tast­ing at a pre­vi­ous sit­ting and was there only to be put through the ser­vice paces.

“I have full faith in Devon and full faith in our board,” Keck said. “I don’t envy him right now in his first year as chair­man, but he’s a man of ex­treme moral rec­ti­tude. We’re go­ing to do the best pos­si­ble thing for the most pos­si­ble peo­ple.”

Yi-Chin Lee / Staff file photo

Steven McDon­ald, of Pap­pas Bros. Steak­house, was shocked his Mas­ter Som­me­lier sta­tus was re­voked.

Yi-Chin Lee / Staff file photo

Pap­pas Bros. Steak­house wine di­rec­tor Steven McDon­ald be­came the fifth Mas­ter Som­me­lier in Hous­ton last month un­til a cheat­ing scan­dal rocked the wine world.

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