Wine News Somm Scandal: A Question of Integrity

Somm Scandal: A Question of Integrity

Is the Court of Master Sommeliers really just an old boys club?
© Greater Diversity | Is the Court of Master Sommeliers really just an old boys club?
As the sommelier cheating incident remains shrouded in secrecy, an injured party speaks out.
By Don Kavanagh | Posted Friday, 19-Oct-2018

Some 10 days after the Court of Master Sommeliers admitted that one of their senior figures leaked details of the final exam to some of the candidates, the whole incident remains a mystery.

Despite repeated requests for comment or more detail, or even the answer to the basic question of how it happened, we've heard nothing from the Court of Master Sommeliers since a press release on October 10. In the meantime, Wine-Searcher has received plenty of opprobrium for daring to ask pertinent questions (and for having the sheer audacity to expect answers), but we have also received plenty of support and encouragement from those parts of the somm community that don't have the letters MS appended to their names.

Related stories:
Somm Struck Off Over Tasting Leak
Who Leaked the Somms' Wine List?
Master Somms Chase the Corporate Dollar

And, in one particularly poignant case, from someone who had an MS pin in their hand only to have it cruelly snatched away in the most unfair of circumstances. Cameron Pilkey's partner was one of the 23 candidates who initially thought they had passed, only to have their diplomas rescinded after it became clear that one Master Somm had leaked details of the tasting test to some of his mentees.

Cameron's partner started his journey to the top of his profession 15 years ago, choosing the somm life over a college education. When he passed the exam in September, he believed all his hard work and sacrifice had been worth it, but it was not to be. The conduct of the Court's board of directors since then has left something of a sour taste as well.

"I feel the board has been controlling the narrative like some benevolent sovereignty or – as I've always suspected – a boys' club, where favoritism rules supreme," Cameron said. "I shared [the following article] because I thought it was a valuable perspective on one component of a greater issue. Plus, I'm so freaking tired of reading the word 'integrity'."

Cameron's piece is reproduced below.

Mastering integrity

Integrity is a powerful word. Much like reputation, character and honesty, it is wielded as a protection for individual merit, as well as organizational code. In the wake of the recent Court of Master Sommeliers scandal, the word has been leveraged 13 times within three communications claiming: "Maintaining the integrity of the examination process must be our highest priority", in order "to protect the integrity of not only the examination process but also the reputation of the Court of Master Sommeliers and the title Master Sommelier."

Defined as a "firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values", it raises the question, which holds more value: the integrity of the organization? Or the integrity of the individuals that embody it?

The Board of Directors argues that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That "now is not the time to doubt the integrity of the organization". But what happens when the whole is compromised? It is true, wine is greater than the compilation of grapes, stem-inclusion, barrels and terroir, but when the bottle is corked, its value is void.

A member of the Board, the very same governing body that has made this decision, sent an email to a few select candidates the morning of the tasting portion of the exam with the subject line "heads up", releasing the initials of two varietals in the flight. The origin of the scandal lies within the Board, which now looks to those that successfully completed the exam and have been invalidated to bear the burden of maintaining the organization's integrity, for the sake of the greater good.

And what of the integrity of those that passed the test fairly? The Board is asking these candidates to blindly trust the leadership of an organization that has already failed them so miserably. The Board publicly invalidated the results of the exam without ever investigating the individual circumstances of each candidate. By doing so, they cast a shadow of doubt on everyone who sat the exam – quickly abandoning the 23 sommeliers stripped of their titles to the voraciousness of public scrutiny. They have been slandered, trolled, embarrassed, linked inextricably to this scandal, lives marred and in turmoil.

By stating that all 54 be allowed to re-sit the exam, they have rewarded the weak moral courage of those who received the email and said nothing, as well as the candidate that received the email and passed, and the one that received the email, failed and then came forward after watching their peers and friends celebrate this momentous accomplishment. Meanwhile, people's lives, families and careers have been thrown into a poorly managed PR cyclone that calls into question the truth of their experience, their character as professionals in this industry, and their integrity.

With so many tears in the fiber of the organization – the lack of responsibility being demonstrated by the Board for originating the compromise, the admission of weak moral character into the ranks of their members, and willingness to publicly besmirch innocent lives – exactly whose integrity is being protected?

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