Attica wine director Jane Lopes was stripped of her Master Sommelier title.Attica wine director Jane Lopes was stripped of her Master Sommelier title. Photo: Simon Schluter

Attica wine director Jane Lopes proved her mastery as a sommelier, only to have the recognition stripped away.

The Master Sommelier exam is considered the hardest exam in the world. It has a fiendishly low pass-rate, and since the first exam in 1969, only 262 people have passed the exam globally. (Well, there are currently 262 Master Sommeliers; 280 people have actually passed the exam – more on that later).

The Masters exam is the fourth and final level in a series of exams offered through the Court of Master Sommeliers. It is composed of three parts: an oral theory exam, a service portion, and a blind tasting of six wines in 25 minutes.

Candidates spend upwards of a decade, tens of thousands of dollars, and countless hours of study, practice and preparation to pass the exam. Once a candidate passes, they are a Master Sommelier for life (at least until recently – again, more on that later). There is no recertification, no further requirements for membership. One crosses immediately from mentee to mentor, from student to teacher, from candidate to Master. New Masters are publicly celebrated, revered for their determination and skill, offered pay rises and new positions, asked to teach and educate, and immediately welcomed into a superlative realm of professional achievement.

I passed the exam on September 5, 2018.

It was easily the hardest week of my life. I once read a quote that you’ll often look back on the hard times as being some of the most beautiful. These were not those times. The days leading up to, during, and after the exam were just plain miserable. I wasn’t sleeping more than a few hours each night, my stomach was in constant revolt, and I wavered between bouts of panic attacks and crying spells. Mental and physical health problems had plagued me most of my adult life, tending to flare up in high pressure situations. Not easy to admit, and perhaps not “masterly”, but…the truth.

Lopes: 'Oddly enough, I do look back on these hard times as being beautiful.'
Lopes: ‘Oddly enough, I do look back on these hard times as being beautiful.’ Photo: Wayne Taylor

Even after the exam was over – even after I was crowned a Master Sommelier – my mind and body hovered in residual panic. I still had trouble sleeping and eating for weeks after. While congratulatory emails, messages and calls rolled in, I had a hard time enjoying the post-pass glow. “How does it feel?! It must feel AHHHHHMAZING!” was the constant refrain. I would do my best to muster a believable, “Yes, of course, amazing!” all the while still trembling inside from the trauma of it all.

But at least I could take solace in the fact that it was over. I wouldn’t have to endure a week like that ever again.