Updated Nov. 9, 2020
The chairman of the Court of Master Sommeliers-Americas (CMS-A) stepped down Friday, Nov. 6 and the group announced plans for an overhaul, following its earlier suspension of seven male Master Sommeliers from all activities and the resignation of another. All stand accused of sexually harassing women who were pursuing certification with the group. Three additional Master Sommeliers were suspended that same day, and an independent investigator has been appointed to follow up on all allegations.
"We agree that a reformed CMS-A is the only path forward to ensuring the organization's existence and integrity, and to better protect the people who look to be educated and earn the credentials for which we have all worked so hard," wrote board vice chair Virginia Philip in a letter sent Friday to all Master Sommeliers. Philip will oversee the transition, temporarily taking over from CMS-A chairman Devon Broglie, who resigned after numerous members of the sommelier community called for his departure and shortly before allegations of his own inappropriate behavior came to public light. The group will hold a town hall with members on Nov. 11 to discuss proposed reforms and a timeline for a new board election.
On Sunday, Nov. 8, following continued criticism, the Court publicly posted that the entire 15-member board would be up for election and resign as soon as new officers were voted in.
The actions were sparked by a New York Times article detailing complaints about six of the men from 21 women who alleged that they had been groped, sent explicit texts, pressured for sex in exchange for professional favors and even raped. Many of the complaints centered around Geoff Kruth, the president of GuildSomm, an educational and networking group affiliated with the Court; he has since resigned from that position and forfeited his MS title. The article spawned additional complaints to an ethics reporting hotline about five other men.
The court's initial response to the article, which amounted to vague statements of support for diversity, opposition to harassment and a disavowal of a close relationship with Kruth, left many members of the sommelier community, both women and men, unsatisfied that the organization was sufficiently addressing what many call a problematic culture. "To me, it felt more like damage control than a heartfelt apology," said Jeremy Shanker, a Master Sommelier at Michael Mina in San Francisco. "It felt like something that was designed by a PR person, not by someone who is a member of the organization who was really taking responsibility, and that's what we wanted to see."
The group's Nov. 1 follow-up did little to quell the rising anger, despite a formal apology to the 13 women identified in the Times article and the suspension of Master Sommeliers Robert Bath, Matthew Citriglia, Fred Dame, Drew Hendricks and Matt Stamp. "I was really surprised that [the Court and GuildSomm] weren't more prepared and didn't have a more thorough action plan, because they were given plenty of time to deal with the issue before it went public," said Rachel Van Til, a Houston-based sommelier who shared allegations in the Times article.
One of the board members who signed the apology, Eric Entrikin, was subsequently suspended, along with Greg Harrington. None of the suspended men have yet been stripped of their MS title. The board states that the group's bylaws require a 30-day waiting period before such a move can be taken.
That same weekend, all of the women who currently hold the title of Master Sommelier in North America—just 27 of the 158 Master Sommeliers—wrote a joint letter demanding changes within the Court, including a halt to the scheduled Nov. 11 election of new board officers, an overhaul of the bylaws and the ethics code, and a commitment to greater transparency.
"There is no place for the harm that has been done to these women and so, so many others who were hurt, bullied, abused, excluded or made to feel anything other than welcome," wrote Jill Zimorski, a Chicago-area Master Sommelier, on her Instagram account, where she posted the letter. Zimorksi, who has moved on from the restaurant world to wine education, called for even greater action. "This is a start. A sincere apology and a promise to change, reorganize, rebuild. Oh, and to clean house."
Within the week, at least three of the women—Alpana Singh of Terra & Vine in Evanston, Ill., Corkbuzz founder Laura Fiorvanti and Racines partner Pascaline Lepeltier—protested by renouncing their once-coveted title, which takes years to earn and carries with it both prestige and greater earning power. Lepeltier commented in her Instagram announcement: "There are those on the inside [of the Court], genuine women and men who are working to transform from within, but for myself, I believe this is a time for stepping back, critical introspection, and a reevaluation of how I can be a positive force for good and encourage progress for my industry going forward."
While Singh—the first woman of color to become a Master Sommelier in North America—considered staying on with the women who wanted to help rebuild the organization, she explained in a post on her website: "The question shouldn't be can this thing be salvaged but rather does it even deserve to be? The systemic issues of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and elitism are embedded into the DNA of this organization and nothing good can be rebuilt from its foundation. It must be dismantled and we must begin again."
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But Master Sommelier Emily Wines of Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurants wants to help fix the organization from the inside. “I feel like right now it’s important to step in, especially as a woman,” Wines said. “People want to see more diversity, and if I stand back and let all the guys fix it, then how am I a part of that change?”
As of Sunday, nearly 1,100 other women and men at various stages of training and certification—including at least 18 Master Sommeliers—had signed a Change.org petition calling for a boycott of the Court's future courses and exams until the entire board stepped down. The petition cited not only the sexual harassment allegations but also the board's handling of a 2018 exam-cheating scandal and what it described as a "failure to express unequivocal support" for the BIPOC community earlier this year.
"When someone has proven that they make bad decisions multiple times, they need to step down from leadership," said petition co-author Liz Huettinger, former sommelier and wine director at Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning restaurants Spago and Addison, and now national sales manager for Mayacamas Vineyards.
Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey also expressed frustration over the board’s repeated mishandlings. Working with a group of about five MS’s to present a formal complaint to the board last week felt very similar to 2018, when the same group presented concerns about lack of transparency following the cheating scandal, with no tangible outcome. Stuckey says he’s been pushing for a Human Resources department over the last three years, too. “I feel totally duped that I was asking that, asking that and asking that, and now it looks like the reason they never did it is because they were complicit doing bad things, and they didn’t want to have a neutral voice where people can voice complaints,” he said. “There was no safe environment.”
That safe environment is especially crucial for an industry inherently tied to restaurants, which Stuckey notes “has glamorized partying and excessive drinking and non-discipline for a long time, and that just lends itself to bad behavior.”
Wines agrees. “We just have to take the idea of sommeliers being rockstars off the table, because that’s what’s getting us into the trouble that we’re in.”
Under the CMS-A plan announced Friday and subsequently revised in the Sunday announcement, the upcoming election of board members will be postponed and all members will be allowed to vote to replace the entire 15-member board. The new board will elect a new chair and vice chair, hire a full-time professional CEO and revise the bylaws and the ethics policy.
The announcement of these proposed changes also stated that Brian Cronin, Fred Dexheimer and Joseph Linder have been suspended from court activities "based on new reports of sexual misconduct received through the Ethics Reporting Line" and that the board has hired Margaret Bell, an attorney specializing in employment law and an independent workplace investigator, to look into all the allegations.
In his statement to members Friday afternoon, Broglie wrote, "I deeply apologize to all the women whose lives and careers have been negatively impacted by the predatory actions of any Master Sommelier. I put my best effort forward in changing the course of the organization, I recognize that my effort fell short."
Friday evening, the New York Times published a story in which a former student studying for the Master Sommelier exam accused Broglie, global beverage buyer for Whole Foods Market, of having an inappropriate sexual relationship with her. The Court has not yet issued a statement in response to that article.
According to Shanker, the Court's only chance for survival as a legitimate and trustworthy entity is "a complete rebirth." "It can't be an organization that polices itself anymore," Shanker said.
Van Til agrees. "The board must resign," she said. "Whether it's because they failed or just been perceived to fail isn't really the issue. It's that they've broken trust with the community, and the community will not trust any decisions they make going forward as long as they are in power."
The calls for reform come during a year of unprecedented challenges for the industry, with restaurants upended by the coronavirus, and uncertainty surrounding the sommelier profession itself in a post-pandemic world.
Why has it taken so long for the problems within the sommelier community to be brought to full light? Sarah Diehl, founder and principal of Empowered Hospitality, a human resources group focused on the restaurant industry, said that although there has been a "sea change" over the past five years, with more restaurant owners trying to professionalize their workplaces, subcultures within an industry or individual business "dictate how comfortable people feel speaking up."
"The more power someone holds over another individual, whether an employee or within the profession, the more intimidating it is to come forward. In this case, the power imbalance was very extreme," explained Diehl. "You have leaders in a field who have essentially established the field from the ground up in this country, and you have people dependent on those leaders for their career success."
Will the changes be enough to rehabilitate an organization that was founded to set high standards and earn respect for the profession? "The world evolved, and the Court of Master Sommeliers did not evolve with it and I think this is that reckoning," said Huettinger. While she is hopeful that change to the culture and practices will come, she acknowledged feeling conflicted about calls to disband the organization altogether and start over, adding, "If they don't make really revolutionary sweeping changes, even if they don't dissolve, they'll become irrelevant because we'll have evolved past them. People aren't going to buy into the same culture."