The Wine World Owes Women More Than an Apology, It Owes Them a Reckoning

Horrifically depressing is really the only way to describe it. Yet even in the midst of that hollow-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach combination of upset and sadness, the scary thing remains just how unsurprising it is to see the pervasiveness of sexism in the wine industry that continues to come to light.

Why unsurprising? Because we’ve watched it go on under our noses for so long.

I don’t know how many different girlfriends I’ve seen that young, attractive sommelier with as we’ve crossed paths over the last decade. How many times have I shaken my head at the fact that every time I see that older Master Sommelier at wine events, he has a different student with him: always young, always female, always attractive. At how many public tastings have I seen (male) winemakers hungrily hand their business cards to younger female members of the trade, put a hand on their shoulder, and insist they come for a visit sometime.

Of course, such glimpsed moments could be perfectly innocent rather than predatory. But then we have the brave and eloquent Victoria James and her story of the despicable experiences she endured on her quest to work in wine. We’ve got blog articles like Laura Donadoni’s making it clear that despite this shit being NOT OK, it goes on all the time. Her post was prompted in turn by Vinka Danitza who wrote “Women, Wine, and the Uncomfortable Conversation We Need to Have.”

Danitza was also recently responsible for bringing to broader attention the #winebitch saga, a hullabaloo in which rather nasty, occasionally misogynist, private screeds about UK wine personalities (more than a few of them young women) written by Joe Fattorini were leaked publicly.

And now, of course we’ve got the bombshell reporting from the New York Times this morning about chronic issues with sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault in the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas.

In case you haven’t seen the story, it consists of credible, multi-victim reports of groping, coercive sex, and harassment by some of the most prominent figures in the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Just in case anyone was obtuse or skeptical enough to wonder whether James’ story of wine-industry rape was an isolated incident, you’ve now got more evidence of what is a seriously reprehensible underbelly within the sommelier community, and by extension, the broader wine industry.

Of course, if we had listened, really listened, to any woman who had spent a lot of time in this industry, we would know. Such stories, in my personal experience, are usually told under the terms of strictest trust, and with the assumption that they will remain private, harrowing tales, shared between friends in an acknowledgement of the unfortunate reality in which we work and live.

It’s quite another thing to see the names of people you know, respected and with whom you have spent time credibly accused of sexual assault and harassment. Especially when it forces you to remember all those times where you saw them in public with female colleagues and students.

Frankly, it makes my skin crawl.

The bravery required by people like James and the 21 women featured in the New York Times piece to come forward and tell their stories astonishes me. And I am so thankful for it. Because it seems to me such stories are the absolutely required ingredient for change.

And this really does have to change.

As far as I’m concerned, the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas, already under fire for its response to and history of (in)action with regards to social and racial justice, no longer has any moral ground upon which to stand.

These allegations, despite not having been established as facts in a court of law, are so damning that something drastic must be done. I’m happy to read as part of the article that Geoff Kruth has stepped down as President of Guildsomm in the wake of the allegations against him, but that’s merely the tip of this iceberg. Maybe this article will give more women the courage to come forward, and maybe it will give the Court the courage to make some serious change.

Of course, we mustn’t hold our breath.

If the Court’s actions and near-hermetic silence in the wake of the 2018 cheating scandal are any guide, we will be told that “all credible allegations will be investigated” and that’s the extent of what we’ll hear for months or years. If we’re lucky, maybe someone will be suspended as a result of their internal investigation. Though it appears those suspensions, when they do happen, are only temporary?

What the Court really needs is a major overhaul, from the board on down. What this should look like, I don’t know.

As an exercise, we could think about what it might look like if this was a small liberal arts college we were talking about, or a mid-size corporation. An organization where, for years, a number of the professors or executives have repeatedly harassed, assaulted, or had sexual relationships with a significant percentage of their very few female students or employees. Remember, this is an organization in which 155 people hold the title of Master Sommelier, 131 of which are men. An organization that also refuses (at least they did last time I asked) to provide statistics about what percentage of the people working their way towards that title are women or people of color.

What would happen “in the real world” to such an organization with that kind of track record? Let’s just say there would be a lot of folks in senior positions “deciding to step away so they could spend more time with their families.”

It’s sickening to think that this tight-knit, private organization might not hold itself to the same standards we expect educational institutions or corporations to meet. It’s even more sickening to think that this organization may have had inklings of such behavior and looked the other way in a “bros before hoes” closing of ranks; somehow remaining satisfied with suspending a particularly egregious member for a couple of years, or asking an instructor who was sleeping with his students to step away from a teaching role.

Enough is enough. And while the Court of Master Sommeliers makes for a perfect catalyst and target for anger and disgust, it ain’t just this elite club that has the problem. It’s the heavily-male-dominated, ego-fueled, wine and food world in general. Women have it particularly bad in this cesspool of narcissism and toxic masculinity, but they’re not the only ones. Just ask the poor kitchen staff at Mission Chinese Food.

I think I’ve probably said enough at this point. I’m not the person you should be listening to. We need to listen to the women. All of them. I hope they will keep talking, keep shouting, keep screaming until we all acknowledge there’s something wrong here, and then we (the men, mostly) have to get off our asses and fix it.

A zero-tolerance policy for this kind of shit would just be the beginning.