The NYT article published yesterday https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/29/dining/drinks/court-of-master-sommeliers-sexual-harassment-wine.html has generated quite a tidal wave in the wine industry. The article exposed the rampant problem of sexual harassment, predation and abuse by several Master Sommeliers directed at aspiring sommeliers going through the CMS program. So many people (both men and women) immediately expressed their support and acknowledged these allegations which proves the gravity and prior awareness of this problem. However, the one organization whose response is the most important seems to have failed us yet again. I’d like to address a few things from the CMS statement that was released yesterday:
- They “appreciate and applaud the courage it took to come forward.” I resent this cheap sentiment as these men have no idea what that really means. The victims risked everything to go on record. We wouldn’t have had to put ourselves in this situation to speak out if the Court had taken the appropriate actions in the first place to stop these men. Instead their only concern was protecting their reputation and pristine image. The only previous consequence the CMS levied against these Masters in light of accusations was for them not to be allowed to specifically examine these respective women. To be clear, the Masters could still participate in examinations and perform the duties and job of a master sommelier. This demonstrates that the CMS was WELL AWARE of these allegations and the extent of the problem, but chose never to address them in the appropriate manner. This neglect left us victims no choice BUT to come forward in this very public manner.
- “The CMS does not condone the actions of the individuals.” Then why after all these years do these men still hold their title?? It allows them to still act and present themselves as Master Sommeliers to the unknowing public. It’s exactly why convicted sex offenders have to register their names with the government.
- “All members of the community deserve to be educated and examined free of inappropriate conduct.” Why are they just now making this statement? That should’ve been pillar #1 (a no-brainer!). Again, they have been aware of this behavior by examining Masters and Fred Dame “the revered Chair Emeritus” for YEARS and have only tried to cover it up and brush it under the rug. As the Times reported, the CMS recently received its first formal complaint against Fred Dame and were actively investigating it. This begs the question, if this Times’ article hadn’t come out, would the accusations against Dame ever have been public knowledge? I would place a hefty wager that the answer to that question is no. They also were well aware of Geoff Kruth’s behavior but are attempting to distance themselves from him by saying that he was acting under GuildSomm which are “unrelated” entities. We all know that testing candidates heavily rely on GuildSomm for the information needed to pass the CMS exams due to the CMS’s lack of providing that to the community. To practically all aspiring sommeliers, the line between the CMS and GuildSomm is non-existent. It’s cowardly to say “well, we aren’t officially affiliated,” when the leaders of the organization are Master Sommeliers. Geoff and Matt Stamp wore the same red pins that gave them the credibility and platform to start GuildSomm and have it become an invaluable tool in a sommelier’s pursuit of the CMS diploma.
4. “We were disheartened to hear that candidates felt powerless to speak up.” First of all, this is a blatant lie. Many did speak up to the board as well as to fellow female Master Sommeliers and were dismissed. One female MS recommended to a woman confiding in her “to be as professional as possible.” Second of all, why would we have spoken up, when from the beginning it was apparent that the fraternization between masters and candidates was an accepted part of the culture of the organization? As reported in the Times’ article, I was verbatim told that “master-candidate relationships were allowed” after a senior Master Sommelier serving on the Board asked me to go on vacation with him A MONTH before I was sitting for my first attempt at the Master Sommelier exam. As women have been conditioned to do, I brushed “the invitation” off and decided that I was well-equipped to maintain my professionalism determined that my performance would not be affected. However, it goes without saying that as much as I didn’t want to acknowledge it, this obviously affected my psyche on top of all of the other normal first-time exam jitters because I knew that this man was going to be present. I was enamored by the reputation of the organization and the difficulty of obtaining the diploma. I passed the Introductory, Certified, and Advanced level exams on my first attempts all before the age of 27, and I couldn’t have been more hopeful, driven and excited to sit for the Master Sommelier exam. I didn’t realize it at the time (call it immaturity or naïveté), but the first seed of cynicism, disillusionment and disappointment had been planted. Had this Master Sommelier taken an interest in me because of my merit and skills or because he wanted to sleep with me? This scenario was all too familiar as it followed on the heels of me having to leave a promising job after coming to the realization that my boss was only interested in promoting me in an attempt to coerce me into having a sexual relationship with him. The difference is that I had much higher hopes for the Court.
In spite of this, I almost “Krug-cupped” the exam (which is when you pass all 3 sections on your first attempt). I was told by the male Master Sommelier who gave me my feedback that I passed tasting and theory, but wasn’t successful in the service portion. His reasons for this were very vague, but the one that stuck with me was his comment about my poor suit choice for the practical exam. Nevertheless, that night, I chose to celebrate my achievements with fellow candidates and Master Sommeliers one of whom initiated flirting with me which led to us making out in a taxi in the presence of fellow Masters and candidates. Then for the next three years, I was subjected to receiving inappropriate GuildSomm and FB messages from him (by this time, he was now the President of the Court) at professional events and subsequent exams. With every single advance and invitation I turned down, it seemed another one was knocking down my door and the culture of the organization was apparent. Despite coming to this realization, I chose to accept it and try to fit in because I only had one section left to pass, and I was determined I could overcome it. I never passed the exam. I shouldn’t have to wonder if my refusals of the President’s advances played a factor, but with zero transparency and accountability built into the exam structure, I always will.
The CMS’s statement is offensive and hollow. The silence of the majority of Master Sommeliers is deafening. Thank you to the few who have reached out with support. Every Master Sommelier who had an inkling of this type of behavior and turned a blind eye or chose not to get involved is complicit. Most importantly, the wine community deserves an apology. In my opinion, a proper response would’ve read something like this, “We acknowledge that in the past, we handled this extremely serious and delicate situation inappropriately which caused many people immense pain and harm. We are firmly committed to rectifying these wrongs and changing our disciplinary measures for this type of behavior in the future.” That would’ve gone a LONG way. Instead, the Court’s response of “we have addressed and handled these matters internally” only perpetuates the problems and abuse and protects these men. The world has seen this play out the exact same horrifying way with the Catholic church, Harvey Weinstein, FOX news, etc.,
I want to make it clear that everyone understands that this toxic culture of the CMS was known by EVERYONE. It was joked about, side-eyed, ignored, brushed off and diminished and now in 2020, they are going to establish an ethics-hot line as an appropriate response?! Thank you, next.
There are so many stories and names that weren’t included for one reason or another, but if you have any guilt whatsoever know that the conversations have been had and your name is out there.
Thank you to Victoria James and Jane Lopes for being my anchors in making this story come to light and also to Julia Moskin for believing in us.