Master Sommeliers May Lose Their Titles After Sexual Misconduct Investigation
Last November, the New York Times published a report in which 21 women reported experiencing sexual harassment and abuse by male members of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, a prestigious non-profit which confers the career-making title of master sommelier on American wine experts. In response, the court suspended seven of its members, including co-founder Fred Dame, amid an external investigation to the claims. And today, the court has announced it will move to expel six of its members from the group, and strip them of their master sommelier titles.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the six men — Bob Bath, Fred Dame, Fred Dexheimer, Drew Hendricks, Joseph Linder, and Matt Stamp — will have 30 days to appeal the decision, but if their membership is terminated, they will be forbidden from participating in any future activities with the court, and “will also be prohibited from using the title ‘master sommelier,’ a powerful honorific that grants enormous clout within the wine industry.” The allegations had already led to some resignations from the court. Last year, Geoff Kruth, who along with Dame was featured in the Netflix documentary Somm, resigned after 11 women had told the Times that he “had tried to pressure them into sex, sometimes in exchange for professional favors.” One week after the initial NYT piece published, then-chairman Devon Broglie also resigned after new allegations surfaced about his own conduct.
In a statement posted to its site, the Court of Master Sommeliers writes that the results of the independent investigation were returned to the organization in September, and that it has been working with RALIANCE, an organization dedicated to ending sexual violence, for the past two months to review the findings. In addition to moving to terminate the memberships of the aforementioned men, “the board voted to prohibit Geoff Kruth… from ever applying for reinstatement.” Aside from the six suspended, other members are also facing punishment, such as temporary suspension or training, according to the statement.
“This reckoning in our industry and organization has been incredibly painful — most painful of all for the survivors who felt unsafe or compromised by those they trusted,” Emily Wines, chair of the board of directors, said in the statement. “From this deep disappointment and betrayal, we will continue channeling the learned lessons into growth and positive change for our organization.” The Court has pledged to provide “dedicated, individualized support” to the victims, and says it has implemented changes such as mandatory sexual harassment training and new mentorship guidelines — many of the accusations involved men abusing their status as mentors to women in the organization. There will also be 100 scholarships made available to women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ applicants.
Previously, the court published an open letter to survivors of sexual misconduct and abuse, saying, “We acknowledge that we will never fully understand the pain, trauma, and negative impact that the actions of select members of our organization caused you; we also acknowledge that our organization did not have the proper safeguards in place to ensure a safe and equitable learning environment. For this, we are deeply, deeply sorry. Our commitment to you is that no other person will have to experience what you went through in our organization.”
At least one victim alleged that the court knew about these issues for years. “The only previous consequence the CMS levied against these Masters in light of accusations was for them not to be allowed to specifically examine these respective women,” Liz Dowty Mitchell, one of the women who came forward in the NYT investigation, wrote in 2020. “This demonstrates that the CMS was WELL AWARE of these allegations and the extent of the problem, but chose never to address them in the appropriate manner. This neglect left us victims no choice BUT to come forward in this very public manner.”
The move to expel may not be enough to rebuild trust in the organization. But as Sabato Sagaria, master sommelier and co-chair of the board’s diversity committee told the Chronicle, it’s a step. “We know this isn’t going to solve it. We’ve eroded a lot of trust. And that takes time.”