The Court of Master Sommeliers has always carried an air of prestige. This group is comprised of the most skilled wine tasters in the world, all of whom have undergone rigorous training and testing to earn the title of master sommelier. Since its founding in 1997, only 155 people have achieved this status. Of those, 24 were women.
Recently, this elite group’s image has been marred by rampant allegations of sexual harassment, sexual abuse and rape. Seven of the Court’s members, Robert Bath, Matthew Citriglia, Fred Dame, Eric Entrikin, Greg Harrington, Drew Hendricks, and Matt Stamp have been suspended until the allegations can be fully evaluated through an external investigation. Dame is one of the group’s co-founders.
Women fear that rebuffing their instructors’ advances would harm their careers
Earning the master sommelier title requires years of intense study. Many candidates take classes through an educational spinoff of the Court of Master Sommeliers’ non-profit called GuildSomm. Sommelier students must past a final test to become a master sommelier. The grading policies are strictly confidential, and all examiners are senior master sommeliers.
Moreover, students depend on the master sommeliers for:
- Passing their final professional test;
- Gaining letters of recommendation;
- Having access to expensive wines necessary for tasting practice; and
- Taking educational trips to renowned wine regions
In order to complete this rigorous educational process, however, many women students allege that they have been subjected to sexual harassment by instructors, and feel that they cannot refuse the master sommeliers’ advances if they want to succeed in their careers.
In particular, 21 women recently told The New York Times about the harassment and assault that they suffered throughout training at the hands of their master sommelier instructors. Women were concerned that rebuffing their instructor’s advances in training could harm their chances of passing their final examination, while engaging in sexual activity with the men could help them pass. Further, examination graders were allegedly many of the same individuals abusing female candidates.
One of GuildSomm’s leading educators, Geoff Kruth promised one female student a letter of recommendation if she had sex with him. After she agreed, she was taken off the wait list and was able to proceed to the next exam. No fewer than eleven female students told The New York Times that Kruth had sexually harassed them. Other accounts included women being pressured into having sex with the instructor, forcibly touched, and sent graphic sexual images. Another instructor closed the classroom door in a woman’s face after she refused his sexual advances. One woman reported being raped by a prominent sommelier after a wine event in New York City.
In some cases, women stopped pursuing the sommelier title altogether after experiencing the harassment, ending their career and lessening their earning potential. That earning potential is substantial. On average, a master sommelier earns an income of $164,000, and has a consulting rate of about $1,000 a day.
Can we expect any changes to this industry?
Last month, the Court of Master Sommeliers created an anonymous hotline for victims to report misconduct, including sexual misconduct. Prior to the creation of the hotline, victims could only report misconduct to the Board. In many cases, however, their harassers were on the Board. The new hotline system could support an environment in which victims feel more comfortable coming forward with their stories.
Now that women have recounted their experiences to top-tier news outlets, and Court members have been suspended, harassers will hopefully realize that their inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated. In the months to come, we hope to see female wine professionals treated with respect and given equal opportunities in the wine world.