Sommelier cheating scandal just part of larger, more devastating problems at Court of Master Sommeliers

sommelier cheating scandalNew York Times report cites long-time pattern of sexual abuse, harassment, and assault that predates the sommelier cheating scandal

Nov. 3: update: The Times reports that the court has suspended seven of its male members, including co-founder Fred Dame, in the wake of its Oct. 29 story that detailed widespread sexual harassment and intimidation of women in the organization. Another male member resigned on Sunday. The seven suspended members will be subject to an external investigation.

Oct. 29: Someone asked me, after the sommelier cheating scandal broke, if we would ever know exactly what happened. That’s because the Court of Master Sommeliers had done a Nixonian job of stonewalling. It had found a scapegoat and intimidated members, and the Winestream Media was more than happy to accept the court’s version of what had happened.

So I told them: Not until the New York Times gets into this.

Well, the Times did. And those of us who suspected that the cheating scandal was just one sad and sorry part of something much bigger were correct.

The Times reported on Thursday that 21 women said “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.“

In addition, said the story, improper sexual relationships may have been part of the cheating scandal, and that this “dynamic has turned a system that should provide mentorship and equal opportunity to women into a bastion of sexual harassment and coercion.”

The piece is well-reported, with almost a dozen women quoted by name and on the record that male sommeliers made sexual advances, often with promises of preferential treatment if the women complied. Twitter screenshots, in fact. In addition, it cites at least one case of disciplinary action taken against male sommeliers for improper sexual behavior that the court didn’t publicly acknowledge at the time.

So why did it take two years after the cheating scandal for this to come to light? Because those of us who cared didn’t have the resources to report the story. And those of the Winestream Media that had the resources didn’t care enough. And that’s because the wine business and the Winestream Media feed off of each other – samples, trips, and perks – so that each can further its own cause.

That’s why sommelier Richard Hemming, MW, called it an incestuous relationship during a podcast, and that it’s difficult – if not impossible – for wine writers to be objective. “Why should [consumers] trust us? They shouldn’t, necessarily,” he told me.

Because for the wine business. making money trumps all – even cheating and sexual harassment. I don’t know why that still surprises me.

More about the sommelier cheating scandal:
Winecast 39: Mark Greenblatt and the sommelier cheating scandal
The sommelier cheating scandal: Once again, wine reminds us it’s big business

5 thoughts on “Sommelier cheating scandal just part of larger, more devastating problems at Court of Master Sommeliers

  • By Douglas Trapasso - Reply

    Speaking of money, one question never made the “fit to print” either in the Pulitzer-level story in the Times yesterday or the well meaning attempts to get to the bottom of Tastegate two years ago.

    Remember “All the Presidents Men”, kids? Follow. The. Money.

    Simply put: Have the Court’s books ever been publicly, independently audited? That needs to happen before I contribute one more cent to their non profit Profit Center.

    • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

      The SommFoundation is a 501c-3, and — as my accountant says — the IRS just doesn’t give those away. In that case, the organization has to file Form 990, and that’s public information. You can see it here —

      I don’t the profit states for any of the court’s other entities.

  • By burnsey - Reply

    That whole operation is a money grab. I went to the intro class, about $500 when I went, over 80 people in attendance, so about $40,000 collected in testing fees.
    3 Master Somm’s, room rent and wine sure didn’t take much out of that 40 Grand.
    Then a pass/fail test that most everyone passes, just to get you sucked into taking the next level test.

  • By PaulG - Reply

    Creating a highly profitable ‘Court’ with Masters and what?… Slaves? has only nurtured and in fact expanded the widespread notion that wine is for snobs. The parlor trick of identifying masked wines is just that – a parlor trick – that has nothing to do with any meaningful appreciation of the unique place that wine occupies in human history and experience. Bravo to the women who spoke out and may they continue to shine a light on this sort of demeaning misogynist behavior. Sign me “Old White Guy’

  • By Andrew - Reply

    The person most responsible for bringing the CMS into the public eye, Jason Wise, and his SOMM empire has emerged completely unscathed in all of this.

    Wise worked closely with Kruth, Dame, the CMS Board and other so called Masters to make them celebrities to make the first film, which was the apotheosis of the CMS, its fetishized blind tasting, and arcane service standards like double decanting without funnels.

    Without Wise and his films, the sommelier (or as I prefer, wine waiter) would have remained a relatively obscure fixture in high-end fine dining restaurants, rather than a position worthy of aspiration for over educated Gen X, Y, Zers and Millennials.

    And I suspect Wise is so quiet now because he is busy destroying whatever raw footage remains of Kruth, Dane & the others “behaving badly…….”. Just in case there are subpoenas and discovery proceedings are in the offing.

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