Everything you always wanted to know about the person handing out the wine exams
Exam day can be a nerve-racking experience for even the most prepared students aiming to increase their wine knowledge and gain accolades like Master Sommelier, Master of Wine, Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Diploma, and everything in between. There’s so much to remember and so little time to answer every question as thoroughly and precisely as possible. Every little aspect of the exam is stress-inducing; sometimes even the lingering presence of the instructor monitoring the room is enough to make you sweat.
However, examinees shouldn’t be concerned with the person observing them while they test. That’s merely the wine exam proctor. And more often than not, the proctor surveying students have also had to fill in scantron bubbles while testing for credentials of their own.
“It’s interesting to experience a wine exam from the other side of the table,” says Michael Ahlborn, an academic programming manager at the International Wine Center (IWC) in New York. “It’s made me empathize with the students because I know they’re nervous, scared, or stressed out by the exam.”
Having worked for the (IWC) for the last 13 years, Ahlborn has taught classes and proctored several WSET exams. Before becoming a wine educator, Ahlborn did his fair share of nail-biting while studying and testing for the WSET ranks before finally obtaining his Diploma certification in 2005. Ahlborn maintains that the wine proctor is the last thing students need to be worried about while taking any wine exam.
So, what exactly is a wine proctor? Well, the answer to all of those questions is a lot simpler than one might think.
Wine Proctoring 101
A wine proctor, or invigilator, is basically the person who hands out the test to students and sets up on exam day. There’s a host of administrative duties that comes with that. For instance, the wine proctor ensures the testing facility is organized exactly as the WSET or Court of Master Sommeliers designates. That means separating seats at a specified distance and removing any signage, papers, or items that could compromise the exam. If the exam has a tasting component, the wine proctor handles glassware, conceals bottles, and pours the wine.
The exam proctor checks students in when they arrive for the test, which goes beyond simply having them check a box to mark their attendance. Proctors have to verify students’ identification to ensure the person who showed up for the exam is indeed the person registered for the class.
“There’s quite a bit of prepping things in advance,” says Ahlborn. “Reviewing papers, counting tests, marking off a checklist to ensure I have everything I need, and making extra copies to ensure everything goes as smoothly as possible. Somebody will lose their candidate number sheet or forget to bring a number two pencil. The wine proctor has to anticipate those things.”
Providing security is also a major part of proctoring.
“Keeping people secure, keeping the exam secure, making sure people aren’t cheating — I hate to say it, but [it’s] imperative,” says Karen Wetzel, a wine consultant, industry career coach, and educator who has proctored WSET exams for classes through Constellation Brands and Italian Wine Central.
With more than a decade of teaching and proctoring exams under her belt, Wetzel has faced tough situations involving students suspected of cheating, including one instance in Seattle when she discovered incriminating papers near a student’s area and was forced to report him.
“Security is so important because it protects the credentials of all the students taking the exam,” she adds “So it’s essential that you set up a safe and secure environment where nobody can do anything sneaky and that it’s a very controlled space. Because if one student is under suspicion, everybody’s credentials are under suspicion.”
Proctors do get paid for the work. However, rates vary depending on the organization requesting the proctor. Wetzel says she makes about $40 an hour for her proctoring services.
Proctoring Online Exams
Things get a lot more difficult when the exam takes place online. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, online proctoring increased significantly at educational institutions across the U.S. Professionals teaching wine courses and proctoring exams for WSET and CMS felt the spike too.
“The pandemic definitely made things more accessible for students,” says Wetzel. “That’s a huge plus. And I don’t have to get in a car and drive anywhere to give an exam, which I like. But the downside of teaching or proctoring online is that I can get a lot of students. I’ve done online classes where there were over a hundred people.”
While a group of students may be scheduled for a wine exam on the same day, online exams are proctored individually. So, it’s just the student and the invigilator on the video call during the test.
“There’s a script of rules we have to read. They have to show us I.D. by holding it up to the screen. And we have to check their room to make sure there are no wine bottles or information, posters, pictures, color charts, resources of any kind,” explains Wetzel.
To check rooms for online testing, Wetzel says students have to pick up their laptops or cameras and show proctors where they are, slowly panning the room from floor to ceiling, corner to corner, with no papers, pens, pencils, or anything else on their desks, just a computer and a mouse.
“They have to share their screen with me, and we let them into the exam with a special passcode. They take the test, and I watch them,” says Wetzel.
Wine proctors can’t answer any questions about the material on the test, but, should a technical difficulty arrive, it’s up to them to figure out how to fix the issue and get the testing back on track.
Overall, proctoring for wine exams is a relatively easy thing to do. In fact, proctors issuing tests below Master Sommelier and Master of Wine levels don’t necessarily have to have wine credentials to administer the test, though they often do have some level of wine education. Depending on the center providing the wine courses, proctors could be the class instructors or administrative staff members at the wine institution. While working as a wine instructor naturally led Ahlborn to proctoring, Ahlborn notes that there have been times when the IWC has been down an instructor and asked the school’s administrative assistant to step in and proctor.
“It’s really a job that just about anyone can do,” says Ahlborn.
The most challenging aspect of wine exam proctoring may be staying attentive for the 60 or 90 minutes given for the exam.
“Sitting and watching people take a test can get a little boring. The time can drag a bit,” says Ahlborn.
Wetzel likes to walk around with extra paper and fresh pencils for students who may need them, while Ahlborn says he’ll sit in a different classroom area to change the scenery.
“I like to stay engaged in the room, so that the students know that I’m here and I’m with them,” says Wetzel, who notes that a comfortable testing setting is just as important as a safe and secure one.
“It’s our job as wine proctors to reassure them that they’re in good hands during what may be a very stressful experience,” says Wetzel.