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When Masters of Wine and MW candidates convene in a wine region, you expect them to taste some of the world’s most elite wines. But they also spend time tasting and discussing the merits of mass-produced “supermarket” wines as well.

That was the case in late January when the Institute of Masters of Wine, based in London, held their annual North American educational seminar in Yountville.

While primarily for the benefit of the candidates who seek to become Masters of Wine, the seminar also brought together 27 MWs from North America and 4 from overseas. The current MWs not only led most of the training sessions for the students, but they also expanded their own knowledge by participating in workshops and presentations in which they learned new information about all aspects of the wine trade.

While many people are familiar with the Master Sommelier (MS) certification, fewer understand the MW designation. While the two are similar in many respects, there are notable differences. The MW program is focused solely on wine; the MS curriculum encompasses all types of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. The Master Sommelier exam also tests the candidates’ skills and knowledge in a variety of service settings, which the Master of Wine program does not address. In general, the MS has a broader knowledge about beverages, service and restaurant management, while the MW has a deeper knowledge of wine from the vineyard to the bottle to the retail shelf, as well as the social and political implications of drinking it.

According to Executive Director Siobhan Turner, the Institute was founded in 1955 in London, which for centuries has been the center of the world wine trade. In speaking of the Institute, Turner says “Its mission is to promote excellence through its members and its activities in the global world of wine.”

Creating more Masters of Wine is clearly also one of the Institute’s goals, although that’s easier said than done.

According to Turner, approximately 100 candidates are accepted into the program each year, and it takes a minimum of 3 years to complete all the phases. Within this staggered format, there are 320 worldwide students going through the stages, 83 of whom were in Yountville in January. Candidates enter the program from all corners of the world.

The fees for the three-year program, exclusive of travel and buying the wine can be about $10,000 in North America, and even higher in the U.K.. That’s a big dollar- and time-commitment for a student who, according to Turner, is typically in their 30s and is also usually has a full-time job somewhere in the wine industry.

Most challenging of all? Turner estimates that only 10-15 candidates from each class will go on to complete the MW certification within 3 years. While a few others may take longer to pass the exams and go on to the dissertation phase, most never make it that far. The material is that difficult to master. As Turner puts it, “To become a Master of Wine, you almost need to be a master of wine.”

Tim Marson is a buyer at Global Wine Company, a British citizen, and a resident of Napa. Marson started the MW program in 2001, sat for exam in 2003, passed Tasting that same year, passed Theory in 2004, and then finally successfully completed his dissertation in 2009 to become a Master of Wine. Marson and his team at Global Wine select the wines that are offered by prominent wine clubs, including Williams-Sonoma, The New York Times, Food and Wine magazine, and Napa Style.

“Being an MW opens doors and gives you a sense of respect within the trade,” says Marson. “(In the U.S.) an MS is better known, but as the numbers of students and MWs increase here there will be a greater appreciation for what we do.”

On the penultimate afternoon of the seminar, the MWs and the candidates were treated to a tasting of 16 wines from Chateau Margaux. Mr. Paul Pontallier, managing director and winemaker at the First Growth Bordeaux House, led the tasting of largely “experimental” wines and explained why a winery that produces and sells only 11,000 cases of wine a year (at prices often exceeding $1000 per bottle) would feel the need to experiment: “How can you rule out an idea unless you try it first?”

The first pours were barrel samples of four 2012 wines: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Press wines (as opposed to free-run juice.) The wines were all young, but nonetheless expressed distinct characteristics befitting the varietals.

The next six tastes included three wines each from the 2011 and 2012 vintages. All were Cabernet Sauvignon, but in each flight one wine was made from organically-grown grapes, one from biodynamically-grown grapes, and one from conventionally-grown grapes.

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While it was nigh impossible to discern which was which, the discerning palates in the room did at least detect differences. Pontallier let it be known that, effective with the 2012 vintage, Margaux now practices organic farming, although they will never be 100 percent certified organic.

Wines 11 and 12 were from the 2004 Margaux vintage, although one had been fined with 6 egg whites while the other was unfined. When asked which the audience preferred, a show of hands indicated no clear winner. Similarly, wines 13 and 14 featured two 2004 Pavillon Rouge wines (a Margaux second label), one of which had been sealed with a conventional cork and the other with a screw cap.

Again, a divided vote. And while Margaux still only uses natural cork closures, Pontallier admitted that he wonders if screwcaps may not ultimately be a better alternative for wines that age for decades.

The room finished the two-hour tasting with two pours of the 1995 Margaux, one of which had been sterile-filtered and the other non-filtered. Again, each sample had its fans. But everyone in the room now had a better sense of the subtle, but distinct, differences that small variables can make in the final production of fine wines.

On the final day of the seminar, prior to the send-off dinner, the MWs and candidates attended a presentation featuring wines priced in the $3-$7 per bottle range, including several varietals from Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, Barefoot Moscato (Gallo), Dark Horse Cabernet, and Cook’s Sparkling Brut.

The winemakers were present and discussed the amazing attention to detail and logistics involved in producing wines in such large volume, as well as the challenge of producing wines that are affordable, consumer-friendly, and consistently reliable.

After almost a full week of tasting and classroom sessions, the MWs and the prospective MWs returned to their hometowns armed with a wealth of new knowledge and a Rolodex of new contacts — not to mention a seriously fatigued palate.