Like most people who’ve sat for Court of Master Sommeliers America (CMS–A) exams, I’ve had a lot on my mind lately. I was aware of the group’s secretive nature but initially brushed my concerns aside. However, they were substantiated by the cheating scandal in 2018 and deepened after its handling of Black Lives Matter protests and the sexual harassment and assault charges this year.

I began to question why I had been so engrossed with CMS-A. I took almost nothing seriously. I detested flashcards. I had the grace of a newborn fawn. So, what led me to invest countless hours and thousands of dollars pursuing a lapel pin?

The answer was surprisingly straightforward: I’d developed a tight-knit group of friends and mentors through pursuit of CMS–A certifications and, at the time, I could not imagine having one without the other.

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The spotlight has been burning on the CMS–A, and rightly so. However, racism and sexual harassment are pervasive industrywide because similar organizational structures exist industrywide. At the core of these issues is the veil that shrouds the wine industry in mystery. It’s present whenever wines are introduced to consumers or discussed among industry pros. Information is kept behind paywalls and masked by code words. Those who manage to obtain it do not always share it freely, creating a power imbalance. As we’ve seen, this only feeds and encourages problematic structures and behaviors. Until this veil is lifted and everyone is on equal footing, nothing can truly change.

Looking back on my time in the wine industry, I now know just how fortunate I was. My peers and mentors freely gave me access to themselves, their knowledge, and their resources without ego or preconditions.

But, how do we take luck out of the equation? How do we intentionally build collaborative communities where inclusivity and access are a given?

Gatekeepers Need Not Apply: Information Sharing in a Modern World

I got an inkling when I read an article about Jirka Jireh, co-founder of Industry Sessions, a virtual tasting group centered around BIPOC. They use clear language, talk about wine and spirits in a decolonized manner, and make a point to answer any and all questions. Groups completely separate from organizations like CMS–A were a foreign concept to me, let alone those centered around BIPOC with a flat hierarchy and community atmosphere. I began wondering if there were others out there, how they were set up, and if they could be used as templates going forward.

Soon after that, I received a scholarship from the Women of the Vine & Spirits Trust (WOTVS), which came with a membership to its online forum (normally $150/year or $15/month). When I logged in, I was astounded by the breadth and depth of information suddenly at my fingertips. Previously, if I wanted information like this, I would’ve have had to contact people with direct knowledge of it. Ultimately, this meant being vetted by someone who could’ve just as easily shut the door and stopped me in my tracks. Now? I didn’t have to worry about anyone blocking my path.

A wealth of information was available to me in a way I hadn’t experienced before. So, I reached out to Deborah Brenner, founder and CEO of WOTVS, to learn more about WOTVS. After its first global symposium in 2015, it quickly became clear to Brenner that “to truly effect change and create a more diverse, equal, and inclusive alcohol beverage industry, we need[ed] to keep the conversation going year-round. What started as a one-off conference quickly snowballed into a 365-day online membership organization.”

The forum is open to anyone involved in the industry. It’s a collaborative space for people to share their experiences, be vulnerable, and receive support. The supportive, open-arms culture comes directly from Brenner herself: “After working for over a decade in the wine industry in all sorts of positions [from writing to production to sales and marketing], I knew how hard it can be and how you often can feel like you are going it alone,” she says. “I think my own experiences and failures led me to create a culture of empathy, compassion, openness, [that’s] inclusive, equal, and supportive to all.”

This ethos is what led them to re-evaluate their programming when Covid-19 first shut down businesses and restaurants. Brenner explains: “We … started hosting live chats with Q&A — no more webinars, we needed to meet one another, unmute our mics, and get deep into the subject matter. We needed to focus on relevant, timely topics to help our community do business while keeping members motivated, positive, hopeful, and productive.”

This is exactly the kind of open dialogue and collaboration that’s needed to solve the obstacles we face. WOTVS was able to facilitate candid conversations by purposefully creating space for them. The importance of this and Brenner’s fierce commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) wasn’t lost on me.

I continued exploring these topics in my conversation with Megan Bauer, co-founder of The Way We Wine. Bauer also wants to peel back that veil and have more honest conversations: “We romanticize wine almost as much as our consumers do,” she says. “We make it seem like it’s this beautiful pretty thing but in reality … [there’s] all these little things we disregard [that] chip away at our self-esteem. Let’s talk about the real deal: It’s hard to work in this industry. There’s no need to sugar coat it anymore. It doesn’t help anyone.”

To help do this, she’s created an online forum where people can speak freely about their experiences within the wine industry and share their expertise. The discussion threads and resources available on the site are completely driven by its members. Some focus on wine regions and career resources, others on mental health and breaking down barriers within the wine industry. Bauer is happy with the variety. “We should admit we know certain things but not others, connect with people who know something different, learn from them, and be friendly and kind to each other along the way,” she says.

Historically, wine information has only come from a few monotone voices. If people from a wide range of backgrounds can create content and share what they know instead, we may be able to liven things up a bit and learn new things. Somm360 is a peer-to-peer group that’s been doing this since 2018. Their “World Congress” event connected wine professionals from around the world. But when Covid-19 stopped world travel, they knew they had to change things.

“We had a plan to introduce something digital in the next two to five years … [but] Covid-19 accelerated this process,” says Stephanie Artner, senior partnership manager, Somm360. They recently launched a free online learning platform with daily quizzes and study guides. Think Trivia Crack, but for sommeliers.

In keeping with their peer-to-peer ethos, anyone can apply to be a quiz creator. Artner elaborates: “We pursue an equal representation of genders and races but know we need to continue striving for a larger representation. [So] when we decided to develop our online initiative, we reached out to [our global] network for recommendations for new team members [and quiz creators].” To increase representation on the site, they collaborate with other groups equally dedicated to DEI.

Clearly to create collaborative communities, it takes more than commitment to DEI and creating spaces for frank discussions. Their leaders also need to be able to step back, reflect on what changes need to be made, and collaborate with others to implement them.

CMS Alternatives Wonder Women of Wine
Credit: Wonder Women of Wine /

Humility, Dialogue, Feedback, and the Need for Constant Evolution

Rania Zayyat, founder of Wonder Women of Wine (WWOW), understands the power in joining forces. “If we really want to make this a better and more sustainable industry for everybody, we all need to collaborate, promote each other, and find ways to connect. It’s an important component of our future,” Zayyat says.

One of the ways she’s trying to better the industry is by addressing the economic fallout from the pandemic. “People need jobs right now. How do we do that in a way that fosters inclusion and equity?” she says. The answer was the Be The Change Virtual Job Fair. WWOW partnered with Diversity in Wine & Spirits, Philana Bouvier of Republic National Distributing Company, and Cara Bertone of Folio Fine Wine Partners to put it together. “We’re stronger and better together. More people talking [about these issues] means more people listening,” says Zayyat.

She’s right, of course: To change the industry’s dynamics, we’re going to have to work together and have difficult conversations. But talking means nothing if leaders aren’t also willing to listen, engage, and, most importantly, do the work. The leadership board of Second City Sommeliers (SCS) strives to do just that. SCS began as a study group for those taking CMS-A exams in Chicago, but over time, its focus shifted.

“We became a community resource, and we wanted to be accountable to that,” says Greg Spalding, a member of the board.

This manifests as a keen awareness of their social responsibilities. Rachel Driver-Speckan, another member of the board, elaborates: “We ask questions and listen to our membership, colleagues, and [other] professionals. We take action, but measured and thoughtful action.”

“[For example,] we heard from a lot of voices that wanted to create a more inclusive environment for wine professionals — and not just those focused on exams,” Spalding says.

To do this they made structural changes. “We re-evaluated what additional outreach we could do. How can we reach out to community colleges and culinary schools? How can we use social media to get out there and expand?” Driver-Speckan adds.

Their efforts paid off: “Our core group has grown from 10 to 130, and we’ve expanded our drop-in network,” Driver-Speckan says proudly.

Based on feedback, they’re currently revising their educational offering and incorporating topics such as “Nerello Mascalese” and “Trans Inclusion in the Wine Industry” into their curriculum. It’s easy to laser in on the classics, but there’s more to wine than the crus of Burgundy.

In that same vein, with a wine industry centered on the East and West Coasts, it’s easy to overlook markets in the middle. And if we’re going to pull back the curtain and address the power imbalance within the industry, we must also resolve the regional divide.

Reaching Beyond the Coasts

Bobbie Burgess, wine director for the Eat Local Starkville and host of UnCorked, is currently studying for the advanced exam through CMS–A. Being in Mississippi means she faces a steeper hill than most.

“I am in a very desolate region,” she says. “To find individuals to study with, I was traveling two to three hours in one direction. My friend invited me into her tasting group in Memphis … It was going great for the two times we were able to meet before Covid-19 shut it down.”

It is rare and incredibly difficult to study for these exams in isolation. In order to excel, people often form groups so they can pool their resources, especially for blind tasting. Not one to be deterred, Burgess decided to form a virtual tasting group with sommeliers in isolated areas from all over the South.

Their group, Blue Selbach-Oster Cult, consists of sommeliers who are studying for advanced- or master-level examinations through CMS–A. “Small markets are often forgotten about, and we do not have the same opportunities as sommeliers in other areas,” Burgess says. “[Our group is] a collaborative effort of very passionate somms who want the chance to succeed … We’re laying the groundwork for others in small markets to do the same thing.”

As they learn, Burgess and her peers will undoubtedly share their newfound knowledge with their guests and customers, causing ripples throughout their markets. This shakeup is needed because what’s been plaguing the industry behind the scenes is also hurting it on stage.

The power imbalance between those who have knowledge and those who don’t isn’t only between wine professionals. It also exists between us and the average consumer. To fix this, we need to do more than talk among ourselves. We need to include all wine drinkers in these conversations and do our part to lift this stubborn veil.

Tahiirah Habibi already knows this. It’s one of the reasons she started The Hue Society, which is dedicated to building spaces for BIPOC wine lovers of all levels to learn about the wine industry. They do this by hosting events, virtual tastings, and collaborating with other groups. However, I was most interested in chatting with Habibi about their City Chapters.

“For once, BIPOC people don’t have to adjust to the world. They can be themselves. This is our culture. [They can] enjoy, learn, and experience wine through that,” Habibi says.

But that’s not the only goal of the City Chapters. It’s also important that those who participate have positive wine experiences, whatever their aspirations: “You take what you need from it,” Habibi says. “If you aren’t in the wine industry, but you just want basic wine knowledge, you have access to that. If you want very serious tasting and all the nuance, you got that. If you want to be in the back twerking ,you’ve got that.”

Habibi helps the chapters find resource guides, industry veterans who are happy to share their knowledge without ego or preconditions. After that, the chapter runs itself. “People need to get what they need from their community in that space. No one can tell them that but themselves. I’m building something beyond me,” Habibi says.

Common Threads and Mandates

After talking to such diverse groups, I was surprised to find common threads among them. To build inclusive, accessible communities people must: commit to DEI; take deliberate actions; make space for honest conversations; and be willing to seek guidance from outside sources. That is what holds organizations like WOTV, SCS, and The Hue Society’s City Chapters together.

Despite these shared organizational traits, there was a patchwork of approaches to developing and sustaining them. Some of the groups were initially created to fill a niche, others were born out of necessity, and many evolved to fit the needs of our ever-changing world. However, their fierce commitment to these qualities holds fast.

If our industry is to have a future, we must value inclusivity and access above intrigue and closed doors. Only then can we have any hope of truly becoming diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Until that is accomplished, we have no hope of solving the immense challenges before us.

We cannot overcome these hurdles if we are not united and on equal footing. We cannot rise to this occasion if we continue to stumble. We will fail not only ourselves, but each other — and with that moral failing, the shaky, uneven foundation on which our industry currently rests will continue to crumble and fall.

Note: If dedicated websites for these groups was unavailable, the information for their main contacts has been provided instead.

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