Atop The Wine World, Court Of Master Sommeliers Faces A Racial Reckoning

By B.E. Mintz |

For decades, the Court of Master Sommeliers reigned over the wine profession. The 160 member CMSA comprises about two thirds of an elite pool of perfect palates guarding the ‘Master Sommelier’ (MS) title—and the accompanying jewelry. Given this lofty status, many outsiders were shocked when star-somm Richard Betts resigned from the Court last week, denouncing the group for failing to act against systemic racism in an open letter.

Yet, to many people close to the CMSA, Betts’ departure was just the latest development in a long due reckoning facing the Court. MS’ and unaffiliated somms alike argued that the Court’s seemingly defining elements of tradition, elitism, secrecy, and gatekeeping are not virtues, but flaws. And, when the Board subsequently stutter-stepped their way to a statement on racial inequality, the CMSA’ deeper systemic issues were thrown into the limelight.

The controversy currently surrounding the CMSA is the story of how the wine industry—a world historically dominated by white men—changed. When the Board failed to keep pace, the wine community as well as the groups’s own members pushed them into action. But, will the Court’s promises mean real progress?

Vino Veritas

In 2017, sommelier Tahiirah Habibi founded the Hue Society to build access to wine in the black community. She told Neat Pour that in order to understand the current issues with CMSA, one must first look at the historical relationship between wine culture and black culture.

Habibi pointed out that people of color face access issues to wine. Stores in predominantly BIPOC communities tend to stock low quality wine; the industry is dominated by white men; and people of color who still manage to break into wine face immense stigmas.

“For example, look at sweeter wines. Let’s face it, we [wine drinkers] start with sweet wine and generally move on,” Habibi said. “And, if a white couple in a restaurant orders Moscato, no one thinks about it. But if a black couple orders Moscato, they are stereotyped.”

“But, when marginalized people look at the marketing, websites, social media for these events, groups—even the affiliated scholarships—they don’t see anyone who looks like them.”

Lia Jones, DWS

Lia Jones, founder of Diversity in Wine and Spirits (DWS) added that marginalized peoples also face distinct hurdles when trying to break in or advance in the wine industry.

“I thought you went to college, get a degree, or get certified or get an apprenticeship—that’s how you get a job. But it’s much more based on who you know,” she elaborated. “It’s based on networking and expectations that you attend conferences. But, when marginalized people look at the marketing, websites, social media for these events, groups—even the affiliated scholarships—they don’t see anyone who looks like them.”

“There’s no training within these groups to increase their reach. They don’t used the correct verbiage to encourage marginalized people to apply. There are so few mentors for marginalized people [because of these barriers]. So, how are you supposed to know, ‘This event is more than classes, it’s how I move forward’ when there’s no one there to let you in on the ‘way things really work’?”

Testing Limits

Yet, the path to the CMSA’s racial reckoning did not begin with a discussion of social bias—or even a discussion of race. Rather, the the first cracks in the vintage veneer emerged from a testing controversy.

Awarded by the CMSA after a series of grueling tests, many oenophiles consider the Master Sommelier destination to be the industry’s superlative honorific. As documented by the popular film, Somm, the three part MS exam requires years of intensive studies, multiple satellite qualifications, and an outlay of thousands of dollars.

In 2018, 23 candidates passed the vaunted MS exam and received their pins. Shortly after, the CMSA retroactively stripped the entire Class of ’18 of their titles due to alleged cheating by two members of the class.

Jill Zimorski’s 2018 pin. The badge was invalidated by the Board and then re-validated after Zimorski passed the exam a second time in 2019.

According to statements from the Board, they took this action within a week of discovering ‘sufficient evidence’ that the tasting portion ‘was compromised by the release of detailed information concerning wines in the tasting flight.’

The CMSA refunded the application fees; offered the class of 2018 an opportunity to retake the disputed tasting portion of the test the following year; and defrocked the proctor–a Board member himself–accused of facilitating the cheating. Yet, the Board did not disclose the details of their investigations, deliberations, or the identities of the accused.

The MS exam is heavy on methodology. The tasting portion relies on adductive reasoning, “running a grid” of specific attributes to ultimately determine a wine’s provenance. To the somm community, the Board’s opaque investigation was antithetical to their logic, an affront to their entire epistemology.

A letter signed by 19 of the 23 Class of 2018 members declared that the Board’s decision was “done in haste” and violated the “due process” outlined in the CMSA bylaws. Supporters in and outside of the CMSA took to social media to attack the Court.

“The Court is the top of this industry. Most of us don’t want to speak out against them because we want to work with them.”

The volume of public criticism was relatively unprecedented. The Court has a reputation in the industry as a power broker—and a litigious one at that. According to their IRS filings, the non-profit spent around $22,000 on legal fees in 2017 and $276,000 in 2018. (The 2019 filings are not yet available.)

One somm asked Neat Pour to speak anonymously. “The Court is the top of this industry. Most of us don’t want to speak out against them because we want to work with them,” they stated. “But after the 2018 scandal, a lot of peoples especially their own members, felt comfortable enough to start criticizing them in public.”

Rebellion Redux

MS Jonathan Ross was a vocal critic of the Board following the 2018 annulment. He told Neat Pour that the issue was very close to him personally which created a perception of bias. Yet he continued to fight for reform within the Court for the last two years.

“I believe that the community and the industry was very critical with how it [the cheating allegations] was handled. The lack of communication around it, and the swiftness of the action made a lot of people question the lack of transparency and the objectivity of the court,” he surmised. “Those sentiments were all brought to the surface over the last couple of weeks. Today, a business, an individual’s, and an organization’s past performances and morals are being questioned. The CMS’s entire body of work is being examined, and the annulment is a big part of that.”

Indeed, the specters of ’18 returned to haunt the Court after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd on May 25. When protestors took to the streets, many organizations and companies—especially in the hospitality world—issued statements or initiatives supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. The CMSA Board notably stayed silent for nearly two weeks.

While the Board debated an appropriate reaction, anger percolated on members’ forums and social media. The secretive deliberations of the Board seemed to mimic the ‘old boys’ club’ mentality bemoaned during the 2018 scandal.

Currently, the 14 (including Chair and Vice Chair) member Board of Directors is comprised of 12 men and two women. At least 12 of the members are white. The CMWSA website lists 160 living MS’; we were able to identify 26 members who are not cis-men. Although a count was not possible, the majority of the listed MS’ are also white.

“We have not set forth an example of fighting for equal opportunity, and against discrimination and racism,”

Jonathon Ross’ letter to membership

Even taking the MS exam involved barriers for black applicants noted critics. One prerequisite is the sponsorships from two current MS’. “How are we, people outside the network, supposed to get these recommendations,” asked one poster.

Internally, much of the Court’s membership was also appalled by the Board’s lack of action and the organization’s greater history. On June 6, Ross sent a letter to the entire membership decrying past conduct and demanding that the CMSA “step into the present.”

“The humble organization we are must self-reflect, and admit that we have not set forth an example of fighting for equal opportunity, and against discrimination and racism,” Ross wrote.

“No one asked if it was okay”

Board Chair Devon Broglie told Neat Pour that the stretch of radio silence was a product of thoughtful deliberation, not indifference. “Our initial decision to avoid the public performance of a social media broadcast was rooted in the desire to first demonstrate that we were taking constructive action to create sustainable change.”

But on June 7, the Board did finally act. They released a statement, first to membership and then to social media the following day. The letter denounced racism and declared solidarity the ‘Black community’ (but did not mention BLM). The missive also promised to support non-profit  Wine Empowered and name-checked the Hue Society as a resource.

Some community members decried the communiqué as milquetoast and performative. Habibi had a greater problem—she was completely unaware of any collaboration with CMSA.

“They mentioned my organization which was a complete shock to me because no one reached out to me,” said Habibi. “No one asked it was okay, if I was in alignment, if I was okay with what they were going to say.”

Membership was also unhappy with the effort. Neat Pour viewed a petition written by four MS’ including Ross and Jill Zimorski and circulated to the entire CMSA membership on June 8. The petition called for reforms to the board structure; a diversity steering committee accountable directly to membership with clearly defined objectives including the removal of social biases from exams and a new image in marketing & social media; and partnerships to increase scholarships.

The June 8 petition garnered enough signatures to earn formal submission to the board. However, the CMSA is a little like Congress when it comes to the bureaucracy attached to legislation. Parliamentary procedure and bylaw provisos threatened to slow down response.

So, on June 10, a group of 12 MS’ submitted a ‘clean bill’ to the Board. The new petition focused strictly on the diversity steering committee and financial aid. Once again, the Board cloistered themselves in deliberations.

“There is no neutral”

While the Board once again debated amongst themselves, the conversation in the greater wine world reached a breaking point.

On June 15, Habibi broadcast a moving IGTV video. The somm recalled that she once dreamed of being the first black woman to attain MS status. Her “life’s dream” was shattered after her first CMSA testing. The instructors demanded that all present, including African Americans like herself, address the instructors as “Master.”

“I passed my test even with the trauma of that, but something died that day, but something was reborn as well,” Habib recalled.

“I’m not going on a crusade against them. But, everyone needs to know that we’re not going to accept this anymore.”

The following day, Caleb Ganzer weighed in with another viral attack on the Board. Ganzer is a rising star of the new wine world, a somm who notably eschews three piece suits for track suits. For many young, wine pros, he is a mentor. His memories of hosting late night celebrations of exam triumphs for this diverse, generation of aspiring Masters inspired him to speak out.

“Not only do you further tarnish your [CMSA] organizations’ reputations (lest we forget CDP-PG Gate, which was completely fumbled) by remaining silent, you are doing a disservice and undermining the very title you have stood to uphold,” he lamented. “Furthermore you are raking the ‘sommelier’ job title through the mud with you.”

Ganzer’s post racked up 1000 likes within 24 hours along with some IRL support. “A lot of people have reached out. Almost every MS I know—even those I wasn’t close with—reached out to me and offered their support. A lot of these Master Somms also feel they’re being shut out of the process,” he recalled.

Almost simultaneously, iconic MS Richard Betts publicly resigned from the organization in protest. In a widely circulated letter posted to Medium, Betts renounced the group. He cited the CMSA’s refusal to take a stand as the “last straw” in a series of disappointing actions including the “unjust annulment of the 2018 Masters exam.” The piece continued to detail shifting priorities away from education to an emphasis on the “pin” and guarding an elitist culture.

“Then we have the present, where the United States is finally having a long overdue reckoning with systemic racism. 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,” wrote Betts. “By doing nothing, one passively endorses the status quo — and the status quo for BIPOC in America has been, and remains, horrible.”

“Work to do”

Around 6pm EST on Wednesday (6.17), the Board acted upon their weeks of deliberation. Broglie issued a letter of apology and action. The Chair acknowledged the slow reaction, condemned racism. H also announced the creation of a diversity committee, training, and expanded grant partners.

“We are committed to supporting initiatives for inclusion and diversity in the hospitality industry and to support organizations that create opportunities for the Black community and people of color to thrive as sommeliers, winemakers, distributors, retailers and beverage industry leaders,” Broglie wrote

“We recognize there is work to do, and we apologize it took so long for us to speak out despite many of you asking us to do so. We understand our silence on social media has been perceived as inaction or indifference and for that we are sorry”

In correspondence with Neat Pour, Broglie also emphasized that the statement was the product of a process in motion prior to Betts’ resignation. The Chair noted that Betts forfeited his member rights including voting by resigning, but was welcome to rejoin at any point.

“We have always valued and engaged in respectful dialogue with our membership, even in disagreement. And have always hoped that agreeing to disagree would be respected in kind. It is unfortunate that he is using current events to publicly rehash his disagreement over the difficult decisions the Board made in 2018.”

“You need to change the structure instead of bringing more black and brown people into a racist structure. We need to fix the structure, then talk about elevating black and brown people,”

Tahiirah Habibi

Betts could not be reached for comment, but there was no shortage of reaction in the wine community.

“Diversity training alone isn’t going to do it. You need to change the structure instead of bringing more black and brown people into a racist structure. We need to fix the structure, then talk about elevating black and brown people,” Habibi observed while calling for more representation in the remedy. “Stop going to white institutions and getting advice on how to handle black people.”

Several other somms also questioned the details. Who would be responsible for the diversity training—would it be run by a person of color? Who will sit on this committee? Will these grants help all people of color?

Ross said that execution of the concepts put forth is an existential imperative. “It’s taken too long. Everyone should be upset with that… I believe they’ve made big promises to make drastic changes. They have to do it. They have to follow through,” Ross commented. “The Court has committed to a very clear future: they truly change to earn the trust of those they’ve lost. Failure to do so will result in the complete erosion of the CMSA’s credibility, and the industry will dismantle them.”

For decades, the CMSA occupied a perch atop the wine world. Now, the wine world seems ready to move forward towards a more inclusive future– with or without the Court. Industry leaders are hoping for real change. As the power shifts, wine’s new leaders are vocal reminding CMSA not to mistake an opportunity to lead should for a free pass.

“They need to fix everything from the statements to how the classes are conducted. But, I don’t think we’re at burn it down yet. I think there are a lot of people who put time and money into the institution,” offered Habibi. “We are at the point of ‘When are you guys are going to dismantle the racist system?’”

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