As a young woman in the wine industry, I have been warned to “stay away from” or not be in a room alone with certain Master Sommeliers. A handful have been known to leverage their powerful positions to sexually harass or assault young women throughout my career. So, I was not surprised when The New York Times published an article in which 21 brave women came forward to share their experiences of sexual misconduct with prominent Master Sommeliers.

While I believe it was a choice, or series of choices made by these individuals, and that each should be held fully accountable for his actions, it is also critical to discuss the system which has allowed these atrocities to occur. Only then can we stop it from perpetuating more harm in the future.

The Court of Master Sommeliers Americas (CMS-A), on paper, is a certifying body for wine professionals. However, in the context of social and political status as a sommelier, the CMS-A holds the keys to higher-paying jobs, coveted sommelier positions at elite restaurants, and increased social status in the community. These keys come in the form of passing the CMS-A’s multi-level exams, which are well known in the hospitality industry, and known to be challenging. Therefore, if you consider yourself a sommelier, it is all but expected that you will pursue its certifications.

You may be asking, how do difficult exams lead to sexual assault? They don’t. The problem does not inherently lie within the examinations themselves, but rather the road to being selected to take them. With each higher level of testing, there are fewer seats available — and the criteria on which you are selected becomes more mysterious.

“Imagine the fear as a young woman, freezing in the moment as you attempt to determine in real time whether or not rejecting a Master’s inappropriate sexual advances will negatively impact your career.”

The CMS-A has very few study materials available online and gives general, broad categories or book recommendations that will be on the examination. The program is completely self-guided study: If the exams are so difficult, how do candidates decide what to specifically focus on or memorize? The best way to succeed is to find a mentor who will guide you in your studies, and nudge you toward the type of questions to expect on the exam.

Although having “mastery” of any subject would require study outside of provided materials, the CMS-A does not publish questions from previous years, nor provide any scope of what types of questions will appear on exams. Instead, candidates are reliant on their network, and what that network chooses to share with them. Master Sommeliers in your direct network can be a huge advantage.

Previously, candidates were required to have a Master’s recommendation to even sit for the third-level (Advanced) exam or higher. The Court recently removed this requirement, but with so many candidates hoping to take the exam and only a limited number of seats available, many still feel the need to earn a Master’s unofficial counsel or approval. Networking with Master Sommeliers at classes, workshops, and conferences may put you in a more advantageous position to get a coveted spot.

Master Sommeliers are treated like wine industry celebrities — coveted not necessarily for their knowledge, but for the promise of access to their networks. The ambiguity and secrecy of the examination process adds to Master Sommeliers’ perceived power. A select few choose to wield this power over others in the form of sexual harassment and manipulation; however, everyone who saw, but chose not to respond, is responsible.

There are currently over 150 Master Sommeliers in the United States, and over 75 percent of them are white men. There are no mentorship requirements placed on Master Sommeliers. They are not required to teach or donate their time to the community; and they aren’t given any resources to effectively mentor. Instead, mentor-mentee relationships are formed at a fraternal level. Female candidates working to excel in higher levels of testing must find a member who is willing to take them on as their “mentee.” This puts the power of advancing careers into the hands of a select group of men, some of whom are known to be potentially unsafe individuals.

It is unknown how much influence a single Master Sommelier can have on a sommelier’s standing as a candidate. Yet, there is a shared and constant drive to impress Master Sommeliers by being friendly and accommodating; whether at social events; by purchasing brands they represent for your restaurant; by responding to private messages; or accepting invitations to events that you might not normally attend otherwise.

Speaking negatively about the Court in public or online is highly discouraged among candidates. Imagine the fear as a young woman, freezing in the moment as you attempt to determine in real time whether or not rejecting a Master’s inappropriate sexual advances will negatively impact your career.

“Without strict policies against sexual harassment, fraternization, or assault … [t]hese problems will continue to persist.”

Since there is a complete lack of transparency in all levels of the CMS-A candidate selection process, exam criteria, and scoring on its exams (these answers are never revealed, either), being in good favor of the Masters is the only part of the process that seems to be within our control. This system not only allows, but even unintentionally invites sexual misconduct, which the Court has had problems with for many years. It also invites other types of discrimination. Unconscious bias and “personal preference” of the Masters decide who gets mentorship and thus ultimately succeeds in their programs. There is no practical preparedness material elsewhere. Racism, ageism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination have been largely left unchecked.

When issues of sexual misconduct or other forms of unethical behavior have been brought to the CMS-A board of directors, discussions and disciplinary actions (or lack thereof) have largely been kept under wraps, often leaving Master Sommeliers outside of the board of directors completely unaware of the offenses of their peers and superiors. Without strict policies against sexual harassment, fraternization, or assault, or a third-party entity to investigate allegations (board members, instead, decide on punishment of their peers), it’s not surprising that these problems have persisted.

These problems will continue to persist, without a complete redesign of their organization.

The CMS-A, as it stands today, creates an unsafe and inequitable environment for everyone in the wine industry. The lack of leadership and gross ineptitude demonstrated by the board of directors on several public occasions have created an industry-wide uproar of anger and mistrust in the sommelier community toward the CMS-A.

A short summary of the current board’s failures this year include: remaining silent when sommeliers across the country lost their jobs due to Covid-19; botching the (very late) PR statement during the Black Lives Matter movement; and, finally, allowing known sexual predators to exist in the membership.

This is in addition to the board’s mishandling the 2018 cheating scandal, in which 23 newly appointed Master Sommeliers were stripped of certification and forced to retest, after an existing Master Sommelier leaked answers to an unknown number of candidates before the exam. Originally, I had faith that the board had done due diligence in making such a difficult decision, but now I believe it was the wrong choice.

As the president of the United Sommeliers Foundation, I have seen hundreds of sommeliers who have been economically impacted by the Covid-19 crisis. The CMS-A has done nothing to support or positively respond to the sommeliers in the process of testing. In fact, even though we were co-founded by a Master Sommelier and have had four Master Sommeliers on our board of directors since our inception, it took several weeks of lobbying for CMS-A to provide us a verbal endorsement, without any financial backing.

This is hugely important, since many sommeliers have been put into debt and negatively economically impacted by the CMS-A process. Its lack of transparency, response, and care for those testing have devalued the worth of the efforts of so many in trying to pass these exams. If the CMS-A fails to reform, the thousands of dollars spent by sommeliers to get that pin will be thrown in the trash.

“I am hopeful that a fair, inclusive, and safe certification process will emerge out of this moment.”

If there is any saving the CMS-A, it will start by removing all individuals from the board of directors immediately. The lack of accountability and consequence for members’ bad behavior against candidates have demonstrated time and time again, that they are unfit to lead an organization of this caliber. The chairman of the board, Devon Broglie, resigned on Nov. 6 amid allegations of his own inappropriate behavior, and another board member was suspended pending investigation. The rest of the board announced that they are stepping down on Nov. 8, but details on the new election are yet to be seen.

After the board is removed, a consultation with a hired third-party expert is needed to completely re-imagine this organization. As a sommelier who has experienced its programs first hand, these are some of the basic changes that would need to happen to save the organization from its pending demise:

For Exam Preparation:

  • Create comprehensive study guides and mock exams that accurately reflect the topics and difficulty of the examinations
  • Create regular, structured, and chaperoned learning opportunities accessible to all

For the examination process:

  • Create tangible criteria used for selecting candidates
  • Implement video proctoring for oral portions
  • Reveal wines used for blind tasting and theory questions after the exams
  • Give scores and specific feedback so candidates can improve
  • Waive examination fees and offer travel stipends for those who cannot afford it
  • Create mock service exams that reflect modern-day dining

For leadership:

  • Remove prerequisites that currently preclude new Master Sommeliers (including young people) from being decision makers
  • Expand the membership to include sommeliers at all testing levels (currently only Master Sommeliers are technically members of the CMS-A)
  • Hire a CEO who has experience running an organization of its size
  • Remove the word “Master” from all programming

With so many changes necessary, I’m unsure if the CMS-A is even worth saving, or if it would be better for a new group of professionals to begin with a clean slate. There are many passionate people within the organization who I believe could make it happen, who have always acted with integrity, but have unfortunately been cast into the spotlight due to the negligence of the leadership. I am unsure whether the current leadership will make way for this progress and allow the necessary changes to happen.

As a 19-year-old who wanted to learn about wine, I found the CMS-A’s program immediately due to its authority and online presence. My fear is that if these reforms are not made and the organization stays the same, hundreds of aspiring sommeliers will still join its programming. Any other organization that forms would take years to eclipse the presence of the CMS-A.

Either way, I am hopeful that a fair, inclusive, and safe certification process will emerge out of this moment and the imminent revolution. It is up to CMS-A whether or not it will adapt or be left behind.

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