Can you imagine studying for a test for eight years? How about a test that isn’t even really one test, but rather three stages of testing that takes a minimum of three years to complete? That’s just the tip of the cork when it comes to explaining the Institute of Masters of Wine’s rigorous program, which is so daunting, only 46 U.S.-based wine pros have successfully earned its Master of Wine (MW) title since the first exam in 1953. But on September 3, Ashley Hausman Vaughters joined their prestigious ranks, passing the third and final stage to become the first MW in Colorado.

Vaughters, a Front Range wine rep for Old World Wine Imports and owner of Mistral Wine Co. (a consumer-facing education and consulting company), began working toward her MW in 2009 by tackling the many prerequisites necessary to apply for the program. “I started with Society of Wine Educators’ [Certified Specialist of Wine program],” Vaughters says. “I got my level two sommelier certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers, and then started to work for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust diploma. I’ve been nonstop studying since 2009, really.”

By 2014, Vaughters was accepted into the Institute’s MW program. A week-long preparatory seminar and full day assessment exam in San Francisco followed (known as Stage 1). Vaughters passed and was invited to sit for the full MW exam. A year of diligent, self-directed study followed as she worked on her own and with other Stage 2 partners to prepare for the four-day exam. On top of her day job and consulting work, Vaughters studied at least 20 hours every week and held daily mock tastings as the exam approached. “It was a lot,” Vaughters says. “It’s a huge commitment.”

Over the course of the exam, Vaughters and other MW hopefuls blind-tasted 36 wines and wrote long-form essays on viticulture, vinification, wine handling and processing, the business of wine, and contemporary topics. Vaughters’ dedication paid off with a first-try pass for Stage 2.

Next came Stage 3, the research paper. Vaughters chose to explore the increase in Cabernet Sauvignon acreage in the Napa Valley during the ‘60s and ‘70s; the research and writing took almost a year. She submitted the 10,000-word paper on June 30, and then, she waited.

“Everybody waits for their call from Penny Richards, the executive director of the Institute of Masters of Wine,” Vaughters said. “I got the call at around 10 p.m. [on Sunday].” Vaughters has now achieved what only 124 women and 245 men around the world have accomplished. “I never pursued it for the destination,” says Vaughters. “I like to achieve things I can’t see myself doing. It brings me a lot of satisfaction to push myself to that kind of place.”

What’s next, after so much time and effort devoted to this one credential? “I’m eager to visit more wine regions that I’ve only read about, and figure out the [wine] writing game, too.” Given her perseverance and talent thus far, surely Vaughters will have no problems doing just that.

Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen is 5280’s former food editor. She oversaw all of 5280’s food-related coverage from October 2016 to March 2021.