MW Exams 2021

This time ten days ago, I was walking out of Lindley Hall in Westminster having sat four days of Stage 2 MW exams. It was a gruelling process for many reasons, most of which I cannot discuss for confidentiality reasons. But I thought it would be beneficial to document some of my experience here, firstly to better explain to my nearest and dearest the reasons for recent social abandonment, and secondly as a personal therapy to process such high octane events. If you’re a wine lover and/or student considering embarking on this qualification, you may also find the below insightful. Or terrifying. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

A quick recap. There are 419 Masters of Wine in the world living in 31 countries. The course is laid out over 3 years but as the pass rate is so low (around 10%) most students on average pass in 5 years.* In fact, what I have learned since joining the programme, is that many students are incredibly capable of becoming Masters of Wine, but time and money are just as critical alongside knowledge to complete the journey. Two thirds of the qualification is exam based, which means exam technique is also a necessary evil, as is being able to write essays with an “English style” approach. Whilst the Stage 1 exam consists of one 12 wine paper sat in 2 hours 15 minutes and 2 essays to be completed in 2 hours, the Stage 2 exam takes place over 4 days comprising of three 2 hour 15 minute practical papers and 14 hours of theory papers across 5 core subjects: Viticulture (Paper 1), Vinification & Pre-bottling procedures (Paper 2), Handling of Wines (Paper 3), The Business of Wine (Paper 4) and Contemporary Issues (Paper 5). As if this wasn’t enough to contend with, 2021 had the added bonus of a world-wide pandemic, with face masks and PCR tests mandatory. Perfect for settling the nerves...

As I’m based in Hampshire, I decided I couldn’t risk commuting in on the train everyday, and booked a studio near the venue to reduce unecessary travel. This was both good and bad. I had the time and flexibility to study but no one there to tell me when to stop. It was incredibly tempting to keep learning, reading and listening to anything and everything to do with wine, but by 5pm Monday I had decided enough was enough. Time to put the books away, for that day anyway, eat a very average ready-meal and get some much needed rest.

After a short night’s sleep, I was surprisingly energised the next day, with adrenalin pumping. It felt really good to see familiar faces on that first morning, lay glasses out, plug my laptop in and know that by 5pm, I would have 25% less to worry about. This feeling continued into most of day 2, but I was unsettled by some of my answers for the red wine paper and was starting to reflect on my approach to day 1 with less enthusiasm. By day 3, the tiredness and uncertainty had crept in, culminating in a frustrated cry at lunch time over a dry cheese sandwich. “Why did I write that?” “That wasn’t logical!” Amazingly I managed to pull myself together for the afternoon “Handling of Wines” theory exam and write two essays. They will provide some form of entertainment for the examiners if nothing else...

Day 4, the last day of exams, became progressively more euphoric. I had packed and checked out which meant I was going back home that day, leaving London, exams and stress behind. I had already completed 75% of the exam and by 5pm that day would have finished everything, with a beer in hand not long after. These were all great incentives to keep going (particularly the beer part). By midday, the business of wine theory paper was behind me. This was my absolute nemesis, and yet strangely may have been the paper I felt most satisfied writing. I don’t think I can remember anything I wrote for Paper 5, but can recall the feeling of utter relief, excitement and joy leaving that exam hall behind me. As I walked to a nearby pub with fellow students, now dear friends, I could feel the many redundant global statistics falling out of my head (thank goodness!!!)

I can’t think of anyone who would come out of a MW exam and say “I totally nailed that!” It’s impossible to feel that way with so many different approaches, techniques and examples to apply in such a short space of time (20 hours and 45 minutes to be precise). Whatever happens, I am proud that I sat every paper, wrote something in every box and survived to tell the tale. I’m looking forward to a few weeks rest, without critical thinking, and wish everyone the very best of luck when results land at the end of November.

* Lauren Mowery’s article is a good read for some sobering pass rate stats, comparing the MW course with the New York State Bar exam. Maybe law would have been a safer bet...


  • Well done for surviving! I hope you are managing to relax now, and practising tastings of different wines every evening. You can’t let your skills wane!

    Di Wass
  • Well done! You completed the exam, which is already a great achievement! Fingers crossed!

    Alessandra Esteves
  • Congratulations – and whatever the outcome you deserve huge congratulations for surviving. So many people couldn’t attempt what you’ve done.

    Anne Cowper

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