Black Lives Matter, the Court of Master Sommeliers and the Wine Industry’s Divide

Illustrated sommelier pin
Collage by Julia Lea / Getty

Like much of the country, the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas (CMSA) is grappling with institutional change. The organization is under fire from various industry members for its public posture and messaging regarding Black Lives Matter. For some, the damage is irreparable.

On June 7, the CMSA sent a statement to members decrying racially motivated violence. The missive was linked on the Court’s website the following day. It celebrated the January scholarship the organization had provided to Wine Empowered, a New York City-based non-profit offering tuition-free wine education, and pledged to support The Hue Society, an organization of Black wine professionals.

Neither organization had been consulted about the CMSA’s statement. Tahiirah Habibi, founder of The Hue Society, asked the Court to remove her name from its messaging.

“When that letter went out and it had my name attached to it, people were sending me texts and posting on my Facebook, ‘Congratulations!’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ ” says Habibi.

“People trust me, and they know I’m not going to align myself with something that does not add value to my community… When people saw my name in that letter, there’s an automatic assumption that [I think the CMSA is] doing the right thing. That’s not the case. I don’t know what they’re doing, but I was not included in it and I’m not vouching for it.”

She explained further in a June 16 Instagram video. In the post, she recalled how, when she took the CMSA entrance exam in 2011, she was told students would be required to call all accredited teachers and proctors “Master,” a title linked to CMSA rank and reminiscent of slavery.

“I needed to remove myself from that organization because they did not align with my values, or my humanity,” she said in the video.

As of June 23, her post has been viewed more than 4,000 times and has received vocal support from many industry members.

“After watching Tahiirah’s video, as a Black woman, my heart ached,” says Julia Coney, wine writer, educator and founder of Black Wine Professionals. “The thought of having to sit with that for years. It is sad and unacceptable… How many Black and people of color are not in the industry because of that?”

In response, the Court announced yesterday that it would discontinue the practice.

Devon Broglie, MS, chair of the board of directors of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, is repentant. “When I heard Tahiirah’s story, it brought clearly and deeply into focus how hurtful our words can be, however unintentional,” he says.

But loaded language is not the only issue facing the CMSA. Wine professionals critique the Court for only posting a social media statement supporting the Black community on June 17, more than two weeks after others participated in a widespread social media blackout.

Caleb Ganzer, managing partner of the wine bar La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in New York City, was disappointed by the CMSA’s actions this month. The Court positions itself as an eminent institution, he says, and young wine professionals look to it for leadership.

“It didn’t seem like it was a very genuine and authentic attempt to make a meaningful statement,” he says, noting how long it took the CMSA to post on social media, and how the link to the message on the website was intermittently broken while the mention of The Hue Society was removed.

“They just kept fumbling everything,” says Ganzer. “I was like, ‘Jesus Christ, get your shit together.’ Like, just say something. Mean it.”

“They’re trying to treat this as a political statement. If you think that my life is a political movement, then we’re not on the same page anyway.” —Tahiirah Habibi, founder, The Hue Society

The same day that the CMSA posted its statement on social media, esteemed wine professional Richard Betts publicly resigned from the Court of Master Sommeliers, calling its absence of timely Black Lives Matter messaging “the last straw.”

“It took them longer to make a statement about Black Lives Matter than it did to cancel the 2018 Masters exam results,” says Betts, referring to the 2018 incident in which the Court rescinded Master Sommelier credentials given to 23 people after it was revealed that some had cheated. “They canceled those results over the course of one weekend.”

Betts would no longer recommend aspiring wine professionals look to the Court to further their careers.

“I don’t think the world needs badges, it needs bridges,” he says. “If you want a badge, and you’ve got tens of thousands of dollars and all the time in the world, sure. Try the Court. But if you want an education, this is not the place to do it.”

But institutional certifications can be important for professionals from marginalized communities, Coney says.

“Many women and BIPOC need credentials from CMS and WSET to get our foot in the door and be taken seriously. Hopefully the CMS will get their shit together before losing more current members and potential members… A statement means nothing without action.”

Habibi believes the basic humanity of Black people has been lost in the Court’s muted communications this month. “They’re trying to treat this as a political statement,” she says. “If you think that my life is a political movement, then we’re not on the same page anyway. It costs too much money and too much time to be incredibly invested in an institution that doesn’t value your life from the most fundamental point—which is say, we agree that it matters.

“Fundamentally, can we just say, can you just not kill us? On Tuesdays, can you just not kill us? And that is a political statement to you? No. It’s not. And if that’s how you view it, you have a lot of work to do with your organization.”

As for the Court, it has appointed a diversity committee, Broglie says, and is “actively exploring additional scholarship opportunities for the BIPOC community, including donating a portion of the proceeds from our new online courses.

“We recognize the social media broadcast did not happen on as swift a timeline as it should have, nevertheless, we are proud of the decisions we have made and the initial actions we are taking for the growth of the organization and the betterment of the hospitality industry,” he says.

Ganzer suggests the Court take more of a structural approach by replacing its existing board with the members of the diversity committee.

“You’ve chosen this committee, clearly you think that they’re leaders,” says Ganzer. “Let them run the show. I mean, why not? The more we let voices who’ve not had power have it, the more ideas we’re going to get. It is literally going to change the fabric of society, and only for the better. When we have more inclusive and diverse organizations, they’re stronger.”

Habibi is unconvinced any amount of diversity and inclusion training will be effective without structural change. The stakes are too high, she says, to deprioritize support of Black Americans.

“My community is in disarray right now,” says Habibi. “If you’re not with us, you’re on the other side of that shit. There is no middle ground, we’re not tiptoeing back and forth. You have to make a decision as a human being what side of history you want to be on.”

Published on June 23, 2020
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