NC sommelier Max Kast prevails after cheating scandal hits wine industry

CHEAPWINE3.FE.011108.JEL - RALEIGH - JANUARY 11, 2008 - The Charles Shaw Sauvignon Blanc, left, Cabernet Sauvignon, center, and Chardonnay, right, are a bargain at $3 a bottle. Staff Photo by Juli Leonard / The News & Observer
CHEAPWINE3.FE.011108.JEL - RALEIGH - JANUARY 11, 2008 - The Charles Shaw Sauvignon Blanc, left, Cabernet Sauvignon, center, and Chardonnay, right, are a bargain at $3 a bottle. Staff Photo by Juli Leonard / The News & Observer

When Max Kast passed the master sommelier exam in September, he fulfilled a lifetime goal and joined an elite group of less than 200 wine professionals in the country.

Passing the exam, considered the peak of the wine profession, also made him the only master sommelier in the Carolinas and just one of a dozen in the South. After a decade of trying — eight total attempts — the former wine director at the Fearrington House found his happy ending.

Then it was taken away, wrapped up in a cheating scandal that rocked the wine world. It was revealed weeks after the exam that blind tasting answers had been leaked by an official to one student.

The 23 newly minted master somms, including Kast, were stripped of their titles and asked to take the exam again.

Former Fearrington wine director Maximilian Kast, right, became one of 24 new master sommeliers in the country Wednesday after passing the toughest exam in wine. In a photo from 2016, Kast poses with Fearrington’s beverage and service director Paula de Pano, who joined the resort two years ago from Eleven Madison Park in New York. Fearrington Village

Kast chose to retake the exam quickly, sitting once again in early December with 29 other candidates.

He recently learned he has passed the exam again — for the second time in three months.

The achievement solidifies the Chapel Hill resident as one of the South’s top wine professionals and one of only 164 master sommeliers in the country.

“I got into wine because I love the romance of great food and wine, the history of food and wine,” said Kast in an interview with The News & Observer, speaking publicly about the scandal for the first time. “It’s the coolest thing in the world to me.”

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Becoming a master sommelier

The master sommelier exam is made up of three sections: wine theory, proper service and blind tasting. Perhaps most famously, the blind tasting asks candidates to identify wines by vintage year, dominant grape varietal, country of origin and sub region, using only smell, sight and taste. Master sommeliers serve as mentors and test proctors for aspiring candidates.

September’s results of two dozen new master sommeliers was staggering, and by far the most ever, according to statistics on the website of the Court of Master Sommeliers. In 2017, there were eight, and in 2016 only four.

But at the September testing in St. Louis, one master sommelier reportedly leaked answers to the blind tasting portion of the exam, leading to the October ruling from the Court that the entire class would have to retake the blind tasting.

“The Board of Directors found sufficient evidence that the tasting portion of the 2018 Master Sommelier Diploma Examination was compromised by the release of detailed information concerning wines in the tasting flight,” the Court said in an October statement.

The Court hasn’t publicly named the person who leaked the answers, but says it has identified him or her and removed that person from the organization.

Kast said he learned of the scandal along with the rest of the world. He said it was devastating to earn and then quickly lose the successful result that’s taken him years of work and study.

“It was crushing,” Kast said. “Going through that period, I went through every emotion you can go through. Anger. Frustration. Depression.

“Granted there are far more serious things going on, but this is what you’ve worked your whole life on. It’s hard, there’s real life sacrifices that have gone into it. That was a really difficult period.”

After coming to terms with it, Kast said he got back in his training routine, doing three or four blind tastings a day and trying to keep his emotions in check.

In a blind tasting, there are six glasses — three whites and three red wines — containing six answers to a multiple choice question with thousands of possibilities. In every glass, many also find every second guess, false certainty and self-doubt along the way.

“When you have a bad tasting, you don’t let yourself get angry,” Kast said. “It’s a pretty personal thing. Every one has different techniques (to tasting). There are instinctual tasters, but it’s easy to second guess yourself.”

A second chance

When Kast went to retake the exam in St. Louis, the mood was somber, he said, while it was energetic in the past.

“We were all respectful of the gravity of why everyone was there,” Kast said. “It was very high pressure. I was battling all sorts of different things. Mentally it was more difficult (than the September exam), but I was all about not letting the negativity come into focus.”

As for the test itself, Kast said it wasn’t an easy flight, but that he felt good coming out of the tasting.

While Kast’s retake was a success, his emotions are complicated by the fact that some of his fellow sommeliers didn’t pass during their retakes.

“It’s all very different because of everything that happened,” Kast said. “A lot of my friends who passed didn’t pass this time around, but they have more attempts. It’s heartbreaking. I feel good about my result, but I hurt for them.”

After spending a decade at the Fearrington House managing its beverage program, Kast left for wine importer Broadbent Selections in 2016.

Now he’s a piece of an organization still recovering from a public catastrophe.

“Any time you have something like this happen, there will be dark periods,” Kast said. “I think it’s how the organization comes out of it, the way in which the Court dealt with the situation that will be most important. It will keep the Court with the same level of respect it’s always had and even better standards in the future.

“The people on the board are really good people and they’ve struggled through this time period; it’s been a difficult process for them, but it’s still the gold standard in hospitality.”

Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.