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The Court of Master Sommeliers Sees Big Changes, Starting with Its Board

The women newly appointed to the court have plans for the organization.

Wine glasses

Getty Images / AsiaVision

Multiple accusations of sexual harassment and assault within the Americas chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMSA) came to light via Julia Moskin’s article in The New York Times in late October 2020. At the time, it seemed like the predatory horrors endured by female master sommelier candidates, seemingly ignored by the organization’s leaders, might bring down the organization entirely. Instead, the resulting shifts within the organization may save the bruised CMSA, changing it, and perhaps the wine industry as a whole, for the better.

An Elite Shakeup

The Court of Master Sommeliers began in the late 1960s in the U.K. and within a decade was the most important and prestigious educational and examining organization for wine professionals in the world. By the mid-’80s, with a growing number of serious somms in America, the Americas chapter was created, encompassing Canada, Mexico, South America and South Korea. It was founded by Nunzio Alioto, Wayne Belding, Richard Dean, Chuck Furuya, Evan Goldstein, Madeline Triffon and Fred Dame (who’s one of the men accused of sexual misconduct). 

The court offers four levels of testing and accreditation, which thousands of students pass through each year at the various levels. Currently, there are 172 professionals in the Americas chapter who have achieved the organization’s top rank of Master Sommelier. Of those, 144 are men and 28 are women.

On December 2, 2020, the CMSA announced a new board of directors with 11 members who are master sommeliers, representing nearly a complete turnover. Of those 11 members, three are women, including the new chair and vice chair of the board. It should be noted that this doesn’t look vastly different from the former board, of which two members were women.

With the exception of one prior-serving board member who was reelected—the sommelier, winemaker and restaurateur Christopher Bates—the CMSA cleaned house of its previous board members in response to the sexual harassment and assault accusations and subsequent handling of them, appointing the democratically elected new blood just over a month after the scandal broke. 

On the surface, this might appear a knee-jerk high-exposure PR response to an awful and potentially money-losing problem the organization brought upon itself. According to the CMSA, about 8,500-plus students cycle through and pay for myriad levels of courses and exams over a three-year period. If the scandal’s poor optics caused the number of students to decline, it would cause a massive loss of income for the organization. 

But the new board is no puppet regime. All potential board members had to step up on their own, run on a platform for election, present their issues in a moderated town-hall-style organization-wide virtual meeting and then be voted in or not. 

Motivations for Change

“My whole career has been in the restaurant space, and I have run some restaurants that were struggling. And obviously, we’re now in the fight of our lives as an industry,” says new board member Mia Van de Water, who has earned the title of master sommelier (MS) within the organization and is currently the assistant general manager of Cote, a Korean steakhouse in New York City, at which Victoria James, one of the women who came forward for Moskin’s article, is a partner. 

“I thought being a woman, and not a white woman—I’m half Korean—I’ve had a set of life experiences that give me a great understanding of how to take something that seems like it’s not working and figure out what radical changes we need to make to fix it or make it better or set it on the right path,” says Van de Water. “I thought I could be valuable in those ways, so that’s why I decided to run.”

“One of the things that made me decide to run was because we’re in a critical place and need to have strong female leadership,” says Emily Wines, the newly elected chair of the board, who earned her MS in 2008 and currently is with Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants in Napa, California. “In the last two years, scandal after scandal cast a bad light on our community, and a lot of that, to me, came down to the foundation of what the court was created on, which is what a sommelier looked like in the ’60s.” 

“The wine world was very different,” adds Wines. “It was very white and very male. Somms pretty exclusively dealt with wine as a luxury commodity. Fast-forward to today, and the sommelier world is radically different. The demographics have changed. Sure, there are old white male sommeliers out there too, but it’s a totally different mix of people and cultures.”

A Pattern of Abuse of Power

“It’s not exclusive to the court, but the court certainly is in a position where there are a lot of vulnerable candidates and master somms in positions of power, and with that power dynamic there are people taking advantage of it,” says Wines, who did a prior turn as a board member from 2013 to 2015. 

Indeed, the now-public revelations about the master sommeliers, who are often also the administrators of the organization’s exams during the arduous years-long program, show a pattern of men in power reportedly cajoling, threatening and at times assaulting female MS students, demanding sexual favors in exchange for educational and professional assistance. 

“This behavior often got brushed off: ‘Oh, he’s just like that,” or ‘It’s consensual,’” says Wines. “We’re not going to tolerate it. We’re setting strong new standards.”

Democratizing Professional Development

The power of the CMSA’s core mission is what’s driving Wines and her fellow board members to try to rebalance its power structure. “The reason I think [the CMSA] is important comes down to the fact that sommeliers don’t have to go to school for what they do and are rarely hired by someone who knows more about wine than they do,” says Wines. “How do restaurants know a person is qualified? Certification gives them a level of credibility, a seat at the table, and opportunity with jobs. It’s a proven measure of their knowledge, not just of wine but of the business of wine and serviceability and experience. It’s important to bring this back to what the organization does: education and mentorship.” 

“I think that wine education should be democratic and inclusive,” says Van de Water. “One of the most important and valuable things to accomplish in the next year is to bring more transparency to the process of the exam itself—to provide more access to preparatory materials for everyone.”

Van de Water herself is no stranger to the problems and scandals of the CMSA. Although she passed the exam the first time she took it, she was part of the class whose results were invalidated due to stolen test answers. She resat for the grueling test several months later and passed again, earning her MS in December 2018.

For new vice chair and industry veteran Kathryn Morgan, also a master sommelier, democratizing the way education is meted out is also a big part of the new mission, which echoes the way she carved her own career. After two decades on the floor of various high-profile restaurants, Morgan switched pace to become the East Coast director of wine education for the distributor Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, which has more than 700 salespeople and other employees looking to her to bolster their knowledge. 

“We need to create more opportunity to get to know each other better in the name of professional development,” says Morgan, who has been inspired by the new board’s frequent Zoom-based meetings over the last couple of weeks, seeing opportunity in the virtual sphere for CMSA members too, in addition to the quick connectedness the platform has afforded the court’s new board. “Right now, maybe we see each other every other year at exams and courses,” she says. “The irony is the court is there to serve itself, but we don’t even serve each other—just this idea of the MS diploma.” 

Morgan wants to expand CMSA education beyond a strict exam-based focus to more broad professional development, covering everything from how to run a successful and profitable wine program to how to write a great wine book. “There are so many other people on the board who have amazing ideas,” she says. “What we need once we get some of the major ethics issues under control is to shape ideas like this into coherent plans.”

Further Changes

In addition to an ethics overhaul, other key aspects of the CMSA restructuring include a new process by which complaints are received and reviewed, as well as changing the makeup of the board from 15 master somms to 11, with four other board members to be added from outside the organization and the wine industry for better perspective. The organization also plans to hire a CEO and an HR director.

“We are looking at other industries at the moment and other sectors of the hospitality industry that have had their own problems,” says Morgan. “We’re looking at codes of ethics for all kinds of organizations, which are posted on those organizations’ websites, which is something we’ve never done. We need to completely rewrite all that.” 

Morgan adds, “For people to trust the CMS as a safe space and as leaders in the hospitality, beverage and wine industry, we need to be better than what people expect of the hospitality industry, which is not much. There’s basically no HR. It’s the Wild West. And this is no good. We need training on sexual harassment, and we’re working on that—it’s happening.” 

 For some, these changes are coming too late, especially for women who felt forced to give up their MS path under duress and for others who relinquished their titles in solidarity when the scandal broke. But there’s a seriousness and sincerity that seems prevalent in the new board and its collective dedication toward progress and equality in an industry that for too long has celebrated excess and the bad behavior that often accompanies it. 

To Van de Water, the two most troubling aspects of the revelations in Moskin’s article were the notion that the women in it felt the only way they could access information that would lead to career success was by succumbing to sexual pressure from men and the idea that the same quid pro quo was how other women in the industry have found success. 

“This idea was propagated by people who felt like they have the authority to do whatever they wanted with whomever they wanted to,” says Van de Water. “It’s clear that many [women] feel they have not been listened to and have been side-barred and shut out and sort of pushed under the rug for a long time. We really feel it’s important to reopen dialogue.”