News broke recently that the Court of Master Sommeliers has expelled six of its members following investigations into sexual harassment allegations. This is an ongoing matter that has been met with a string of resignations and calls for change within the Court. But in the wake of the scandal, many within the industry are left wondering whether these repercussions will be enough to inspire meaningful change within the larger wine industry.
On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe tackle the topic of sexual harassment within the wine community. Does the court value its reputation more than putting an end to the persisting issues found within it? What can be done to address the court’s power imbalance? How should news outlets cover these issues going forward?
Tune in to learn more.
Or Check Out The Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, this is Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” So what have we been up to? What have you guys been drinking? How are we feeling? We’re moving into December, it’s cold as sh*t here, I’m not really feeling it. But besides that, Joanna, what have you been drinking?
J: Recently, I celebrated my sister-in-law’s birthday, and we went to Temple Bar.
A: Oh, now you’re a regular.
J: It’s such a scene now. There were multiple celebrities there that night. Sienna Miller, Emily Blunt, allegedly, but I did not see her. And Heather Graham.
A: Really? Wow. Quite the little trifecta.
A: Were they there together or separately?
J: I think separately, I don’t know. Who’s to say?
A: Their publicists should talk to each other.
J: So I had their version of an Espresso Martini. It was really good. It’s called “Sick as the Espresso Martini.” It uses cold brew, and it’s flavored with vanilla and banana. And I love banana drinks. I’ve realized this about myself.
A: Do you like banana ice cream?
J: You mean the one-ingredient banana ice cream?
A: No, banana-flavored ice cream. One ingredient of ice cream is not ice cream, it’s frozen banana. Get a clue. I am sick of that sh*t on social. Here’s how you can have ice cream, but not — it’s pureed frozen banana. That’s not ice cream. Get that sh*t away from me.
Z: I bet vegan ice cream does not go over well with you.
Z: Me neither, to be fair, I’m very much with you on this one.
J: Adam’s the dairyman.
Z: I don’t like it when they’re like, “What kind of milk do you want?” I’m like, “I’d like milk.” And they say “What do you mean?” You know, milk that comes out of a cow.
A: Anyways, so you had a nice Espresso Martini cocktail. Anything else?
J: We had a few different drinks. I had another Gibson, which is very good. I’d like to make a Gibson at home.
A: Will you pickle your own onions?
J: I just might. We have a nice recipe from “Cocktail College.”
A: Can we stop talking about that podcast?
Z: It’s the only thing that gets mentioned more than Temple Bar.
A: Yeah, seriously.
J: Moving on. What about you, Zach, what are you drinking?
Z: Over the weekend, my wife and I made one of our favorite dishes. We make a lot of pizza at home.
A: Do you have a pizza oven?
Z: Not a separate pizza oven, no.
A: What do you use then? What do you do? Do you have baking steel?
Z: Yes, we call it a cast iron platter, basically. It’s basically baking steel. You need something that gets very hot so that you can get the texture on the bottom right.
Z: We actually had a pizza stone for a while, and it bit the dust. And frankly, the cast iron is way better, in part because it’s not fragile. But what we did this last time was instead of making it the way we normally do, which is more conventional, we made something that we do occasionally. It was a tarte flambée, which is a German/Alsatian dish. Instead of using a tomato sauce base, you use a dairy base. You slice onions very thin and marinate it in a mixture of crème fraîche, sour cream, and ricotta for a couple of days. The acid in the dairy helps break down the onions, you put that on top and usually add bacon bits or lard. I like to add a thinly sliced Yukon gold potato over the top, or some other things. We made one with Brie as well. And you just bake them for as hot as your oven can get for nine minutes or so. Along with that, my cousin came over and joined us for dinner. So he brought over a bottle of Albert Boxler Muscat.
A: Did you mandate that the wine had to be Alsatian?
Z: Well, I told him what we were making, and he’s a wine professional also.
A: How can you have more than one wine professional in the family?
Z: It’s a family business of sorts. So we opened a bottle of Pinot Gris that we had, and he brought that bottle of Muscat. And I gotta say, that Muscat really surprised me. It’s a class of varieties that produce very floral wines and sometimes can be annoyingly or cloyingly floral and often made sweet. But there’s a growing trend in Alsatian in general towards drier styles of Muscat. This was quite dry and very aromatic, but not cloying, and went really beautifully with the flambée and was just a lot of fun. I love Alsace as a place, I had the opportunity to visit a few years ago and it was one of the more spectacular wine regions I’ve been to. I love the wines and it was a really fun opportunity to do that little thing where you travel without going anywhere. How about you, Adam?
A: I had a really amazing wine, a Cinsault, from the producer De Martino from Chile. They basically age it all in amphorae that they have dug up from the ground that are antique amphorae. So they’re all different shapes and sizes, and they found them all around Chile, and then they refurbish them and age the wine in them. It’s like before the egg, if you will. So that was a delicious wine. Then I had a few cocktails recently, and I’ve been noticing this growing trend, which is acid correcting. Three of the cocktails I think I had or shared with people that I went to this bar with all had acid-adjusted orange juice as one of the key ingredients. I think it’s interesting because I know that this was on the fringes in terms of what was happening in cocktail culture. And now it feels like so many bartenders are adjusting the acid components of their drinks.
J: What does that mean when a bartender does that?
A: So they can either be upping it or lowering it. But they are adjusting the acid.
J: Are they adding citric acid?
A: Yes, so it’s really interesting. Then, I had a Milk Punch at the Horse Inn, which was delicious. That’s about it. So a little more serious podcast post-Thanksgiving. For those of you that really found a lot of value in the Black Friday episode, you’re welcome.
J: I hope you got your Blundstones, Adam.
A: Oh, I did. But on a more serious note, in the last few weeks, news has broken. It’s been an ongoing issue for the last nine months to a year. The ongoing sexual harassment assault scandals that have been plaguing the Court of Master Sommeliers, and it was reported that the six people who were accused of sexual harassment have been stripped of their titles. They are allowed to appeal, though it doesn’t seem like anyone is going to appeal — at least not that we know of right now. I don’t know about you guys, but this announcement was kind of a thud. Like, that’s it? You’re stripping them of their titles? In nine months, that’s what you did?
J: And this is just six cases out of 22.
A: I was doing a little bit of research on the six individuals who have been stripped of their titles and OK, so they’ve lost their titles and can no longer call themselves a “master somm.” But they all seem to be doing pretty fine. One of them still owns a restaurant in Napa. Another one, the biggest offender, is still working for Dao Vineyards, at least according to LinkedIn. It’s really interesting to me that their titles were stripped, but nothing else.
J: Right, how much is this hindering their careers?
A: Yeah. I don’t want to name any names here because it’s not what we do.
J: You can look it up online in the article that we published on VinePair.
A: But in terms of people who know them, right? There’ve been a lot of people who defended them in the wine community who said, “Oh, well, I know that person, they’re a good person. They were having a hard time in their relationship with their significant other, so they decided to cheat” or whatever it was. There’s been a lot of that. So I feel like it’s a lot of, “People are bad, but not the person that I know.” So, many of these six are not all in the same community — they are all in the wine community — but then they actually exist in this wine community in California and have been insulated by the people who know them really well. So these people are saying, “Well, they’ve been really great to hang out with and they’re a mentor to me” and things like that. I think it just shows how hard it is to stop this kind of behavior and actually eradicate it, because you never want to believe, even when someone’s accused, that it’s the person you know. Look at this across the board with sexual harassment, all the comedians that have defended Louis C.K., for example. It’s always, “Oh, he’s a good dude, I loved him.” Even Sarah Silverman came out in defense of Louis C.K. He might have been a great mentor to you as a comedian, but what he did is really bad and really wrong. You have to start separating that personal relationship you have with him and what you think he’s done for you with what he truly did to people. This is kind of the same here. Stripping them of their titles, there seems to be no economic retribution. There seems to be no one pulling back and asking them to step aside professionally in the world. So I don’t really understand how this will completely impact them. Does losing the MS title really matter that much in their longterm career? I don’t know, but those are my thoughts.
J: What’s actually really surprising to me about this is that we’ve seen over the past year or two or five that this has happened in different industries, of course. But it seems like the immediate repercussions are that the accused or the perpetrators are without a career, or they have to step away, or they don’t have jobs for at least a little while. Maybe they come back, Louis C.K. is back, right? But what is surprising to me is that it doesn’t really seem to have affected them, even in the immediate term, that they are without jobs or anything or that they’re shunned. People in the wine community are defending them and their careers.
A: Does that mean that the title of master somm is f*cking bullsh*t? Because if losing the title has not lost them everything else, then maybe the title didn’t matter for sh*t to begin with.
Z: Well, that’s certainly something that you and I have talked about a few times, Adam. I mean that for a variety of reasons. I think there’s always been the conversation about, to what extent does the title truly indicate something meaningful about the person who holds it? Even setting aside all this horrible behavior, just in terms of what they know about wine and their ability to serve wine and communicate about wine. It is certainly not a precondition for being very, very good at that to hold that title or any title from any accrediting organization. Beyond that, you guys both got at something very important here that I think is relevant, which is that one of the things that is difficult about this situation is that in the end, the Court of Master Sommeliers does not actually have all that much power. And again, it’s also important to note this is the most horrific of the scandals that have embroiled the court. But there have been a lot of them over the last few years. And there are a lot of things about the court that — as we have again gone into detail on in past episodes — do not work for a lot of would-be professionals. The way things are handled, the way things are administered, the structure of it, all that. But in some sense, it does show the toothlessness of the court in some way that they don’t have any kind of a greater ability to punish other than to say, “Hey, you can’t be part of our club anymore.” What it says about our broader society — that some of these people are not necessarily being completely driven out of the industry — that’s a whole other part of this conversation. I don’t think it’s something that the court itself can do. It’s frankly something that the larger community has to do. One of the things that comes into this, and I’d be curious to know both of your thoughts is, do we as a publication and as individuals avoid talking about these people and their endeavors? Do we mention, by the way, that person was expelled in disgrace from the Court of Master Sommeliers. I don’t like this in general, but there has to be kind of a scarlet letter attached to them by everyone or else this stuff does really recede into the background. Obviously the celebrities we mentioned, the comedians and whatnot, are much more famous than any of these people and have a much larger fan base. Master sommeliers don’t have fans in the way that Louis C.K. had fans. So it’s not just that other comedians defended them, it’s that hundreds of thousands or millions of people defended them. Or they thought, “wow, that’s bad but I think they’re funny.” There’s a lot of excuse-making for men who do this — especially famous ones who people have a personal connection to. That is a little less the case here because again, people who don’t work with or around these master sommeliers or former master sommeliers don’t necessarily have a personal connection to them. But like you said, Adam, these peoples’ businesses didn’t stop existing. People are still going to Compline in Napa. They’re not like, “Well, Matt Stamp was forced to leave the organization in disgrace; we’re not going to go there anymore.” Maybe some people have made that decision, but presumably, if everyone made that decision, the business would stop existing. So I think there’s that piece of it. The other thing I want to throw out there is, and we kind of mentioned it, that these are not the only six or seven if you include Geoff Kruth who was previously expelled back when the allegations first came out. These are far from the only people about whom formal allegations have been put forth to the court. In part because I think there were a lot of people who maybe were connected to this who were frankly not sure what the court would do or how they would handle it, I know there are other people who, as far as I’m aware of, have not been formally accused of anything but that the rumor mill has been swirling pretty aggressively about. The problem with this whole resolution is that I don’t think anyone thinks that these six individuals should have been allowed to remain a part of the court. I don’t think anyone thinks that was a mistake. There are some people who think that what else was done with the other people who are accused, not naming them and telling them to just shape up …
J: Undergo training.
Z: Yeah, exactly. For the people who have sort of skated to this point, many of whom have been accused of doing essentially the exact same thing that the people who were kicked out did, it does again raise this question raised by the Court of Master Sommeliers over and over again, which is: Who does it exist for? Who does it exist to protect, and why should anyone who isn’t in that inner circle believe that the powers that be will listen to them will protect them, as opposed to the powerful members already within the circle?
J: There are so many things in there, Zach, that I want to address. To what you just said, though, I was reading some of the articles that were written last year when this all transpired. This idea that the board was aware of these patterns of sexual misconduct and coercive sexual contact between masters and candidates, and that the rules about reporting that stuff were largely disregarded. There were ignored reports of abuse, and I think that’s really disgraceful and horrible. What confidence does that inspire in the court members to feel safe or comfortable or trusted to come forward with this kind of information?
A: As we’ve been talking, I’ve been thinking about what it means to have actual consequences. The one thing that we said at the very beginning of this conversation was that no one has appealed. I think that the reason no one has appealed, if they do believe that they are innocent in this, is that there were no consequences. If there are no consequences, there’s no need. It just shows how toothless this all is. And it shows why people who had the courage to come forward are so upset because, like in other cases like this across the country, the person knows they were a motherf*cker and they slink away and never return like Mario Batali or Matt Lauer.
J: But there were huge consequences for Batali.
J: No more restaurants, kicked out of his restaurant groups.
A: He lost it all. Matt Lauer, same thing, no more public spotlight. You be the news network that’s going to rehire him. It’s never going to happen. Maybe he’ll be on local Hampton news doing the weather, but besides that, he’s done. Anyways, I think there will be something, but he’s basically gone. In this regard, most of these people are still OK. So they’re not speaking up to defend themselves because they’re OK. That’s what makes it so weird, too. If you’re not saying anything, I’m assuming you’re really guilty.
J: But what I want to mention, and this is going back to a point that Zach made or a question that he asked. That’s why I think it is our responsibility as a publication to make it known what these men are accused of or what they’re being expelled for. Because I think about my parents. Would they know any of these people by their names? No, absolutely not. So maybe they would go to one of their restaurants or have their wines or whatever it is. But then I think about Batali.
A: They all knew him, yeah.
J: His name is big enough. But it was covered so heavily as well by the food media and the “actual” news. So I think it is our responsibility as a publisher to have a stand on these things and to share the news with our readers and then also not cover these men ever again in a positive way.
Z: In addition to that, there’s also this other piece. You mention this and I think it’s a good point, Joanna, that there’s a pretty big gulf in terms of the fame of these six or seven men. The piece of this that is important, and why I think some of this is different, is that Batali faced real consequences for his actions. Let’s keep it in food and drink just because I think this analogy will hold better. But part of what was necessary about that was getting the message out broadly that this sh*t is unacceptable. Batali obviously wasn’t the only chef or restaurant, there’s John Besh. There are some other well-known chefs around the country, too. Undoubtedly, that kind of sh*t is still going on all over the country. Why this had to happen in addition to just, “F*ck those guys,” the court needed to be proactive about saying, “This is not allowed.” And that is where that frustration comes from, because there’s at best a mixed message here. Again, it’s sheltering the other 16 who were accused. Maybe you weren’t willing to expel any of them. Maybe what they were accused of doing seemed less severe. Maybe there were fewer people willing to go on the record and say what happened. Within the Court of Master Sommeliers, there remains this very dangerous power imbalance and hierarchy. It creates these kinds of situations. To come back to something you said at the beginning, Adam, people are defending some of these men and saying, “Well, they were going through a tough time in their marriage, and it was really just an affair and they weren’t taking advantage.” But the whole point of these power structures is that there was such a power imbalance and so many advantages that these men didn’t have to drunkenly force themselves upon a woman for them to abuse their power. That is a problem that we face societally when dealing with these allegations is that some people only consider this to be a problem when it’s grotesque, violent, or persistent. The thing that is, for lack of a better word, dramatic. And it can be insidious and hard to hard to define. There are a lot of cases that I know about but can’t speak about because they don’t involve me directly and have been said to me in confidence. But if you look at many of them there is a lot that’s insinuation. It’s relying on the fact that the people who aspire to reach the inner circle and the master sommelier level, especially women, know what some of the men who hold that title and are the gatekeepers might want from them. It may never be spoken, but that doesn’t make it right. It’s no better to take advantage of someone’s lack of power in an interpersonal dynamic because you don’t force yourself upon them drunkenly at 2 a.m. That’s obviously really bad. But the other stuff isn’t OK. Where the frustration with the court is that the court has kind of said, “Well this grotesque stuff we can’t allow because it’s obvious, but we’re not really doing anything to eliminate the other stuff.”
J: This other stuff is less bad. So maybe we’ll just suspend you, but we won’t expel you.
Z: They won’t even tell anyone that you’re suspended. There’s no “We couldn’t kick this person out because we didn’t have enough evidence, but we think there’s something going on here.” They obviously think there’s something going on; the other 16 were apparently required to take training. So it wasn’t that there were zero problems here. There’s obviously a problem, but you’re saying this is a problem that we can live with.
A: Would you think that that speaks to how little influence or power that the court actually has? It’s like, “Sh*t, we can’t lose another 16 of these f*ckers, we got to keep them in the fold.”
J: Do you think that’s a consideration?
A: I wonder.
Z: I think it’s more about the very way that the structure is designed; it’s oriented around protecting the members. This is going to be a vaguely controversial thing, I apologize. It gets said a lot these days in work circles that human resources is sometimes just there to protect the company. And in this case, I think this investigation is to protect the reputation of the Court of Master Sommeliers. It’s not really an end to protect the master sommeliers, male and female, who are not a part of this.
A: Well, that’s what I’m saying. If they lost 16 more people, it would completely ruin the reputation. It’d be over.
Z: I don’t think that’s necessarily true. There are several hundred of them. If you were to say we are taking a very forceful stand here, we are getting rid of anyone who is credibly accused, you might actually engender more support. The thing for the court is that their model has been, they want people pushing to reach that level. That’s what supports the classes, the tests, the employment of a number of master sommeliers. Their job is to work for the court. And if you protect the existing members at the expense of potential members, I’m not sure that’s a good long-term plan.
A: Since this all came out, I have not looked to see if people who are choosing to pursue the court or take the test have gone down.
Z: Because they don’t make that information public.
A: Then you might stay status quo, because who knows what happens if we expel 22 members?
Z: There are already some very high-profile resignations.
A: But those people were in protest. This is expulsion.
J: To Zach’s point, if I’m somebody who’s interested in joining the court but I know that there are 16 predators, why would I ever want to join?
A: I agree, but then what’s the fear? Because they have to be scared of something.
Z: Maybe there’s a threat of some of these other 16 where the evidence is a little less clear-cut. You could face a lawsuit. Obviously, there’s big financial ramifications, even if we don’t see it, with the six who were just expelled. There’s lawsuits, there’s liability. And again, the system exists to protect the people already within it. That goes back to the cheating scandal. Why did they do what they did? Because they wanted to protect the reputation of the court and of the existing master sommeliers at the expense of a bunch of people who did nothing wrong. They had all had their testing invalidated because they happened to be taking tests at the same time as a former master sommelier who wanted to give his buddies an advantage. The decision of the court at that moment told you everything you need to know. They did not want to dig into what had happened. They did not want to know what was under those rocks because it was ugly and it was easier to say, “We’re just going to invalidate this entire exam and give everyone another chance. That’s such a great solution and please don’t ask any more questions.” That’s been their M.O. for years. As someone who participated in exams through the court — and had my certified exam proctored by one of the men who has since been expelled — my feelings about court changed a lot over the last half-decade or so. There’s a bigger conversation to be had that we’re not going to have now about whether there’s any point to it at this moment. I don’t really know that there is, but certainly, no one can believe that it exists to do anything other than protect itself. That’s its function these days.
A: The only way that you could make the case is by following the money, and we again can’t have that conversation right now. If salaries are still higher or if job opportunities are still better with this certification than without it, then unfortunately, it will still continue to exist. At the end of the day, it’s all about money.
J: And power.
A: Yeah, both. If you get a more powerful position and more pay because of the certification, then you can see people continuing to pursue it. People of all sexes and all backgrounds, because that’s the way in. It would have been nice if the court had taken more of a dramatic and really strong step here. Just the stripping of titles is not enough. But as Joanna was saying, we have to continue to talk about it. When we do write about these individuals, we have to say what it is about them. And the same for the other 16. When they’re mentioned, we need to say “Those who have been accused of X, Y or Z,” when that information is public. If it’s not public, there’s very little we can do. Well, all right. Very interesting conversation. I will see you both back here on Friday.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.