Less than 500 people have passed the Master of Wine exams since 1953, and there are currently just 420 Masters of Wine in the world. That’s fewer people with MW after their name than have been to space. This is partly because the exams to achieve the coveted qualification from the UK-based Institute of Masters of Wine—comprised of extensive theory learning, blind tastings and a 10,000-word research paper—are notoriously rigorous, taking a minimum of three years to complete with pass rates of around just 10%. In our series, Meet The Master, we talk to MWs about their journey to mastery, those formidable exams and what in the wine world is wowing them right now, from fun pairings to under-rated regions to the rapid developments taking place within wine in Asia.
With degrees in social sciences and political philosophy, wine wasn’t the expected career path for South African Cassidy Dart to pursue. But as he came to the end of his second degree that journey began, leading him to achieve the ultimate wine qualification in 2018. The following year he moved to China where he currently works as a wine consultant.
But a piece of his heart still lies at home in South Africa, where along with fellow wine lover Cape of Good Wine he recently launched non-profit wine brand Kunye, which seeks to diversify and expand the nation’s wine scene. Not only does Kunye, which means “together” in the Xhosa language, include its own wines, a Chenin Blanc and a Syrah, but the pair have produced an ebook centred on South African wine, which is available in both English and Xhosa, the latter marking the first time in the country’s history that such a publication has been produced in an indigenous language. Additionally, profits from the sales of Kunye’s wines go towards a scholarship fund aimed at diversifying South Africa’s wine landscape by helping those from underprivileged backgrounds pursue a wine education.
Dart tells us more about his own wine education, his thoughts on wine in China and what’s changed for him since her moved there.
Do you have any early wine memories that were significant / impacted your decision to pursue a career in wine? If not, what made you want to pursue a career in wine?
My dad drank wine occasionally and we had wine in my house growing up, but it wasn’t like I grew up drinking his 1961 Bordeaux. For me, it all started when I went to Durham University. There were formal dinners at Durham, and we would take wine. I didn’t drink wine at the time, but one of my chums’ advice was to take a Chablis or a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I remember the first bottle I took to a formal was a £10 bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I was trying to be sophisticated and look like I knew what I was doing, but I hated the wine. A few years later, I was finishing a Master’s degree from York University and I took a job at [British wine retailer] Oddbins. That was when this whole new world opened up and I started reading and tasting everything I could. I loved working there. I was able to taste really widely with people who were passionate about wine. And that was it. I thought that if I can get paid for doing this, then why not? That was almost twenty years ago, and I’ve never looked back.
Why did you decide to attain your Master of Wine and how did you find the experience?
The man who hired me at Oddbins was someone who established a second career in wine. He had sold his company and taken a job as a store manager at Oddbins because he loved wine. I had sent letters to a host of people in the wine industry saying I have two degrees, can I come and work for you? And they all said I needed certain qualifications, but this guy took a punt on me. We would work long hours together and he first told me about the Master of Wine. Six years later, he had left Oddbins, gone on to work at Berry Bros. and passed the Master of Wine. I followed him to Berry Bros., then I went on to Lay & Wheeler, then Pol Roger, and finally passed my Master of Wine.
I was very lucky that my employer at the time covered the cost of the Master of Wine and was unbelievably supportive, which is crucial because it’s not just cost, but time, travel, exams, all those things. It’s without question the toughest thing I’ve done. I started it young and naïve, and I wasn’t really prepared. It was the most mentally and emotionally draining thing—the highs were very high, but the lows were unbelievable.