Airing between regular episodes of the VinePair Podcast, “Next Round” explores the ideas and innovations that are helping drinks businesses adapt in a time of unprecedented change. As the coronavirus crisis continues and new challenges arise, VP Pro is in your corner, supporting the drinks community for all the rounds to come. If you have a story or perspective to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this episode of “Next Round,” VinePair Podcast host Zach Geballe speaks with the co-founder and president of the United Sommeliers Foundation, Cristie Norman. Norman discusses how she first entered the wine world, constantly widening access for those who came after her. Today, the United Sommeliers Foundation provides grants to somms across the country who have been affected economically by Covid-19 and other natural disasters — continuing Norman’s history of providing for other somms in her community.
Recently, after mounting charges of sexual assault and harassment arose within the Court of Master Sommeliers-America, the entire board stepped down. This led many to question the Court’s role as industry gatekeepers, and whether or not somms even need a court in the first place. After writing an impassioned article for VinePair, Norman returns to discuss how she sees the role of sommeliers evolving, and what steps the court needs to take to be more inclusive.
Moreover, Norman isn’t afraid to encourage American sommeliers to reimagine their roles in the wine world. She highlights the leaders who have paired with her organization, as well as others who are making their own strides to push somms to share their wine knowledge beyond the restaurant floor.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Z: From Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe. And this is “Next Round,” a VinePair podcast conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations between our regular podcast episodes in order to examine how we move forward as a drinks business, following the Covid-19 crisis. Today I’m talking with Cristie Norman, she’s the co-founder and president of the United Sommeliers Foundation. Cristie, thanks so much for your time.
C: Thanks so much for having me, Zach.
Z: Yeah, my pleasure. I’m curious, because we’re going to talk a lot about where things are going in the wine industry and with sommeliers in particular, but I’m wondering if you could just talk a little bit about how you started out working in the wine industry and as a sommelier. What was the early part of your career like?
C: Yeah, well honestly, I worked at a steakhouse when I was 19 years old and I wanted to be promoted to be a server. And so I learned about wine just so I could get a promotion and work and make more money. And I really fell in love with it. I had one certified somm that was working at the restaurant with me, and he said, “I will help you and teach you what you need to know so that you can pass these exams.” And it really started off with me just wanting to take level one. And I passed level one a couple of days after my 21st birthday, and then I ended up being certified about six months later. So I was still 21. and I passed in Vegas, and then I went and worked at Spago Beverly Hills because they had one of the biggest wine lists that I had ever seen. One of the masters who taught my intro exam was Chris Miller, and he was the wine director at Spago Beverly Hills for quite some time. And I was like, “wow, there’s this big wine list, and it’s 45 minutes from where I live.” And so I applied at Spago a bunch of times until they hired me, basically. And they gave me a shot. So I’ve been there ever since. So it’s been about five years.
Z: And then, when we talk about the origins of the United Sommeliers Foundation, how did that come to be, and what was the impetus behind it?
C: Well, honestly, I’ve been running tasting groups at Spago for the last three years, so I would host monthly masterclasses and then biweekly blind tastings for somms that were low cost. It was usually 40 bucks per flight. And pretty much free masterclasses for your $20 donation or something towards the photographer or the presenter. But Chris Blanchard and I had a class that we were going to do on March 16. And of course that week as the pandemic was progressing, it got increasingly more confusing on what we were supposed to do, and I ended up canceling the class at 2 a.m. because restaurants in L.A. shut down on the 15th on Sunday night. And so, I shut down the class, and Chris and I were chatting and he just said, “Hey, you know, how can we help the somms?” Because essentially, I was running this group for a long time and everybody would come to me when they needed a job and just left and right it was like, “OK, they’re eliminating this position, I’m not going to get to go back, or my restaurant’s closing, or whatever.” And so Chris and I just started as a GoFundMe, and I pretty much called my friends in the industry that were very well known. I think it was really important to have people like Geoff Labitzke, he’s an MW with Kistler in Sonoma, to have people like Erik Segelbaum in D.C., John McDaniel in Chicago, people that I knew had a history in the industry, to help legitimize what we were doing. And we ended up starting the process to become a charitable entity because we wanted to be able to offer tax-deductible donations. And we still are yet to be approved by the IRS, but it’s in process, and all the donations will be tax-deductible back to our date of incorporation in March when that happens. So it’s been a long process.
Z: Yeah, I bet. And so is the idea to provide direct financial assistance, or what exactly does the foundation do?
C: Essentially, we wanted to support somms in financial crises due to circumstances beyond their control. That’s our mission. And so right now it was Covid-19. But when the fires happened, we have a pretty broad definition of sommelier. I’ve always been a person that believes that a somm doesn’t necessarily have to be on a restaurant floor. You know, somebody has an advanced certification as a somm, but then they moved to a distributor. I still consider that person a somm. We don’t have any certification requirements. And there’s people that have been working as a somm in a restaurant for many years without a certification. And so we wanted to provide some sort of financial relief for those people. So we started this fund, and we distribute in different voting rounds. All of the candidates are anonymized by a third party. She’s our only employee for the foundation. None of the board gets any pay. And we anonymize all the candidates so we can’t see their name, their location, their restaurant. Anything out of their essay that they submit is redacted. So that we have no idea who they possibly could be. We felt that that was super important. We don’t want people to think that we’re biased and only awarding people from certain types of restaurants or something. It’s purely based on need. And we have a couple different types of grants, but the first one is a check that people can get directly to them. And then we launched a Grand Cru Program, and that’s up to $2,500, paid directly to your creditors. So essentially, people were allowed to resubmit and give us an update, because someone’s situation in March might be wildly different in June. And so we wanted to provide a higher level of funding. It just really took us time to figure out how to do that legally. What steps were needed. Chris Blanchard is still handwriting every single check, and we’ve given funds to over 800 somms and counting. And Chris has mailed every single check himself. I think we hired somebody to help him at one point, but it’s pretty much all him.
Z: So I want to come back and talk a little bit more about the future of the sommelier, because this is such a precarious time for our profession in some sense, but I do want to touch on one thing. You wrote a really powerful essay for VinePair that published earlier this week, from when we’re recording this, about the widespread sexual abuse and harassment in the Court of Master Sommeliers. And specifically about how the mentorship program, or the requirement that you get a mentor to be able to advance in the court, was so insidious, and I don’t want you to repeat the essay — I’ll link to it in the description, and people should absolutely go read it if they haven’t. But can you talk a little bit about why having a mentor is so important and also what made it such a dangerous thing?
C: Well, there isn’t any criteria on the Court of Master Sommelier America’s website of what will be on the exam. So when you’re looking and you’re saying, “OK, I want to be a certified somm,” the resources that they have are GuildSomm and a few books. And so when you are somebody who’s trying to create an outline or whatever, it’s advantageous obviously to either know somebody who has passed directly or is at a higher level that can help guide you. For instance, on the certified exam they always do Champagne service. Historically. I’ve never heard of anybody not getting Champagne service as their service part of their exam, where they have to go and open a bottle of Champagne for a master while they quiz you on different things. As a 21-year-old, I happened to know a certified somm who gave me that heads up. And so I was able to specifically train for that particular part. But if you were just in a city by yourself and you just wanted to be a certified somm, and you have no idea that that’s going to happen, well, then you’re going to fail, and there’s no discount for retests. So it’s frustrating, and it requires you to lean on your relationships. So maybe you won’t need a master at first, but having a master at least in your network or by separation of one degree, becomes really advantageous because you have somebody that you can ask for support. “Hey, what do you think about this? Is this the type of thing that they might ask me?” And it’s very problematic. It’s really problematic. And also before, you needed a master’s recommendation to take the advanced exam or higher. You’re invited to sit for the MS exam. So based on not knowing what the criteria for those things are, you never get a score on your little quiz that you have to take before you’re allowed to take the advanced exam, ‘cause they want to filter out some candidates that aren’t strong at theory. And you never get your score for that. Right? So you have no idea how you ranked, what decisions were taken into account. And it might be a very transparent process. But because nobody knows what those are. You can only think, “Oh, maybe this master’s opinion of me will have some weight.”
Z: Yeah, it definitely was my sense that it always seemed like it behooved candidates to ingratiate themselves to as many Master Sommeliers as possible, whether or not there was a direct, obvious correlation with them being able to sit for higher-level exams. It was always very clear to me as someone who went through some of that process, too, that you had to do that and that you never knew exactly how it would work out, you know? Obviously it wasn’t as clear cut, but there was that element. And I’m wondering, too, you mentioned that there is a lack or has been a lack of transparency and a lack of clear guidelines for aspirants in terms of what is expected of them. But is your sense that that lack of transparency is necessary? Because I’ve heard from some people, especially as things have gotten more and more contentious, or I’d say more and more clearly f***** up, that there’s some need to keep things obscure or keep things obfuscated from test takers. And, and I’m wondering if you feel that way or if to you, there’s no reason for that kind of secrecy?
C: Well, the MW exam publishes their questions every year, right? I’m not saying that there needs to be an exact guideline and a study guide for the MS exam. You’re going to have to do a lot of outside study and reading outside of whatever they provide. However, they should provide what scope of questions that they’re going to have. Because the fact that you have no idea really makes you beholden to your network. And to be honest, every time someone comes back from an MS exam, they tell you all the questions. People are already sharing all this information, so you don’t need to be secretive about it, because that is the only way for people to advance and have a good scope. So I think they should reveal the wines. I don’t understand why you can’t know what it is, video proctoring, I had a long list of recommendations, but it’s frustrating. And honestly, it’s not even just having masters in your network. It’s crazy. Because being the person who has access to masters actually gives you status as well. It’s so weird because some people have never met a Master Somm before. And Master Somms are incredible people. They’ve obviously dedicated their lives to something really important, but it’s crazy that it’s become such an infatuation for some people. And the biggest feedback that I got, I don’t know if you want me to share this, but I thought it was interesting. There were a lot of white-male advanced that told me that they didn’t want to take out the word “Master.” It would totally change the program. Just a bunch of people. That was the only real piece of feedback that I got. And recently there was an amazing emotional video by Tahiira [Habibi]. She was on the cover of 40 under 40, she’s an incredible person, Sipping Socialites, Hue Society. She’s awesome. And she posted about her experience with CMS and how the word master was triggering for her. And I think for a lot of people, they echoed the same sentiment, and I suggested that we should take the word master out of the program in consideration that it’s been called a white supremacist group. Now I’m not saying that they are. However, having that association, having the word “master” — and my thing was: If there’s a group of people that we want to include into this program and that word has caused them harm however unintentional, does it matter if we agree if it caused harm? I mean, there’s so many other words, why can’t we call it the scholar program or something else? But there’s this fixation on having this hierarchy, because it means something to these people that have been trying so hard to get it. And I understand, but also I hope that the leadership sees that, is it worth it to cause harm? And what’s more important for the long- term health of the organization?
Z: So that’s an excellent segue to one thing I wanted to ask you about as well, which is, we’ve obviously had some changes already, including the resignation of all of the board of the Court of Master Sommeliers, and some conversation about what comes next. I know answering the question, “Well, what should happen?” is a big one and I don’t expect a full proposal, but are there specific things that you think are essential or critical that either change within the Court of Master Sommeliers or that replace it in some fashion? What are you most hopeful to see change?
C: Well, when I was 19 and I was looking up what wine certification to go through, I was in a restaurant, and the obvious choice was the Court of Master Sommeliers. So I am not somebody that’s like, “Oh, let’s burn this down!” Actually, I’m very much the opposite. I believe that we should reform it, but it’s going to take a lot. It’s going to take a significant amount of change. And I outlined a lot of the things that I thought, but ultimately in June, when all the stuff was happening with the Black Lives Matter movement, I actually acquired a copy of their bylaws, and it’s public information. I acquired a copy of their bylaws because I wanted to see how their organization was run, what their mission statement was, and all that. And keep in mind, this is a 40-year-old organization. Right? And so there’s no judgment there. It’s just that they have not been progressing as the time has been progressing. And their founding mission statement. It’s not the one that’s on their website, actually, it’s their founding mission, per their bylaws, is to promote the common interest of the membership. And then when you go down to page whatever, and you look at what membership entails, it’s only Master Sommeliers that are considered members. And so when I understood that — because people were upset that they weren’t posting about Black Lives Matter, they were upset that they didn’t say anything with Covid-19. They were upset when all this stuff happened, and when you look at it through the lens of what their bylaws and their mission actually is — to promote the common interest of Master Sommeliers — you’re like, “Oh, well, it makes sense why they reacted that way.” And so my thing is that we should include people of all membership levels. So people that have been paying thousands of dollars to take their exam, whether or not that’s that means they pass intro, now they’re a member of the court, or if they pass certification. I don’t know what that is, but I do think that there needs to be a conversation with membership outside. And I was very aggressive in trying to contact the board and getting my ideas to the diversity committee and stuff like that. And I was really blocked on so many levels and I had several conversations with board members that just really didn’t want to hear it. And it’s totally fine. I understand people are busy, they’re unpaid, but maybe the structure needs to change so that people who really care about what’s going on and are willing to speak up and take time to hear out the community — because I’m a pretty prominent person, at least in L.A., and I definitely care about the sommelier community. I’m always coming from a place of “how can we improve?” And to not be able to have my voice heard, even, was frustrating. And it’s not like I just wrote that article overnight, I’ve been thinking about this. This is a fight I’ve been fighting for months and months. I started tasting groups bringing Master Sommeliers because I wanted to give them access to people who could write them recommendations at the time. This has always been my thing. And I really feel that the board needs to include young people. I think it’s a completely different mentality. And speaking from somebody who’s on a board now, I totally see how different generational perspectives shape the organization. And so I’m not saying that a 21-year-old needs to be on the board of directors, but I think that there needs to be some fresh perspectives. And right now there were just such high board requirements to even run for the board. So all of these people that were new master sommeliers, maybe they’re not young, but they’re new, they’re precluded from running for the board for several years just because of the requirements that you must test at every examination level. You must proctor every level of examination and to have to fly and do all that stuff, not everybody can get to all that in a couple of years even. Because you have to observe and there’s all this stuff and there’s just really high requirements. And I think that right now what the world wants, this millennial generation, that I’m a part of — and also Gen Z, that’s coming up faster than we want them to. I mean, they’re coming, and what we want is transparency. We want honesty, authenticity. We want to know what you care about so that we can make a determination of whether or not we support your organization, period. It’s just a different thing. It’s totally generational. And there’s no judgment. People like my mom don’t care if the people who make her ice cream care about social justice. But I love that Ben & Jerry’s cares about social justice.
Z: I’m curious, to come back a little bit to what we talked about earlier in the conversation, we are in this really unprecedented time for this industry, with the challenges that obviously Covid-19 has presented. And then all these other obvious problems that maybe had been under the surface in wine, not just in the sommelier community. I mean, I think unfortunately, a lot of this sexual harassment, sexual abuse and predation is sadly pretty common throughout the industry, but I’m wondering, how do you think the sommelier profession is going to look coming out of Covid? Do you think that it’s going to be the same or similar to what it was a year ago, or do you think there are going to be some meaningful differences?
C: No, I’m hopeful that a fair certification process will emerge out of this. Regardless of what happens, whether it’s the Court or something else. I think that if they don’t change, a lot of the masters are going to defect anyway, and I would be happy to support a different organization and support building them up. I think that sommeliers, it’s not the same job anymore. And I’ve always believed that sommeliers can exist on the internet. I think you can be an internet sommelier. And hear me out. OK. Before I lose you completely, I’m saying, if you’re curating selections for people online, I think you’re still a sommelier. And that’s just me personally. A lot of people have this attachment to “you must be on a restaurant floor” but quite frankly, at this point, we’re not going to have a lot of those anymore. Or maybe it’s just less. I mean, we had four somms at Spago before the pandemic hit and we needed four somms. We had to. But now when you’re looking at it from an operator’s perspective, and everyone’s trying to recoup all these months of this disaster, you know, is this sommelier really necessary? And I think a lot of operators don’t see them as profit centers of the restaurant, even though they are huge profit centers of the restaurant. But I think that somms should look for other things that they love. I’ve always been a big proponent of, “You can be a somm and also start a business in wine, and something that you love and still use all the tools that we have. We’re not robots that are just OK in a restaurant. There’s lots of people that are creating new apps. They’re doing AI technology. There’s lots of opportunities for somms right now. I think you just got to look for them and be open to the possibility of them, of shifting the way that you do things. And it’s, it’s hard. It’s really hard, especially if you didn’t have something set up beforehand, but I think it’s just about leaning into the parts of wine that you love and following that.
Z: Awesome. Well, Cristie, thank you so much for your time and for your thoughts, I’m always interested to see what it is that you think because I think you bring such an interesting and really refreshing perspective to this industry, and definitely look forward to chatting again in the future — hopefully when restaurants are back in full swing one of these days.
C: Thank you so much for having me, Zach, I really appreciate it.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe and me: Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again right here next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity