‘I Stand with These Women’: Sexual Scandal Roils Court of Master Sommeliers

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Last week, The New York Times published a rigorously reported, explosive article detailing graphic accounts of sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of the highest members of the Court of Master Sommeliers, one of the wine world’s most esteemed organizations. So far, seven prominent male master sommeliers have been named, and are suspended pending further investigation.

Alpana Singh, the first South Asian woman to obtain the Master Sommelier (MS) title, and youngest-ever MS-designate at the time, renounced her title less than a week after the article published.

“The biggest lesson I learned from all of this, and I’m sure there’ll be many more lessons to come, is that I will no longer be part of an organization and just assume that things are okay, and if I’m going to put my name on something, I need to actively question everything,” says Singh.

She is one of several female members of the Court who immediately pledged solidarity with the sexual harassment survivors and one another.

“At the end of the day, I stepped away from the Court because of harassment; it wasn’t sexual harassment, but anything that forces you to be less than your authentic self is a violation of who you are as a person.”—Alpana Singh

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, 27 female Master Sommeliers signed a statement to express their support. Three female Advanced Sommeliers created a petition to demand sweeping changes to the CMS. More than 730 signatories vow to boycott CMS events, including proctoring exams, until the organization’s entire Board of Directors resigns.

Chicago sommelier, wine store owner and Wine Enthusiast 40 Under 40 honoree Derrick Westbrook posted a letter of solidarity to his Instagram account.

“I stand with these women… As a society, particularly as men we have to continue to critique and fight against our own privileges. Strive to unlearn out problematic indoctrination. When I say we I mean myself as well… Progress doesn’t happen at the pace of the privileged,” he wrote.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first scandal to hit the Court. A cheating scandal rocked the industry in 2018, and, this summer, the Court received allegations of discriminatory practices in the wake of the country’s reckoning with racism after George Floyd’s murder.

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

Singh doesn’t feel optimistic that the Court can preserve its reputation. “[The organization as it stands] cannot be salvaged.”

Megan Bauer, co-founder of The Way We Wine, a community wine site, obtained Advanced Sommelier certification with the Court in March 2020. “I always felt the need to be careful around certain men and be wary of ‘kind’ offers to help me prepare,” she says.

She became more disillusioned with the Court this summer.

“The MS designation lost a lot of value to me after the improper handling of the Black Lives Matter response. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about privilege, and those that can give up having their pins.

“Being a Master [Sommelier] with the CMS can lead to increased opportunities to jobs, greater income, travel and further education…I had been on the fence about pursuing the MS for many reasons, [because of] a lack of transparency and gatekeeping. This final piece just secured my belief that they are an organization more interested in protecting their fraternity…[rather] than the candidates pursuing their membership.”

Singh says she hadn’t experienced sexual abuse at the hands of the Court, but her relationship with it was already fraught when these allegations came to light.

“At the end of the day, I stepped away from the Court because of harassment; it wasn’t sexual harassment, but anything that forces you to be less than your authentic self is a violation of who you are as a person.”

For her, the coup de grace was the perceived apathy of the Court in creating an inclusive, safe environment. She petitioned to be on their newly formed Diversity Committee earlier this year and was not chosen, and she was less than enamored with the Court’s BLM response. As a result, terminating her membership and renouncing the title that she worked incredibly hard to earn was less complicated than it might seem.

“It’s actually not a stance; it’s basic logic,” Singh says.

Laura Maniec Fiorvanti, MS, also resigned from the Court this week. “The Court’s inability to be an inclusive, proactive organization that represents and protects all its members is unacceptable to me,” she wrote in a statement posted to Instagram.

Is It Time to Redefine 'Sommelier'?

So, where does the wine industry go from here? Well, the first step is already in play—talking about it.

“When the article came out, there was actually this sense of relief for me. Like, oh my God, this is finally going to be an issue we can talk about,” Sara Floyd, MS, told San Francisco Chronicle last week.

The next phase is to determine how meaningful organizations like the Court will be in the future. Singh believes female wine professionals can determine this for themselves.

“It’s never too late to get justice for yourself. The way you take your power back is by owning your story,” she says. “The long arc towards history always bends towards justice. That should be our mantra. People like us didn’t believe in our own power.

“I didn’t believe in my own power, but now I do. And it’s because of these women.”

The Court of Master Sommeliers was contacted but declined to comment on this story.

Published on November 9, 2020
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