The Aroma of Progress at the Court of Master Sommeliers

It has been six weeks since the installation of a newly-elected board of directors for the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas. Earlier today, I sat in on the first of several “listening sessions” conducted by the board to discuss the way forward following the allegations of sexual misconduct and assault brought to light in a harrowing series of New York Times articles at the end of October 2019, to which I responded with a post entitled “The Wine World Owes Women More Than an Apology, It Owes Them a Reckoning.

Conducted by board Chairwoman Emily Wines, fellow board members Mia Van De Water and Kathryn Morgan, accompanied by fellow Master Sommeliers Madeline Triffon and Melissa Monosoff, this session was intended to “amplify female voices” within the Master Sommelier community with a goal of helping the CMS “grow into a safer and more inclusive organization.”

With more than 600 RSVPs, this session seemed to me an important indication of change within the ranks of an organization whose legitimacy and future still hang precariously in the balance.

As a measure of changing times, we might begin with the simple fact of this session’s existence. To my knowledge, this traditionally close-ranked organization has never held an open forum of any kind, let alone one in which its board made themselves available to answer questions from anyone other than those who wear the pin signifying their membership in its most elite circles.

I’ve personally made several attempts in recent years to interview members of the board (a few of whom I knew personally) about the 2018 cheating scandal and its subsequent ramifications and investigations. I never received anything but stiff (and entirely useless) official statements from a designated press relations representative.

To spend two hours in a public forum listening to the women on the organization’s board offer heartfelt personal apologies to the hundreds of women (and a few men) in attendance, and then answering questions submitted in advance as well as some that were offered in the event’s simultaneous chat, was a welcome change from the public silence that has been the historical modus operandi.

“How can we trust you to make change in the organization when your presence during these alleged crimes makes you tacitly complicit,” asked one attendee, voicing a question I’ve seen raised by more than a few of the organization’s fiercest critics in recent months.

Rather than defensiveness, this and several other tough questions were met with acceptance and gratitude, not to mention thoughtful and somewhat anguished responses from the panel of female Master Sommeliers, all of whom expressed a strong desire to save an organization that they believed has done and can continue to do good for the industry.

“When the disclosures broke, it was shocking to me,” said Triffon. “I had always considered myself trustworthy and accessible. That no one reached out to me, and that I was unaware this was going on, was a personal and a collective wake-up call. And was I present over the years when people were being slightly inappropriate, and we just chalked it up to ‘Oh, you know how he is?’ Yes. We should have had our radars up about how such things would be perceived and what kind of impact they could have.”

Dialogue, spoken accountability, and more open communication are only the barest beginnings of the change required within the Court, so it was encouraging to also hear the first news of some concrete policy changes, however small.

Kathryn Morgan shared news of recent votes by the Court’s Education Committee to abandon the requirement for gender-ordered service as part of the service exam. This means that candidates for Court certifications will no longer be taught nor tested against a standard that women should always be served first at the table.

“We don’t want to put candidates in the position of having to determine guest gender in a restaurant setting,” said Morgan. She also indicated the Court will be overhauling its standards of professional dress, to eliminate the (unwritten but openly acknowledged) requirements that men wear ties, women dress in “gender appropriate dress” and that conspicuous tattoos be hidden underneath clothing.

“We want to welcome you with whatever you wear and however you want to identify,” said Morgan, who went on to say with some pride that the board vote on the topic wasn’t contentious in the slightest. “No one was going for the status quo,” she said.

Of course, the substantive changes that really matter involve policies that ensure the physical and emotional safety of any candidate in a CMS program; the lack of discrimination against anyone on the basis of gender, race, or sexual orientation; and above all the creation of a culture for the organization that has zero tolerance for the patriarchal white privilege and sexual power dynamics that led to its current predicament.

According to the board members on the call, those policies are all under development, in consultation with outside, independent experts, some of whom continue to drive the investigation into the allegations responsible for the ongoing suspension of a number of Master Sommeliers.

The board, and the court as a whole, have a long, uphill climb back to a place of trust and acceptance by its membership and the wine community as a whole. But today’s call, filled as it was with candor, acceptance, and determination, offered a glimpse of what might be a very different future indeed for this organization where, as Melissa Monosoff put it so succinctly, “We want to make sure people have a place at the table, always.”