A little over a year ago, the prestigious Court of Master Sommeliers made a decision that upended the lives of 23 people.
Jane Lopes was one of them. She’d already dedicated more than a decade of her life to wine, a career that began with a job in a Chicago wine shop which lured her into skipping graduate school to move to Nashville to help open an ambitious restaurant. Since then, Lopes has served as a sommelier at New York City’s wine palace Eleven Madison Park and she is currently the wine director at Attica, one of Australia’s most celebrated restaurants.
Along the way, Lopes took coursework and studied to pass different Court of Master Sommeliers tests. Years of intense study and triumphs led Lopes to the pinnacle of wine education: the Court’s three-part test to become a Master Sommelier (MS). It is considered one of the toughest exams in the world.
Lopes and 22 other candidates successfully passed the exam in September 2018. Lopes is the only woman in Australia to have ever done so, and one of just 34 women in the world.
Then, five weeks after earning the coveted title of Master Sommelier, the Court rescinded Lopes’ award, along with the rest of her class.
The Court discovered that a member of its board of trustees had leaked the identities of some of the wines that candidates sipped during the daunting blind-tasting portion of the exam. The organization apparently knew which candidates had been tipped off, but instead of disqualifying the known cheaters, it chose to invalidate the entire class.
It was a highly precautionary measure, and not one that sits well with Lopes, who will be pouring wine and talking about her new book, Vignette with Jane Lopes, at Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder on Monday, September 23. The book—part personal narrative and part wine education—is designed for both wine pros and those who want to learn more about the world of Pinot Noir and Chenin Blanc.
“The whole thing was confusing, shocking, and pretty hurtful,” Lopes says. “There should be procedures for misconduct. There really aren’t any. It’s entirely left up to the discretion of the board.”
Lopes says that it’s likely she will not take the test again.
Frasca co-founder Bobby Stuckey, an MS and member of the Court’s board, is on Lopes’ side.
“In the board’s opinion, the exam was compromised. Their attitude is: We are moving on, we are looking to the future,” Stuckey says. “But to me, there simply was not a thorough enough investigation. There needs to be much more sunlight before you move on.”
Stuckey says the Court, which was a small outfit when he received his MS certification (he is number 61), has become a large organization, the subject of movies and intense media scrutiny. It’s got buzz.
Given the Court’s size and mounting importance in the wine world, Stuckey thinks the organization needs a CEO. It needs a human resources department. It needs more structure, which could have led to more organized and methodical procedures for ferreting out and fairly punishing cheating.
Lopes doesn’t regret her journey through the Court, which created community for her. In fact, she met her husband through the Court. He achieved his MS certification a year before she did… and then didn’t.
“The Court was an easy road map for wine education, and I want to remain involved with education,” Lopes said. “I think some sort of organization that brings people together is a good thing, whether it’s the Court or not. Now, we are all thinking about what the ideal version of that looks like.”
The Monday Night Wine Book Dinner: Vignette with Jane Lopes, will take place on September 23 at Frasca Food and Wine; $140; 1738 Pearl St., Boulder; reservations start at 5 p.m.