Thu 17 Sep 2015

Passing the Masters of Wine Exam


Last week marked the conclusion of a process I started six years ago, and I am delighted (and relieved) to announce that I passed the Masters of Wine exam.

Sarah KnowlesMy studies began in 2009 with an intensive week-long course in Rust, Austria. I felt very much out of my depth, pruned vines in the snow and received feedback on a tasting paper that had more red pen on it than black…

Luckily though, that year I joined a great student-led tasting group in Vauxhall and stuck at it, tasting at least a dozen wines a week blind, and swapping essay plans each weekend.

The first-year assessment came and went, and second year beckoned.

Second year saw an equally humbling study week, this time in Bordeaux where I suddenly wished for a chemistry degree, my own vineyard to practise in and more time!

Back in London I had now managed to infiltrate another two student-run tasting groups, meaning that I was tasting upwards of 48 wines blind a week. I also took every opportunity to gather data and examples, ranging from yeast and rootstock choices to Canadian monopolies and shipping wine in bulk. I visited cooperages, bottlers, vineyards and labs, and made notes on them all. By the time the exams rolled around I travelled everywhere with postcards of these examples in my handbag and with podcasts about wine on my iPod.

Exam week consists of three 12-wine blind-tasting papers that all start at 9am, followed in the afternoon by four essay-based written papers. Amazingly the week went well, and I was astounded to pass both parts at the first attempt.

The third and final part of the MW is to write a 10,000-word dissertation (later to be known as a research paper) on a topic of our choosing. Having passed the exams in September 2011, I needed a dissertation topic, title and synopsis ready for that December. I didn’t really get my act together fast enough, and my embryonic title was dismissed. There is only one opportunity a year to submit a synopsis, so I effectively had a year off.

The following autumn I put together a title only to have it dismissed as well. At this stage I didn’t seem able to latch onto a topic that really had current relevance to the wine trade, could be tested to a high measurable degree, and – crucially – researched and written up within nine months.

The victorious blind tasting team at Oxford, 2003, where Sarah first got into tasting wine

The victorious blind tasting team at Oxford, 2006, where Sarah first got into tasting wine

Finally, last September, I came across a suitable topic – the impact of amateur vs expert reviews on wine sales.

I spent last autumn researching the wider topic and writing a thorough synopsis. I got the go-ahead last January and got my head down. I was extremely fortunate to have an incredibly supportive mentor in Caro Maurer MW, who kept me on track, and by May I had 10,000 words ready for review and submission in June.

Last week, on Monday at 8.20am, I received the best news. Penny from the Institute called to say that I had been successful, and on completion of a confidentiality form, and payment of my first year’s subscription, I could add the coveted ‘MW’ to my name.

The process has been tough and without the support of my friends, The Wine Society and my mentor I wouldn’t have finished.

However, the friends I made in the first and second year are some of my best today. The rigour in learning the theory is something I would have never done alone, and the tasting side was simply wonderful and something I miss already!

Celebrating in style!

Celebrating in style!








Sarah Knowles MW (!)


  1. Sue Edwards says:

    Congratulations on your qualification. We liked your choices for the AGM. Rust is a special place for us. Our long time friends have a wine makers cottage there and we love Gruner Veltliner from Austria, so Gratulieren!

  2. Will Pooley says:

    Go Sarah! Congratulations!

  3. Nick Kay says:

    Many congratulations Sarah, a wonderful achievement. Your determination has been rewarded and I wish you every success in the future and your career as The WS.

  4. Paul Kidd says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Can feel the excitement, hard work and your modesty through your writing.

Leave a comment