The accusations against male master sommeliers and the organization that awarded their credentials have continued to pile up over the last week, making the questions around the organization’s future feel all the more urgent.
All 15 board members of the Court of Master Sommeliers’ American chapter have stepped down, in response to many public calls for their resignation — including a petition with about 1,200 signatures. And three of the most prominent women master sommeliers in the country, Alpana Singh, Pascaline Lepeltier and Laura Maniec Fiorvanti, have distanced themselves from the court, relinquishing the titles they fought so hard to earn. That leaves only 25 women with the title.
The wave of resignations could imperil the future of this prestigious, exclusive organization that has risen to near-celebrity status over the past decade. If more of its own members continue to denounce it, can it remain relevant in the world of wine?
To review the events that transpired since last week’s newsletter went out: On Friday, Devon Broglie — the head wine buyer for Whole Foods — resigned from his position as the chairman of the American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers. The New York Times had published allegations that he made inappropriate sexual advances while mentoring Marie-Louise Friedland. Though she no longer lives in the Bay Area, Friedland may be familiar to locals as the former wine director of State Bird Provisions and the Progress.
Friedland’s claims against Broglie compounded an earlier Times report in which 21 women alleged they’d experienced sexual harassment or assaulted by male master sommeliers. So far, the court has suspended 11 men from activities such as proctoring exams in light of the reports, though most of them have maintained the right to call themselves master sommeliers for now.
The rage that these accusations have sent throughout the U.S. wine trade has been well documented. One thread has been the call to do away with the court entirely: Some like Liz Dowty Mitchell, owner of Mitchell Somm Selections in New Orleans — and one of the women who accused a master sommelier of sexual misconduct in the Times — have added the hashtag #dismantleCMS to Instagram posts. Many other sommeliers stopped short of saying that the organization should be erased altogether, arguing instead for reformation within the board of directors.
“Whether or not the structure of the organization needs to be dismantled remains to be seen, but to move forward we must have new leaders immediately,” Los Angeles sommelier Cristie Norman, an outspoken critic of the court, told me in an email.
They got their wish. On Wednesday night, a court spokesperson confirmed that a process to elect a new board of directors will begin on Nov. 16. The new board will comprise 11 master sommeliers, plus four non-master sommelier members.
The critics are right to target the board as an initial point of change, but I fear that the critiques’ overwhelming focus on the board may obscure some of the thornier issues at play here. The court is an agent of a larger wine culture that often promotes not only outdated gender norms but also racial disparities and classism. It already came under fire this year for its role in upholding elitist, outdated hierarchies. The resignations of Singh, Lepeltier and Fiorvanti followed the departures of Richard Betts, Brian McClintic and Nate Ready, who all gave up their master sommelier titles last spring, in part to protest the way the court had responded to the Black Lives Matter movement.
These recalls are powerful expressions of how the court’s own community has grown displeased with it, and they threaten the delicate symbiosis between the court and the sommeliers.
All of these people benefited from achieving master somm status — the pin can make someone’s career, and this was true even before the “Somm” movies thrust it into public view. The fact that the title is so sought-after and difficult gives its few recipients an air of rare prestige.
And education, ostensibly the court’s primary function, is an admirable mission. There’s no doubt in my mind that by holding its exam-takers to such rigorous standards, the court elevated the standards and visibility of the sommelier profession over the last few decades — probably helping the careers of all somms, even those who didn’t participate in the court directly.
But as much as the court makes people’s careers, these people’s careers also make the court. If the people who earned master somm status didn’t go on to build successful businesses, land high-profile jobs and become minor celebrities, the court’s certifications might not carry so much weight. Singh, Lepeltier, Fiorvanti, Betts, McClintic and Ready have each already accomplished enough that they likely don’t need the court for validation anymore. The master somm credentials surely buoyed their careers, but will those credentials carry less currency in the future?
Possibly. The pin is only as powerful as others perceive it to be. And in the age of #MeToo and racial reckoning, that’s a very precarious sort of power.
That said, the symbiosis still exists, and that’s part of what makes a true revolution — a full dismantling of the court — seem improbable right now. Too many people have invested too much of their professional identities in the court and its certifications, despite the fact that no wine career actually requires a master sommelier pin. It’s not as if, by resigning, one forfeits one’s right to serve wine. Moreover, it’s not yet clear what would happen if the court were dismantled or what would take its place as a professional organization.
For now, the court is forging ahead, and a new board of directors will be in place in December. The conversation will become less about dismantling, and more about whether the organization can be transformed from within.
What the conversation should focus on, if the court is to survive, is how it can promote different sorts of values for the wine world at large — even if that requires a break from some of its long-held traditions. “Until this point, wine professionals generally lived in a social hierarchy based on the level of certification they held,” Norman said. “My hope for the future is that wine professionals will be measured by their impact in the community rather than what title they hold.”
The community’s leaders should “focus their energy and attention on improving the trade,” she continued, “rather than studying thousands of flashcards for a certification program.”
Wine of the Week
We’re staying in Sonoma County for the latest edition of Wine of the Week, which features an ultra-light red wine that reminds me of cranberry sauce and cinnamon-sprinkled sweet potatoes. Read more about this Zinfandel from Camp Rose Cellars and where to buy it.
What I’m reading
• Estimates of the monetary losses due to the 2020 wildfires in Wine Country are beginning to materialize, and they look significant. The Glass Fire may have cost Napa’s wine industry as much as $1 billion, with $50 million in wage losses for vineyard workers, writes Barry Eberling in the Napa Valley Register.
• The mega Constellation-Gallo merger may finally be reaching a conclusion, 18 months after the $1.7 billion deal was first announced. This week, the two companies signed a new agreement with federal regulators that reduces the deal to about $1.03 billion, according to North Bay Business Journal.
• In Greece, a winemaker is soaking grapes in salt water before fermentation, part of an effort to recreate ancient styles of wine, Ute Eberle reports in Hakai magazine.
• San Francisco restaurants will have to close their indoor dining rooms on Friday after Mayor London Breed announced a rollback in the city’s reopening due to a spike in COVID-19 infections. The Chronicle’s Justin Phillips and Janelle Bitker have the details.
Drinking with Esther is a weekly newsletter from The Chronicle’s wine critic. Follow along on Twitter: @Esther_Mobley and Instagram: @esthermob