This article was updated in October 2020 to reflect new reporting by the New York Times that reveals troubling accounts of sexual violence within the Court of Master Sommeliers of America (CMSa). Several CMSa members have spoken up to defend the institution; we have given them their own page here: Sommeliers Speak Out.
Is it time to say goodbye to the Court of Master Sommeliers? With eminent sommeliers quitting under protest and a wide array of accusations being leveled at the certification body, it’s time to consider the evidence. We’ve lain out what people in the wine industry are saying about the Court of Master Sommelier – Americas. These include issues surrounding racism, sexual violence, cheating, and political bias.
Do you think it’s time to boycott the Court of Master Sommeliers? Let us know in the comments.
The CMSa is one of the larger sommelier certification agencies. Due to being featured in the movie SOMM, it became the most popular. There are equally good (and at least one better) sommelier certification bodies in the USA, so you can earn your sommelier pin with an agency that better aligns with your personal beliefs: Sommelier Certifications 101
Master Sommeliers Have a Racism Problem
“In order to speak, you need to call me master”
A Master Sommelier Examiner to Tahiirah Habibi
Tahiirah has recently published a heartbreaking recollection of blatant racism within the Court of Master Sommeliers. We strongly recommend you listen to how the Court nearly destroyed her love of wine and then callously exploited her.
It is unacceptable that in some CMSA circles there has been rhetoric around not being a political organization and wanting to remain neutral. There is no neutral. By doing nothing, one passively endorses the status quo — and the status quo for BIPOC in America has been, and remains, horrible.Richard Betts, former master sommelier
Such accusations have been lingering for a long time. Currently, fewer than 1% of all Master Sommeliers are black.
Diversity has long been an issue for the Court of Master Sommeliers, which skews the same way as most of the wine industry: male, and white. The problem, it seems, may not merely be about demographics.Alder Yarrow, Vinography.
When confronted with supporting Black Lives Matter, the board opted to stay silent.
Rania Zayyat, a sommelier in Austin, Texas, said the court’s system of examinations reinforces racism and sexism… In internal forums, members were roughly divided between the old guard, who felt that sommeliers should stay out of politics, and younger members who were furious that the court wouldn’t express support for its Black members and racial justice.JULIA MOSKIN, NEW YORK TIMES
The Court has a Sexual Violence Problem
We have had countless articles and two bestselling books that outline a disturbing and deeply ingrained culture of sexual violence within the sommelier world in the past several years. Recently, the New York Times has released a report detailing widespread sexual violence at the very top of the CMSa.
Twenty-one women told The New York Times that they have been sexually harassed, manipulated, or assaulted by male master sommeliers. They, and other current and former members of the court, say the abuse is a continuing problem of which its leadership has long been aware.Julia Moskin, New York Times
One student said a master sommelier in Texas asked her for a pair of her underwear “to snuggle with.” Several said the slur “sommsucker” is used for women who have relationships with members of the court. And one woman said she was raped by a prominent master sommelier in New York City after meeting him at a wine event.JULIA MOSKIN, NEW YORK TIMES
These are just a few of the numerous allegations of sexual assault by senior members of the Court, as documented by the New York Times.
I no longer spend much time with the sommelier community because I find much of that culture to be toxic…For so long, I’d been obsessed with being part of this community of snobby, older (often white) men that just didn’t want me to join.Victoria James, author of Wine Girl in an interview with SevenFifty
In her book, James states that a restaurant owner raped her in the wine cellar. “I was young and insecure and thought that this was what women went through.” She is far from the only wine author to level alarming accusations. Bianca Bosker, the bestselling author of the book Cork Dork, recalled numerous examples of sexual violence and inappropriate behavior. She also pointed out that the restaurant industry accounts for more sexual harassment complaints than any other industry.
There was the blind tasting instructor who cracked off-color sexual double-entendres, nicknaming people who discussed a wine before savoring it “premature ejaculators,” or wondering“Did someone touch you inappropriately?” after a female classmate exclaimed at a wine’s aroma. There was the very senior sommelier who offered to let me stay in his “big” hotel room — not that I’d asked — and another who, while drunk, escalated from awkward attempts at flirting to full-out groping, despite knowing I was married.Bianca Bosker, A Sommelier Opens Up About The Truly Gross Sexism She’s Faced In The Wine World, Refinery29
It doesn’t help that only 16% of all Master Sommeliers and only 14% of its board of directors are female. With women being the largest segment of wine consumers, it’s long past time for this to change.
I’ve come to understand that those by-laws have evolved in such a manner as to effectively prevent all but the old guard from running for the board of directors which is responsible for shaping policy. This is not the stance of a progressive or inclusive organization, it’s one of protectionism affording no reasonable opportunity for change.Richard Betts, MS
We call on the court to bring in a board of directors that more accurately reflects the community they serve and that must include women and black and indigenous people of color.
The Court has a Republican Problem
Just because a Master Sommelier is a Republican or is employed by one is not a cause to boycott the Court. Nor do we think it’s a problem if a Master Sommelier is a financial donor to the Republican party. Everyone has the right to their own beliefs.
However, the Court is a nonprofit agency that claims to represent the industry as a whole. If they appear to be a politically partisan group, that is a severe conflict of interest. In our reporting, we discovered that the CMSa Board of Directors has a distinct Republican bias. Most of the board members are executives in businesses whose leadership donates heavily to right-wing causes.
Currently, 7% of the board either donated to or worked for someone who donated to Democratic Causes. 14% donated to both parties, and a whopping 57% donated solely to Republicans. Dollar for dollar, the data is even worse. On average, the money given to Democrats was less than $400, while the average donation to Republicans was over $10,000. We believe this lack of representation of differing political views is one of the Court’s systemic problems.
Republican Donors & The Master Sommeliers Board of Directors
- Thomas Price, MS has worked for Jackson Family Wines for over six years. The company’s chairman Barbara Banke has donated over Two Million Dollars to Republican candidates across the country.
- Steven Poe, MS has worked for over a decade at the Big Canyon Country Club. This club is well known for being an exclusive bastion of Republican politics in Orange County, California.
- Ron Edwards, MS is an executive at Winebow, which is owned by the Brazos Private Equity firm. Both co-founders (Randall Fojtasek and Jeff Fronterhouse) donate exclusively to the Republican party. Donations as of publishing are well over $10K.
- Randall Bertao, MS has been an administrator at the Los Altos Golf & Country Club for over a decade. His board of directors donates solely to Republicans. Of note is Andrew K Ludwick, the club’s Treasurer who has donated over $100,000 to Republican causes.
- Christopher Bates, MS is now the owner of Element Winery. However, for ten years he worked for Hotel Fauchère and Richard Snyder. Mr. Snyder had a long history of donating to Republican causes.
- Virginia Philip, MS is the Vice-Chair of the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas (CMSa). She is an executive at The Breakers hotel. CEO Paul Leone has a long history of donating to the Republican party.
- Devon Broglie, MS is the current Chair of the CMSa. He has worked for Whole Foods Market since 2005. Mr. Broglie works with CEO John Mackey, a longtime Republican donor, including a Rand Paul Super PAC.
Democratic Donors & The Master Sommeliers Board of Directors
- Peter Granoff, MS is the only member of the board to donate to a Democrat. He is the owner of Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant in San Fransisco.
Dual Donors & The Master Sommeliers Board of Directors
- Brett Davis, MS works for Lux Wines, a division of E. & J. Gallo Winery. CEO Joseph E Gallo donates heavily to both parties.
- Eric Entrikin, MS works for Germain-Robin California Brandy, a division of E. & J. Gallo Winery. CEO Joseph E Gallo donates heavily to both parties.
The Court Accepts Big Contributions from a Far-Right Political Donor
The Court has deep financial ties to Barbara Banke, the far-right political donor. She funds the CMS scholarship program under the name of her wine company, the Jackson Family Wines Scholarship.
We call on the court to sever ties with the Republican party and bring in a board of directors that more accurately reflects the communities they serve.
The Court Has A Cheating Problem
In 2018, a board member was caught giving answers to the Master Sommelier exam to one of his protegees. This blatant cheating was uncovered because the student had second thoughts and consulted a lawyer after taking the exam and passing.
Nobody knows how many people cheated on the September exam. The Court has only said a lawyer contacted them to say that a “member of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas disclosed confidential information pertinent to the tasting portion of the 2018 Master Sommelier Diploma Examination prior to the examination.”
-Frances Dinkelspiel, The Daily Beast
It is well-known that the board members will tutor the very candidates they are supposed to be testing. This type of advocacy is part of the Master Sommelier culture. While on the surface this may seem innocuous, it gives the beneficiaries (mostly male and white) a huge competitive advantage over other candidates.
This cronyism goes far beyond giving an unfair advantage to certain people: it has clearly encouraged outright cheating. It was a fluke that the fraud was exposed. The public has no way to gauge long such cheating has been going on: the Court continues to stonewall any outside investigation into the scandal.
This is not the only issue with cronyism. Board members are also allowed to change the scores after the exam to benefit certain applicants.
As highlighted in Uncorked, former CMSA board chairman Joseph Spellman, MS, wrote on social media that the CMSA exam committee “reserves the right to change the sequence or selection or point values/scoring of the wines”
Courtney Schiessl, SevenFiftyDaily
After clearly stating that the board will change scores for some candidates, he backtracked and claimed they would only do so “to adjust for exam flaws.” After discussing this issue with multiple sommeliers who have conducted blind tasting exams, there seems to be no valid reason to change a grade after the exam has been conducted.
The Court has refused to comment on these serious issues, despite being widely reported in the media. At this point, it is illogical to assume there was only one case of cheating or that altering final scores is only done “to adjust for exam flaws.” The premise of the Master Sommelier certification may be a fabrication.
The Court Has A Money Problem
The Court is a nonprofit agency [501(c)(6)] under US law. Their filings with the IRS clearly show that they make an average of Five Million Dollars a year, almost all of it earned through entrance fees for sommelier exams.
Where does that money go? According to the US government, nearly all that money goes to compensation and management expenses.
- Compensation to the board and employees is 25% of their annual budget.
- Management expenses (Including legal, accounting, occupancy, entertainment, and travel) are 44% of their total budget.
Having nearly 70% of a budget devoted to administration and expenses is a red flag, according to many nonprofit watchdogs.
The website SeriousGivers places nonprofits into three groups: green zone, yellow zone and red zone. The red zone is for nonprofits that spend more than 50 percent on fundraising and management. The green zone is for nonprofits that spend between 20 percent and 30 percent.
-Steve McDonnell, BizFluent
While these red flags are problematic, the Court is also not fulfilling its obligations as a non-profit.
The 501(c)(6) designation includes membership-based organizations or clubs that promote the business interests of their members… Typical ways that a 501(c)(6) nonprofit promotes the business interests of its members include gathering and presenting industry data to governmental bureaus and agencies and lobbying for legislation supportive of the group’s mutual interests…the organization must serve the “common interests” of those members and must not engage in business for profit.
Joanne Fritz, The Balance Small Business
According to its own documentation, the Court is not serving the sommelier trade’s common interests, as it is legally bound to. It is only spending money to benefit its board of directors and employees. In its filings for 2018, the Court spent exactly zero dollars to support the sommelier community.
Alternatives to the Court
Do you think it’s time to boycott the CMSa? Several accreditation agencies offer sommelier certification. They offer the same level of certification as the Court. You can check out a comparison chart of the three major wine trade certification bodies.
Do you think it’s time to boycott the Court of Master Sommeliers? Let us know in the comments.