Court of Master Somms Continues to Implode

The Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas chairman Devon Broglie is the latest member of the organisation to be suspended.
© Devon Broglie | The Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas chairman Devon Broglie is the latest member of the organisation to be suspended.
Female Masters distance themselves as more male heads roll.
By Liza B. Zimmerman | Posted Monday, 09-Nov-2020

This has been a tumultuous week for the Napa-based Court of Master Sommeliers, the Americas (CMS, A), as the once well-respected association continues to unravel. The group's former president Devon Broglie, the head buyer for Whole Foods, suspended his title last Thursday and admitted to having had an inappropriate relationship. He was officially totally suspended from the group the next day.

Marie-Louise Friedland, a certified sommelier who is now in graduate school, went to The New York Times (NYT) with her story as she said she didn't trust the Court to properly respond to her experience with Broglie. Friedland has held wine director positions at vaulted restaurants such as State Bird and Quince in San Francisco and was studying for her certified MS degree when Broglie became her mentor in Texas, where Whole Foods is based.

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"He mentored me for the blind tasting part of the exam at his house. We would study and then the switch flipped, and it was more sexual," she shares. "It was consensual. I did not say no." However many of us would ask how such a relationship could possibly be consensual when the power balance is so clearly off.

She heartbreakingly adds: "I will be the first to admit that a lot of the details both with him and Geoff – are fuzzy because I made them that way. I wanted to bury this." Super-predator Geoff Kruth, formerly of GuildSomm, was the focus of the first NYT harassment story.

Broglie has long believed to have been over his head in his slapdash, and often insensitive, management of the prestigious organization. The previous two crises – the 2018 cheating scandal and how the Black Lives Matter movement was handled – were addressed with terse and limited communication from the Court.

Broglie did not respond to requests for comment for this story and the public relations team for the Court confirmed that there have been three additional male suspensions in addition to the previous seven prior to Broglie. This brings the current total to 12, including Broglie. The new suspensions include Brian Cronin, Joseph Linder and Fred Dexheimer. None of the three responded to requests for comment.

Mentorship gone wrong

Friedland is not likely to be the only woman manipulated by Broglie. She adds that eventually either Broglie got "tired of pursuing me or he just got the hint." She said what really drove her to share her story with the NYT was the fact that Broglie was running unopposed for the chairman position of the CMS board. What is more, his first response on behalf of the board – or what some of us might consider lack of one – about inappropriate relationships made her realize that "he should not be issuing these kinds of statements".

She shares that she no longer believes in the organization or wants to gain a credential through it. However, she would like "to make sure that there is a certification out that can give people a sense of direction". However, she adds, that she doesn't think that the Court – in its current iteration – "is equipped to do that".

She says that knowing that other women have chosen to leave the Court, "makes me feel less alone ... that there is a world beyond that pin. It is powerful to hear them say that this 'piece of metal does not define my work'."

She believes that a number of assorted hands on deck – of both genders – were aware of what was going on. "There were many people that were privy to inappropriate behavior, including female Master Sommeliers... [So] why they didn't know it was part of a larger problem?" That does make you wonder where those women were when this happened, over and over again, and why they are keeping quiet today.

"There was a moment when they should have spoken up. It is incredibly hurtful for women not to believe other women," says Friedland. This is clearly something that has not been limited to the sommelier work arena. And none of what women have been going through has been helped by the political dominance of our – thankfully – previous "grab them by the pussy," misogynist president.

Friedland adds that, in general, the lack of concern for how women are treated has been the modus operandi of the sommelier association that desperately needs to be revamped. "Misogynist displays at Court functions are so deeply ingrained in the system that it is literally second nature." She adds that they can range from a comment to a man straightening a pin on a woman's lapel. "If my pin is askew I don't need a male Master Sommelier to adjust it. Just because they are an MS doesn't mean that they have the right to touch me."

Marie-Louise Friedland is one of the female sommeliers to suffer at the hands of the Court.
© Carlyn Hudson | Marie-Louise Friedland is one of the female sommeliers to suffer at the hands of the Court.

No comment not working

The organization – and many of its members – continue to decline to react to the bulk of the issues that have impacted the Court's ability to function. On Friday the CMS, A's public relations team released a short statement, attributed to Broglie.

The salient parts read as follows: "Over the past week, I have heard and carefully considered the calls for resignation of my position [and]... I truly believe that the Court of Master Sommeliers can become a safe, more diverse and ultimately better organization. I deeply apologize to all the women whose lives and careers have been negatively impacted by the predatory actions of any Master Sommelier."

This is all too little and way too late to help a lot of the affected women and many others in both the wine business and the rest of the civilized world. Broglie is believed to have had limited options, but to suspend his membership, once Friedland went to the paper.

"I think he was contacted by the NYT regarding Marie-Louise's story and he knew his time was up," shares 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. She adds that Broglie "has been a completely ineffective leader and his true colors really came out during the cheating scandal. I've never seen something handled so poorly." Friedland adds that over the course of this week he must have simply "realized that he wasn't fit for the position."

Given Broglie's inappropriate behavior and lack of leadership abilities, he was suspended for inappropriate behavior with women. His suspension was confirmed – privately in classic CMS, A style – in a memo to the current membership of the group on Saturday. It is in keeping with the group's continued desire to keep everything close to the vest. Not even the four women who resigned and suspended their membership were privy to the memo.

Some of the woman members, who prefer to not comment, are clearly not helping their case. Virginia Philip of the Breakers in Palm Beach and vice chair of the organization stated, "Following his resignation as Chair, the Board convened to suspend Devon Broglie from participation in all CMS-A activities, pending the results of an outside investigation into the allegations reported in yesterday's New York Times article. Mr. Broglie is subject to further disciplinary action based on the results of the investigation." She continues not to respond to requests for comments. Lack of frank communication from women in times of crisis rarely helps a situation and often makes it worse.

Some previous Master Somms see a few rays of light in how the group has moved on. "Devon's stepping down shines a brighter spotlight on what is going on," notes Alpana Singh, a Chicago restaurateur who was the youngest woman to pass the Master Sommelier exam at 26. Somewhat humorously, when she initially started studying for the degree she was underage and no one in the organization bothered to check her date of birth.

On a less positive note, she adds that it also adds insult to injury that the board's previous chair – Greg Harrington the winemaker from Walla Walla's Gramercy Cellars – has also been accused of inappropriate behavior. "It is not a good day when the chairman of an organization steps down," she concludes.

Emily Wines is the vice president of wine and beverages at Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurant.
© Cooper's Hawk | Emily Wines is the vice president of wine and beverages at Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurant.

Tear down or rebuild?

Some of the female Master Sommeliers who have either suspended or terminated, their membership think the organization can not be restored to its former glory so they are fine moving on. "Removing just two initials at the end of my name doesn't take away all I have done," says Singh.

She adds that she also felt a certain level of guilt in having been able to leverage the benefits of the title at a time at which she didn't choose to ask questions about what was going on with other women pursuing the degree. "I resigned out of remorse and guilt and started asking questions." The concept of the Court is to "serve with integrity, humility and honor. The candidates were our guests and we failed to honor them and live up to our own code."

"When nefarious characters are handed a weapon of destruction and can leverage their power in a situation – where not everything is transparent – we shouldn't be surprised that we have a situation like this," she went on to note.

She agrees with some of Dowty Mitchell's previous statements that the specific knowledge and skillsets needed to pass the complex Master Sommelier exams are often hard to quantify. Much of what goes on can be shrouded in mystery, she adds, such as who gets access to prestigious wines and trips and why.

On the other hand, some of the women Master Sommeliers think the organization deserves a second chance. While it "is time for some reckoning... It is important for our industry to have a way to mentor exams and credential our peers," notes Emily Wines, the vice president of wine and beverages at the 43-location Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurant. She shares her belief that, in order to be effective, the organization would have to "look very different than it does today." However, she fears a new world in which "no men will ever want to mentor a female candidate for fears of potential inappropriately."

Due diligence has clearly not occurred yet. When the Court set up its famous abuse "hotline", those on the receiving end of the phone couldn't even spell the word "sommelier," according to Singh. She called in to report an allegation on behalf of another candidate and the next day got an email documenting her concerns about a "quartermaster."

Friedland would like to see "a new organization that starts fresh with a focus on transparency, inclusivity and safety." The past eight months of Coronavirus hibernation have given people more time, she adds, to catch up and prioritize the future. And "having a fucking sexist as the president," has pulled a lot of triggers.

In terms of moving forward Singh questions, "When you ask how we can save it? I say why save it?" She goes on to add that, "There is no transparency in the organization, even to the membership." She lamented that no one in the organization even copied her on the statement about her own resignation. So since she had officially resigned, I had to send her Philips' latest Court statement about Broglie's suspension, because out of sight is clearly out of mind for this group.

As a reporter, I always try to give due process to all individuals and perspectives. Several of my previous best sources for this story have asked me not to contact them or quote them anymore, either because they are leaving the group or planning to stay put and reform it.

The lack of communication is all terribly reminiscent of when Broglie decided that the bulk of the documentation of the 2018 cheating scandal should be kept within the Court. Moving forwards, the wine industry, and the world, needs to be more invested in full disclosure. This is no longer an issue that can be kept quiet under wraps as it dovetails too painfully with the abuse and disrespect shown to women during the past four years of the Trump administration.

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