The Court of Master Sommeliers Is Expelling Six Members. Is It Enough to End a Culture Many Call Toxic?

The move comes after months of investigation of sexual harassment and assault complaints

The Court of Master Sommeliers Is Expelling Six Members. Is It Enough to End a Culture Many Call Toxic?
Emily Wines, left, has led efforts to reform the court; Multiple women, including, left to right, Liz Mitchell, Jane Lopes, Victoria James and Courtney Schiessl, came forward to report harassment, assault and rape. (Courtesy CMS-A and KHOLOOD EID/The New York Times/Redux)
Dec 1, 2021

After an external investigation that began one year ago, the Court of Master Sommeliers-Americas (CMS-A) plans to expel six Master Sommeliers: Bob Bath, Fred Dame, Fred Dexheimer, Drew Hendricks, Joseph Linder and Matt Stamp. The move follows allegations by multiple female wine professionals who were studying for the organization's certification exams that some of the most senior members committed sexual assault. They also allege that the group suffered from structural toxicity, in which male leaders exploited the mentorship-based nature of the organization and their power to influence exams and careers to harm candidates physically, emotionally and professionally.

"From this deep disappointment and betrayal, we will continue channeling the learned lessons into growth and positive change for our organization," said CMS-A chair Emily Wines, in a statement issued when the expulsions were announced Nov. 17. Wines is part of the new board of directors elected in 2020 as part of the organization's restructuring efforts. "The work does not stop here."

Some members see it as a step in the right direction. But others, while happy to see any concrete action taken, are dissatisfied with the components of the investigation as well as CMS-A's actions that followed, especially after such a lengthy process.

"As somebody who has to make a decision as to whether or not I want to sit my Master Sommelier exam next year, [the investigation] really has personally thrown my timeline off," said Rachel Van Til, a Houston-based sommelier who's been working toward that goal for about 10 years. "I could not in good conscience move forward with the process while there was an investigation concerning my own experiences within that organization."

"This was the final chance for [the court] to do the right thing, and they did the wrong thing in every way," Liz Mitchell, an Advanced Sommelier based in New Orleans, told Wine Spectator.

Van Til and Mitchell are among the more than 20 women who shared explosive allegations in a New York Times article in October 2020 that they had been groped, received explicit texts, were pressured for sex in exchange for professional favors and even raped. They're also among the members of the organization with concerns about how the investigation was handled, which range from the announcement itself to perceived conflicts of interest to the confidentiality of certain investigation details.

The biggest question for both CMS-A members and the hospitality industry remains, Are these expulsions the start of true reform? Or just damage control?

The investigation

The Court of Master Sommeliers' investigation was supposed to be the start of rebuilding trust in an organization that members felt was increasingly tone deaf if not downright negligent in ignoring how some members took advantage of others. The board hired attorney Margaret Bell of Lagasse Branch Bell + Kinkead. Multiple members were suspended while she conducted her work.

She investigated a total of 22 cases, based on member complaints and media reports, and then presented her findings to CMS-A's Ethics and Professional Responsibility Committee in September. Committee members worked with anti-sexual-violence organization Raliance to determine discipline recommendations, which were then voted on by the CMS-A board. The harshest actions were taken against those who exhibited an ongoing pattern of bad behavior. "This is not a moment of somebody being drunk and making a bad decision," Wines told Wine Spectator.

The process was based on a code of ethics created by the committee earlier this year, when a non-discrimination policy and an anti-racism pledge were also implemented. The group also hired a new executive director with experience in nonprofit organizations and corporate leadership, rather than wine. One complaint had been that what had once simply been a small credentialing organization had grown into a large professional society, but leaders never created a human resources department or implemented sufficient rules.

Read more about recent CMS-A changes in our Sommelier Talk with Vincent Morrow, co-chair of the CMS Diversity Committee.

Following the investigation, Geoff Kruth—a former Master Sommelier who resigned after being named in multiple allegations in the Times article—was prohibited from ever applying for reinstatement. Two members were removed from suspension. Other members who were not expelled but remain suspended are undergoing education to attempt to return to the organization in good standing. "We believe that will further lift our culture as opposed to leaving them out and having them potentially reoffend," said Wines.

CMS-A is also offering to connect survivors to counseling and support via Raliance's national network of experts.

Most of the Master Sommeliers facing expulsion have not spoken publicly on the decision. They include some of the group's pioneers. Dame was a co-founder of CMS-A. Bath passed the exam in 2003 and has worked as a professor at the Culinary Institute of America's Napa campus. Hendricks, Dexheimer and Linder have all worked for top wine programs and served as educators. The decision to expel is pending a hearing within 30 days in accordance with CMS-A's bylaws and federal law.

Stamp, who operates a popular restaurant in downtown Napa, was first suspended after an internal investigation found that he had undisclosed sexual relationships with two women who took the 2018 Master Sommelier examination. He shared a statement with Wine Spectator. "As a wine educator, I am deeply saddened by today's decision. The code of ethics of the Court of Master Sommeliers establishes that I should have not been within the vicinity of anyone taking an examination with whom I had a romantic relationship. I take accountability for my error in judgment for not following this bylaw, but did recuse myself in writing from proctoring the exams for these women," he said. "These were real relationships I cared about, and am saddened for them or anyone hurt by my mistakes," Stamp continued. "I will learn and grow from my mistakes and accept today's decision with a heavy heart."

Partial justice?

"The announcement on Wednesday was one step out of many toward becoming a safer, more transparent and more diverse organization," said Mia Van de Water, a New York–based Master Sommelier.

But for members like Mitchell, the announcement reopened old wounds.

"Not only did the victimized women who all so bravely came forward not get a report or have any communication regarding the 'findings' of the investigation, but they were given no advance notice that the 'findings' were going to be made public," said Mitchell in a statement posted on Instagram. She and others called this insensitive, as it could retrigger trauma for survivors.

Wines says members had the opportunity to attend a town hall meeting where the findings were announced, but she acknowledges that "it went public very quickly after that." She says there were discussions about alerting survivors in advance, but that many of the women spoke to the investigator on the condition of anonymity, which the court would have broken by reaching out.

Mitchell says she never heard of any town hall. Van Til recognized the potential for this issue and specifically asked to be contacted in advance. She says the court did respect that request.

Overall, Van Til has mixed feelings. She was grateful to see actions taken against more under-the-radar offenders and is impressed by the new code of ethics. She says her interactions with Bell during the investigation were mostly positive. And she's slightly comforted by the leadership of the new executive director, rather than the organization's past culture, which was dominated by the mostly male longtime Master Sommeliers.

But she notes that the issue has been ingrained in the court for so long that there are inevitably victims who did not speak to the investigator, and therefore offenders who have yet to see justice.

She hopes the court's decisive moves will encourage more people to come forward, but she says that there's a harsh-reality flipside to that: "Those women know what I know, which is that putting your name on something like this puts you in a tenuous professional situation."

Mitchell also said that the offer of support was insufficient. "At this point in time, every woman that I know that was involved has their own therapy, has paid out of their own pocket going back like five years, so the first thing [the court] could do is, at least, monetarily, help people out with the cost that they've already incurred for therapy."

Mitchell and others in the wine community also took issue with CMS-A's decision to withhold the names of those still-suspended members, which feels too in line with the overarching issue of secrecy that's drawn criticism for years. She shared additional concern about the presence of current Master Sommeliers on the committee that helped determine the disciplinary actions, calling it a conflict of interest.

"There's no reason why [Bell] needed to turn over the results of the investigation to the organization that is in question," she told Wine Spectator. "That, to me, is a major conflict of interest. How are they deciding their own fate? That makes no sense."

Wines stands by the investigation process. "It was really meticulous and exhaustive," she said. "I feel like we really did the most thorough process that we could have."

Asked about concerns over the decision not to share specific details of the investigation—including the identities of suspended members—Wines said they're "following the guidelines of what's done in all kinds of organizations." She points to a new feature on the court's website, which uses asterisks to indicate which Master Sommeliers are eligible to participate in CMS-A programming such as teaching and examinations. No asterisk could indicate that the member is currently suspended. It could also mean that they haven't signed the code of ethics or completed the now-standard sexual harassment training, possibly because they aren't involved in programming and therefore chose not to take those additional steps.

When it comes to allowing suspended members to work toward returning to good standing, Wines stresses that the rehabilitative education (which each participant is financially responsible for) involves many hours of in-depth and individualized psychotherapy. "This is not parking them in front of a video for an hour and saying you're good to go," she said. "We want them to really deeply do the work."

Restoring the main mission

Wines says that hopefully the investigation and resulting actions can help restore CMS-A's fundamental identity as a group that provides mentorship, education and certification to the sommelier community, rather than feeling like a private club.

It's a mission that members like Van Til still see value in. "I don't think anybody else has done what the court has done in terms of how they teach people to sell wine, how they teach people to taste wine and integrate that with theory," she said. "I think the mentorship, camaraderie and community are a very unique culture with a very extreme upside."

Van der Water shared a similar sentiment. "I believe, absolutely, in our core mission, and in our ability to grow into an organization with a genuinely positive impact on our community and industry," she said. "Furthermore, it is deeply important to me personally to be an active participant in enacting these changes."

Mitchell believes the danger remains. "I do think a lot of people are ready to unfortunately move on and just give them a pass and kind of look the other way. And I think that's what's upsetting to me the most, that people have continued to participate in the examinations that have resumed this year and people are back to kind of business as usual with giving power to the court and without them having actually shown one ounce of accountability or change."

As Van Til points out, the industry's sexual harassment issue goes beyond just Master Sommeliers, carrying through to other ranks within the organization and to the entire wine community as a whole—and even to guests who exhibit inappropriate behaviors toward sommeliers in restaurants. That means the weight can't fall entirely on the leadership of a single organization.

"This is a culture change that's not just going to happen with the people at the top doing investigations and declaring certain people out and others in," she said. "The only way there's going to be change is if everybody can internalize this lesson—so I think it's a call to action for all of us."

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