At VinePair, we are driven by the belief that the wine, beer, and spirits communities must be safe and equitable spaces for all. We get the most out of what is in our glass when these communities are open, accessible, and welcoming. We are committed to using our platform to ensure this is the case.
In a New York Times report last week, 21 female sommeliers shared accounts of sexual abuse and manipulation by male members of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas (CMS-A). The reaction from the wine community since then overwhelmingly suggests that by no means are these women alone in their experiences.
Since learning of these accounts, we have had internal conversations at VinePair about our role in helping to end this toxic culture. In the coming weeks, we will publish voices from within the wine community, and share their insights on how the industry can strive toward a safer, more inclusive future. We encourage industry professionals who wish to share their opinions to reach out to us. We are listening.
VinePair is also taking this moment to make public our position on the CMS-A. While many of our staff have backgrounds working in hospitality, none of VinePair’s full-time employees are former sommeliers or hold certification with the Court. We are journalists. This is not, therefore, a decision we have taken lightly. But given the Court’s repeated failures to support the wine community, especially women and other marginalized groups, we believe it’s time to speak up.
We also acknowledge that we do not have all the answers. Whether the CMS-A should disband or not is complicated. But radical changes must be made within America’s wine community. This starts with transparency and accountability for the exclusionary practices enforced across the organization, including its educational body; examinations; paths to mentorship, merit, and professional growth; and accountability for any misconduct, alleged or confirmed, by or between members and candidates.
Education & Resources
If the CMS-A is indeed to continue, the organization must address its lack of transparency. This forms the root of all of its problems. The Court places itself as an educational body, but unlike universities, it is not accredited by any third-party organization. It offers no syllabus for its master exam, and provides no feedback to candidates on their performance in the exam, only that they have passed or failed.
Exams & Mentorship
Such obtuse practices leave candidates in the dark over whether they have been judged solely on merit, and call into question the consistency of grading systems for the exam; they also give undue power to the master sommelier examiners.
So, too, does the Court’s “mentorship” custom, which requires candidates to seek the tutelage of a master sommelier because of the lack of exam preparation material. Such a system increases the risk of bad actors — especially when the 144 of the 172 potential “mentors,” professionals who have earned the master sommelier title as part of the Americas chapter, are male.
That only 172 professionals have received the master sommelier title since the CMS-A’s inception in 1972 should not be celebrated as a signal of excellence — not least because this number skews so heavily white and male. The goal of the Court should not be to be exclusionary, but instead to provide the opportunity for as many candidates to achieve the title of master sommelier as possible. The Court examination should be rigorous, but the process must be fair. Let the market decide how many master sommeliers it can handle, just as academia determines how many Ph.D.s of a certain specialty there are jobs for, rather than control those numbers with an unclear examination process.
The way things stand, the organization functions as an elite private members club, rather than an educational body whose goal is to develop the highest-quality wine professionals in the world.
Ethics & Accountability
Accountability for Misconduct
The need for more transparency extends to the reporting of misconduct within the organization. The New York Times says the CMS-A is actively investigating a formal complaint against Fred Dame, the Court’s co-founder and honorary “chair emeritus.” According to the Court, it is the first such complaint to be made against Dame. Yet, more than a dozen of the women in last week’s report spoke of Dame’s frequent inappropriate behavior. As many in the wine community have since questioned: Would the investigation of Dame have been made public if not for The Times article?
In a recently published statement — the Court’s second statement of “apology,” after a first received significant backlash — CMS-A encouraged all in its community to report incidents of misconduct through its third-party ethics reporting hotline. The Court ensured anonymity and said every report will be investigated.
But Lighthouse, the third-party that provides the reporting service, states: “Reports are submitted by Lighthouse to the organization’s designee, and may or may not be investigated at the sole discretion of the organization.” This means the decision on whether to investigate a claim once again lands in the hands of the Court. On the topic of anonymity, Lighthouse concedes: “Although we will not disclose your identity without your express permission, it is possible that your identity may be discovered during an investigation of the matter reported because of information you have provided.”
Unless the Court makes public all completed investigations, the only guarantee the sommelier community has that the CMS-A is following up on every report is the organization’s word, which is blatantly not trustworthy. That the condition of anonymity may not be maintained through the current process only increases — even ensures — the risk of future misconduct, or worse, abuse going unreported.
Anonymity for Victims
The third-party ethics hotline is yet another example of too little, too late from the Court. (See also first-hand accounts surrounding its Diversity Committee.) Such failures leave no doubt that the entire board of directors and chairman of the board, Devon Broglie, must resign. The formation of a new board should be a fully transparent process and would ideally include the role of a board observer — an individual or individuals, not a part of the CMS-A, who sit on the board in a viewing capacity to ensure transparency and equity. This position does not currently exist.
In the long term, we would also like to see the Court hold itself accountable by publishing annual benchmarking reports, listing the number of candidates and accepted certified members, and the gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual identity/orientation at each level of certification, and how many have taken the exams that year. Only with these measures can the sommelier community track whether the Court is actually working to make the organization truly inclusive to all aspiring candidates.
Acknowledging Alcohol Consumption & Addiction
Finally, the Court must acknowledge it is a body that exists inside the world of alcohol. As professionals in the drinks space, we come in contact with alcohol on a daily basis, but that does not mean that alcohol consumption can ever be tolerated as an excuse for misconduct.
The entire industry needs to recognize there are members of this community with consumption problems, and must have the same tough conversations the spirits community has had over the past few years. The Court has the ability to set funds aside to help those with alcohol addiction problems, and we as a community must hold ourselves accountable to speaking up when we notice someone has a problem.
Creating a true wine community not only depends on everyone having a place at the table. There must be a safe, accessible path for all who wish to sit there. Only then should we turn to what’s inside our glass.
Published: November 6, 2020