Turning Point for US Sommeliers?

Six of its leading members have been expelled from the Court of Master Sommeliers for sexual misconduct. Does this mark the end of a chapter? Or the beginning of the end for the Court? Robert Joseph reports.

Credit: rh2010 - Fotolia
Credit: rh2010 - Fotolia

The US wine service community, has been shaken to its core. A little over a year since the New York Times published a series of accusations by over a dozen women of sexual misconduct by US sommeliers, the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas (CMS-A) has moved to expel six of its leading members. The list most notably included Fred Dame, co-founder of the organisation and, as Esther Mobley says in an extensive piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, “arguably the most famous MS - master sommelier - in the U.S”. The others who face the termination of their membership are Drew Hendricks, formerly of the Pioneer Wine Co; well-known Brooklyn wine consultant Fred Dexheimer; Seattle sommelier Joseph Linder; Matt Stamp, of the Compline restaurant in Napa; and Professor Robert Bath of the St. Helena’s Culinary Institute of America. All six have 30 days in which to appeal.

A seventh Master Sommelier, Geoff Kruth, formerly the head of GuildSomm - a ‘nonprofit international membership organization for wine professionals that promotes education and community’ based in California - had already resigned in October following accusations of making unwanted advances to a number of female Master Sommelier candidates. He will, Mobley reports, be ineligible to reapply for membership.
 
Until the turn of the century, sommeliers were rarely talked about in the wine industry. Indeed, as Jancis Robinson pointed out in a 2015 Financial Times article, in 1985, Daniel Johnnes was “one of no more than four people in the whole of New York City who regarded themselves as professional sommeliers.” There, as elsewhere, the likelihood of wine being served by a woman in a top restaurant was small.
 
By 2013, however, charismatic figures like Johnnes, Kevin Zraly of the Windows on the World in New York’s World Trade Centre, and Gérard Basset in the UK, helped to turn the job of wine service into one to which a growing number of young men and women aspired.

Superstar Somms

To get a position in a really top restaurant and, even better, the responsibility of ‘wine director’ for a group (a concept that, like ‘executive chef’, is a modern concept), wine service professionals have to pass the rigorous Master Sommelier exams. The challenge this involves and the levels of competitiveness, were vividly showcased in the 2012 documentary, Somm, which surprised many with the breadth of its appeal. Somms – as wine servers became increasingly known were, it was said, becoming the new ‘celebrity cooks’. Four years later, a journalist called Bianca Bosker fanned the flames when she published the Cork Dork, a critically-acclaimed memoir describing her efforts to become a sommelier.

In October 2018, however, the CMS-A was hit by scandal when it was revealed that the credibility of the exam held the previous month – and passed by an unprecedented 24 candidates – had been compromised. The answers to the tasting paper had been disclosed prior to the event. All but one of the somms – who had already qualified prior to the event – were stripped of their newly acquired titles. Two candidates were given five-year suspensions during which they are not able to resit the exam, while nine of the others fared sufficiently well with further tasting tests to be allowed to regain their status.

The saga received a lot of media coverage and criticism over the secretive way in which the CMS-A handled it.

The Bad Year

Quite apart from  the impact of Covid lockdowns in their profession, 2020 was a spectacularly bad vintage for sommeliers in the US. In March, 21-year-old Victoria James, published a memoir called Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumphs of America's Youngest Sommelier in which she described multiple cases of sexual abuse including rape. Her interview on the US NPR radio network was headlined “Taking On The Old Boys Of The Wine World”

After becoming embroiled in the Me Too discussion, next, in June 2020, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, the US sommelier community was hit by an Instagram post by an Atlanta wine professional called Tahiirah Habibi. In it, she described her unhappiness in 2011 when taking an introductory exam, at being expected to address the white male sommeliers as ‘Master’. Habibi quit the programme and went on to found an organization called the Hue Society, to support Black wine professionals. 

Despite referring to incidents that happened nine years earlier, the 2020 post had an immediately effect, prompting two Master Sommeliers, Richard Betts and Brian McClintic, one of the stars of Somm, to resign.

Then, in October, came the bombshell New York Times article headlined “The Wine World’s Most Elite Circle Has a Sexual Harassment Problem” in which close to two dozen talked about behaviour by six senior somms that included inviting young female somms to their hotel rooms and, in one case, opening the door to them while naked.

As more stories emerged, it became increasingly clear that the nature of wine service, the hours worked and the potential benefits offered by experienced ‘mentors’ who could provide access to the kinds of wines students needed to taste, all contributed to a climate in which it was all too easy for some senior sommeliers to abuse their position. And their juniors. 

Rachel Till, senior sommelier at the Club at Houston Oaks, who was the target of Facebook messages referring to oral sex went further. “The rise of ‘Somm’ culture after the documentaries made it worse” because the male sommeliers were given “permission to behave like rock stars,”

All Change

The CMS-A acted quickly. In November 2020, the board resigned, and a new one was constituted led by the wonderfully named Emily Wines and with Kathryn Morgan as her Vice-Chair. An ethics co committee was set up as well as a hotline somms could use to flag up bad behaviour, and an independent investigation was launched to run a toothcomb through the organisation. No fewer than 22 master sommeliers have been in its crosshairs, and apart from the six who have been expelled, others may apparently be subject to sanctions of some kind.

Past its time?

But this is not the end of the story. Some members of the US wine community have responded in ways that suggest that the Court of Master Sommeliers' travails may have other unwelcome consequences. For example, Rachel Signer, founder-publisher of the natural wine-focused Pipette magazine took to social media  to say “When people call natural wine professionals ‘hipster somms’ [because] we don’t have titles, certificates or pins, I ask you: why would we want to participate in any of these structures? They exist to uphold patriarchy not to help people enjoy nice wine.”
 
Whether Ms Wines or Kathryn Morgan, her Vice-Chair of the Court of Master Sommeliers, would agree with the charge of ‘upholding a patriarchy’ is highly questionable. They and other somms of any gender might also say that the skills and knowledge acquired on their way to gaining those certificates and pins are also quite useful when helping ‘people enjoy a nice wine.’

More authoritative criticism, however, came from the influential columnist Blake Gray in the online platform, Wine Searcher. Gray pointed out that of the people to have gained the MS pin in the US, only 28 are women, and that Alpana Singh, Pascaline Lepeltier and Laura Maniec Fiorvanti, three of its leading female members have all left the CMS-A.

Equally pertinently, Gray noted that none of the six men who have been at the centre of the story have been working as sommeliers in restaurants. Instead they have been teaching or working for wine distributors, or as winery brand ambassadors. “Why”, he asked “do any of them actually need to be an MS?”

Controversially, he went on to echo Signer, questioning whether the 760 or so MS students may be wasting their time. Is the mass of information they are cramming into their heads “a throwback to a time when sommeliers had all the knowledge, diners did not have smartphones, and young consumers might be interested in some obscure white Burgundy rather than in a zero-zero red blend with a funny name”?

Gray is making a very valid point, but it overlooks the widely-felt enthusiasm and hunger for wine knowledge – not everyone imagines that pet nat and amber wine have supplanted all those obscure Burgundies – and the arguably even more important human need for status and membership of an elite.The very fact that only five percent of candidates can get a CMS-A pin is a major part of its appeal. 

But the US body is not the only way to gain that kind of status. Sommeliers can enter international competitions and make their names on the global stage. Or, as Gray suggests, they can join the similarly rigorous and equally respected Master of Wine programme which might be just as valid for many of the jobs currently being held down by Master Sommeliers.

Robert Joseph

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