Until very recently having the title of Master Sommelier (MS) was considered the ultimate expression of being a wine expert. Since the not-for-profit’s founding in 1997, only 131 men and 24 women have received the title. To achieve the MS title inductees have often spent years and many thousands of dollars learning and training for an exam that includes a lengthy written portion, blind tasting of wine, and being questioned in front of a board known for a toughness that has been likened to being grilled by an Army drill sergeant during boot camp.
But the reward has seemingly been worth the difficulty and hardship of the ordeal. The people who have reached this high honor earn instant recognition, high salaries, invitations to extravagant wine events and a leg up on the thousands of other wine professionals seeking to make their way in an increasingly competitive landscape.
The New York Times reported last week, however, that 21 women said they have been sexually harassed, manipulated or assaulted by males accredited by the prestigious Napa Valley-based Americas chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS-A). At least two of the men included in the article — Robert Bath and Matt Stamp — live and work in the valley.
Until recently the CMS-A seemed beyond tarnish. Considered by many to exemplify America’s ascension to the highest levels of wine sophistication, it has found itself in high demand with thousands of wine professionals seeking its highest stamp of approval — a tiny lapel button with a red rim and a gold interior containing the likeness of Bacchus, god of wine, with his head wreathed in grapes and laurel. “Master Sommelier” is lettered around the edges.
However, even early on it seems now that hints of something nefarious were brewing under the surface.
“The court has always been misogynistic and riddled with harassers and intimidators,” wrote Simone FM Spinner in an email. “I’ve been in wine since 1994 and began testing [at the CMS-A] around 2005. My story doesn’t involve forced sex because I would never do that, but it does involve physical assault and much harassment. I nearly broke one guy’s hand after he grabbed my body.”
Spinner, CEO and founder of Wine Rocks LLC, Chasing Grapes LLC and guest lecturer at the University of Colorado Denver, left the Court of Master Sommeliers program “years ago because of regular harassment” and first spoke out about her experience last summer, after which, she was “bullied by several male master sommeliers who demanded that I change my public position.”
According to The New York Times, Bath was suspended from the CMS-A from 2007 to 2009 because of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. A professor of wine at the Culinary Institute of America and a current consultant with the Alpha Omega Collective, a Napa Valley-based winery, Bath had served on the CMS-A’s board of directors from 1997 to 2004.
“We were not previously aware of these old allegations,” said Kelly Carter, Alpha Omega’s director of communications.
As of Thursday, Bath remains a consultant with the Alpha Omega Collective.
Neither the Culinary Institute of America nor Bath responded to queries by the time of this publication.
According to the Times article, Matt Stamp, co-owner of Napa’s Compline and former sommelier at the French Laundry, was accused of having sexual relationships with two women who took the exam in 2018. After that, he resigned by “mutual agreement” as part of a disciplinary action stemming from his failure to disclose the relationships.
He is currently barred from all CMS-A programming and examinations. That same year an unprecedented 24 passed their tests but eventually had their titles revoked because it was discovered that an unidentified person at the CMS-A had emailed participants the test answers.
Stamp emailed to say he’d like to discuss these issues by phone, but as of press time, attempts to connect had been unsuccessful.
The world of fine wine is often thought synonymous with a certain level of sophisticated culture. Knowing the difference between a First Growth Bordeaux and a Grand Cru Burgundy is child’s play to any MS. But all such knowledge comes at a price, and such service is often directed nearly exclusively at the wealthy who purchase expensive wines and dine at luxury restaurants.
Of course, there will be those sommeliers who argue that their job is to find great wines at any price point that fits their customer’s needs, but who is going to pay a wine expert to sell only $10 wines? Such wine expertise caters to high-flying wine consumers who might pay upward of $5,000 for a 1990 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche 1990, a wine that had cost the equivalent of $513 in 1993, as reported in Eric Asimov’s recent New York Times article, “How income inequality has erased your chance to drink the great wines.”
And although the idea of expensive wine might connote sophistication and a sort of European aristocracy-type ethos, the reality is that it is often a world dominated by mostly white men who are hyper-competitive trophy-hunters. Mix this dynamic with intoxicating alcohol and what you have is a recipe for — at least in certain dark corners — exactly what’s coming to light at the CMS-A: something that borders on being a good-old-boys’ culture that leans toward misogyny and abuse.
“The leaders of the CMS-A have known about these issues for more than a decade and chosen to ignore them. Well, they can’t sweep it under the rug anymore!” Spinner wrote.
Does this mean all is lost at the CMS-A? Time will tell, but there are hopeful signs. This past summer the court’s board announced a committee on diversity and inclusion, and last month they launched a hotline run by a third party so that ethical violations, including sexual misconduct, can be reported anonymously.
“The Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, and the current board take sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, sexism and any form of discrimination very seriously,” Cassidy Havens, spokesperson for the CMS-A, wrote in an email. “We condemn the actions of individuals described in the recent New York Times article.”
Havens went on to say that “CMS-A has also restructured its ethics committee to ensure it is broadly representative of all members’ interests. We have established a diversity committee to help us increase participation and representation of underrepresented groups, including women, in CMS-A and in the industry.”
Havens said that “more than 90 percent of our membership previously attended an ‘implicit bias and racial equity’ workshop, and we are now requiring master sommeliers who wish to participate in any CMS-A programming across all levels to complete mandatory diversity, inclusivity and sexual-harassment training.”
On Tuesday this week, in a subsequent article, The New York Times reported that the CMS-A has suspended seven male members — Greg Harrington, Eric Entrikin, Robert Bath, Matt Stamp, Matthew Citriglia, Drew Hendricks and Fred Dame, a co-founder of the organization — and that another — Geoff Kruth — has resigned. All seven will be subject to an “external investigation” and “suspended from court activities but not from the court itself, pending a hearing process required by California law.”
According to Havens, these are “new suspensions” and the “CMS-A board has hired Margaret C. Bell, of Lagasse Branch Bell and Kinkead to conduct an impartial investigation of every allegation received.”
Tuesday also saw a new public apology penned by 27 women who belong to the CMS-A’s 165-member court that expressed dismay and consternation: “We grieve that we cannot in any way make up for the hurtful human toll that has ensued, the brilliant talent that we have lost through those who were turned away due to our actions and inactions. We will work to build your trust with concrete efforts to turn the tide.”
Exactly who the “we” is meant to include is not made clear in a statement that at times reads as if the 27 signers shoulder partial blame for the toxic aspects of the CMS-A culture, even though none of them apparently had any role in perpetrating the alleged abuse.
Will the efforts of the CMS-A and its community be enough? Will students feel safe within their ranks? And what about past students? Will those with negative and hurtful experiences ever come to trust the once highly revered organization? For Spinner the answer is clear.
“I was contacted by the CMS-A board a few months ago to ‘tell my story’ in a ‘safe place’ and declined that invitation,” Spinner wrote. “I just didn’t trust them.”
Other sommelier organizations are voicing dismay at the allegations, along with strong support for the women who courageously came forward to share their stories of harassment.
“There is no excuse for abuse and harassment in our workplaces and community, and we stand united with all women in the fight for continued equality,” the United Sommeliers Foundation wrote in a press release. “Predatory behavior has no place in any industry.”
Wine is an ancient agriculture-based beverage that retains an important place at the table for many. However, wine and much of the billion-dollar wine industry that has come to surround it are at risk of becoming stigmatized as out of touch and in a world of shadowy exclusivity and privilege at the exact moment that much of the planet is seeking more fairness, inclusivity, and transparency. How the CMS-A, other sommelier organizations, and the wine industry respond to these newest allegations will help guide the future of wine in America and beyond.