Chaos Reigns at Scandal-hit Somms' Court

The Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas has some soul-searching to do.
© Shutterstock | The Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas has some soul-searching to do.
More Master Sommeliers are suspended as women question whether the erstwhile old boys' club can survive without complete change.
By Liza B. Zimmerman | Posted Friday, 06-Nov-2020

The third time is clearly not a charm: the Napa-based Court of Master Sommeliers, the Americas (CMS, A) has blown how it handled sensitive situations three times in two years.

The messy handling of the cheating scandal in 2018, the botched attempt to address the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and a total lack of transparency about harassment of women candidates have created tsunami conditions for the current iteration of the organization.

Related stories:
Somm Sex Scandal: Wine's Me-Too Moment
Somm Scandal: A Question of Integrity
Somm Struck Off Over Tasting Leak

Who is on first: the current male-dominated board has continued its typical pattern of lack of timely response with reporters and the wine community at large. Its latest comments note that the Court has retained a third-party investigator, suspended another seven male Master Sommeliers, and is working to change its code of ethics.

Who reached second base: the 27 American and Canadian female Master Sommeliers released an apology to the survivors of this abuse on social media earlier this week and have committed to obtaining more transparency in the Court's day-to-day dealings. They have also pledged to step up as mentors to a new generation of female sommeliers.

However direct outreach, on behalf of the Court's two female board members, to each of the 21 women who took their story to The New York Times (NYT) it has not gone over well. Virginia Philip of the Breakers in Palm Beach; and the Marana, Arizona-based consultant Laura Williamson have been connecting with each of women and much of the content of their interactions has not been well received.

According to Liz Dowty Mitchell, a New Orleans-based owner of Mitchell Somm Selections and one of the 21 women who spoke out about the abuse to the NYT, said that Williamson texted a statement – to another candidate – saying that in theory the reporting of an article is only an allegation until there is proof, a message that Dowty Mitchell has posted on her Instagram feed.

One of the 21 women who went to the NYT shared that if the two women on the board wanted to foster communication with the victims then they could at least use some tact in reacting to their experiences. Dowty Mitchell adds that clearly the suspended Master Somm Geoff Kruth, formerly of GuildSomm who was the focus of the NYT article, is a predator. Williamson did not respond to requests for comment.

Dowty Mitchell is not the only victim of harassment who was riled by Williamson's text. "Our goal is to move forward in good faith and certain actions by the board have made us unable to do that," shared Rachel Van Til, an advanced level sommelier, who is the lead sommelier at the Club at Houston Oaks in Texas, who received the memorable "Which oral sex position is your favorite?" text from Kruth.

"The sheer fact that we haven't gotten a very sincere personal apology or admission of unwilling complicity shows that we are not moving towards the same goal," Van Til noted of the board's lack of an empathetic reaction.

Dowty Mitchell went on to say that the collective apology – that she had previously accepted without question from the 27 female Master Sommeliers by giving them the benefit of the doubt – was clearly invalidated by Williamson's remarks.

The insensitivity she found in Williamson’s "allegation without proof" statement – according to Dowty Mitchell – was only compounded by the fact that when Williamson was once approached by a man whose girlfriend was studying for the MS who he claimed was being harassed by Kruth, Williamson reportedly said: "Geoff doesn't do exams anymore so that is not important."

Look who's not talking

Neither of two women on the Court's board returned requests for comment. Nor did any of the suspended Master Sommeliers – a list that includes Greg Harrington, Eric Entrikin, Robert Bath, Matt Stamp, Matthew Citriglia, Drew Hendricks and Fred Dame – or their previous work places, which include the Culoinary Institute of America (CIA), Napa Valley and Daou Vineyards in Paso Robles, among others.

Liz Dowty Mitchell believes the organization is irrevocably tarnished.
© Mitchell Somm Selections | Liz Dowty Mitchell believes the organization is irrevocably tarnished.

A CIA spokesperson said that Bath was never employed at the school when he was accused of harassment, which is not the case, as he had previously been suspended from 2007 to 2009 and was reemployed by the CIA, according to a release from the school, in 2010. He was known as party Bob, according to Dowty Mitchell, for a reason. Daou has reported that Dame is no longer working at the winery. The rest of the suspended MSs – who worked for wholesalers, as brand managers, owned wineries and were employed as consultants – have also not responded for comment.

A least a dozen other female Master Sommeliers have not returned phone calls. So a few honest souls have been picking up the rest of the slack.

Social media frenzy

To follow many of the women's reaction to the Court's response means being glued to social media. Today's update on Dowty Mitchell's Instagram feed reads "The Court of Master Sommeliers Does Not Give a Fuck About You."

Elizabeth Huettinger, an Advanced Sommelier, created a petition to the CMS, A on that was endorsed by 17 Master Sommeliers, both male and female. Its opening statement reads: "As a community of candidates with the Court of Master Sommeliers, we are extremely appalled by the Court's recent response to the findings of abuse detailed in The New York Times (NYT)."

It goes on to say: "Moral standards should be adhered to by candidates and Master Sommeliers alike. We are asking for injustices to be corrected. We are asking for accountability and immediate action." She goes on to flag the Court's seminal three major failures: the cheating scandal, its lack of support for the Black community and "failure to take appropriate action in the discovery of widespread sexual harassment and abuse within the organization".

The petition's signatories went on to demand a public apology for the behavior detailed in the NYT, the resignation of the entire board and "third-party investigations of all abuse of power and sexual harassment allegations", and the subsequent removal of the abusers' titles.

Stakes are high

When asked why these problems continue to plague the Court and not the equally prestigious Master of Wine program, Dowty Mitchell said it is because the MS program lacks transparency in its exams. Candidates, she adds, "never get meaningful feedback. So it creates a situation where women start wondering what it takes to pass." At the time she started pursuing the degree she said there was no syllabus and "none of what is available now in terms of the academic material was available then".

As a result, she says, candidates often put "themselves in the position of trying to be friends with the 'right' people as a result". This, clearly, has created problems.

Two female Master Somms – Laura Maniec Fiorvanti, the owner of the Corkbuzz wine bars in New York and Charlotte, North Carolina, and the Chicago-based consultant Alpana Singh – have suspended their membership. Fiorvanti did not respond to requests for comment. There is talk about the rest of the 25 remaining female Master Sommeliers doing the same thing.

Rebecca Fineman, who is the managing partner of wine bar and educational outpost Ungrafted, adds that, even as a recent Master Somm, as she passed three years ago, she has seen misogyny in the male community of candidates. She noted that when she studied with her male colleagues if a man was off his game with a tasting note he was "just having a bad day", while women were often blamed for being less knowledge. "I just couldn't play that 'bro' thing. They were very supportive of each other but not me."

For some, like Dowty Mitchell, the program is irrevocably tarnished. She doesn't think the female Master Somm contingent would be losing their voice by suspending their membership as their voice is not being heard by the Court anyway. Her conclusion is that "it is an old, archaic organization that needs to be dismantled. There is no hope in salvaging it as there are too many deep-rooted, major issues."

The female Master Sommeliers, for her, "need to disassociate themselves from the organization". She adds that their priorities are out of whack. "They don't care about women, but care more about their association and their title." She adds that the female Master Somms knew exactly what was going on and simply sat there "clutching their pins and saying 'I am so lucky they let me into the boys' club'."

She adds that the organization does not have a human resources department and "all you could do if someone behaved inappropriately is tell whichever Master Sommelier you had somewhat of a connection with at the time what the problem was and see if they cared or did anything about it".

Case in point, she notes, was when Fred Dame slapped her on the ass, as he seems to have done with almost any woman who ever came near him at a bar. "Who was I going to tell? He's the fucking godfather of wine who is credited with bringing the profession of sommelier to the United States."

Fineman agrees that many of the female Masters and candidates have no one to talk to about the issues that arise. She adds that how those who received emails revealing the wines to be tasted prior to the exam – the basis of the cheating scandal – were also "victim shamed and had no one to go to".

I asked a half dozen female Master Sommeliers about this void and only one of them got back to me: Catherine Fallis, the San Francisco-based owner of educational firm Planet Grape. She said none of the 27 women were aware of the gravity of what was going on. She released a statement saying she was sorry and that "We knew there was a small subset of misogynistic members who flirted inappropriately, badmouthed us etc., but the scope of what has come out is downright disgusting". She, and other female Master Somms, are also in favor of removal of the entire current board, which is – not surprisingly – dominated by men.

Fallis has said that she hopes future female candidates will come to other female Masters with these types of issues. However Fineman laments that, "maybe they never came to us because they thought that we were not powerful enough". She adds that, what is more, "we may not be prepared to handle it. They may need a counselor to help them confront what they have gone through."

The fate of the court hangs in the balance as the wine world is still waiting for the reveal of the name of a New York-based Master Sommelier who is accused of rape. One of the female Master Sommeliers thinks the Court should pay the accuser's legal fees. She might well be right.

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