COURT OF MASTER SOMMELIERS WILL NOT RELEASE EVIDENCE OR DELIBERATIONS FROM SEXUAL HARASSMENT CASES
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
by Andrew Chalk
Following an October 29th, 2020 article in the New York Times alleging multiple cases of sexual harassment by male Master Sommeliers, the Court of Master Sommeliers - Americas (CMS-A) initiated an independent enquiry by the law firm of Lagasse Branch Bell + Kinkead which assigned Margaret C. Bell to lead the investigation. The law firm was a “finder of fact” which interviewed 80 people: accusers, accused, and witnesses. The number of accused MS’s increased from the 11 cited in the Times’ story to 22 as more complainants came forward.
Ms. Bell submitted her report to the Board of the CMS-A in September 2021 and they passed it to their Ethics and Professional Responsibility Committee (EPRC) co-chaired by Michael Meagher, MS and David Yoshida, MS and also including Brahm Callahan, MS and Kathryn Morgan, MS.
On November 17th the Board of the CMS-A announced that it was expelling six MS members (subject to a 30-day appeal), preventing one (Geoff Kruth) who resigned from the Court prior to the investigation from rejoining, requiring others (unnamed) to undergo “rehabilitative education to allow members to take accountability and then return in good standing”, and dropping charges against others, also unnamed.
As soon as the Board’s decision came out I asked for a copy of the Bell report, and planned to ask for a copy of the EPRC deliberations as well. I was surprised when the CMS-A, through its PR firm, refused to release it. They also said that nothing further, beyond a vague press statement, would be released. My surprise was because repeated criticism of the CMS-A, in part as a cause of this situation, was a lack of transparency. Apparently the Board’s solution is to be totally opaque. As a result:
We don’t know who was interviewed for the Bell report
We don’t know who filed a complaint;
We don’t know any of the accused’s responses;
We don’t know who the witnesses were, or any of their testimony;
We don’t know the facts of any case;
We don’t know the names of over half the accused;
We don’t know who is getting “rehabilitative education” (or what that amounts to);
We don’t know who was cleared (were the charges false, or did they not meet a standard of proof?);
We can’t conclude that a full investigation was done in each case;
This totally opaque means of dispensing justice should satisfy no one. This was not a “personnel matter” (the excuse I was told as the rationale for the secrecy) as none of the accused (or accusers, presumably) are employees. This was a judicial proceeding which, had it taken place in a court of law, would have been open and transparent. Only that will convey the procedures the respect to be accepted, or modified, before future cases. As it stands, there is nothing compelling these proceedings to have been fair.
It is hard to see why any of the six expelled MSs would appeal through the same secret procedure. Why would it be fair?
W. Blake Gray writes that the “Master Sommelier Program (is) Out of Time”. I am less critical than him that most MSs do not ‘walk the floor’, but I think he has come to the right conclusion. Others have already concluded this as well.
The irony is that when Fred Dame established the CMS-A in 1987 the objective was to take a rag-tag bunch of wine waiters and turn them into a recognized profession of men and women delivering deep expertise to the public and sourcing the finest (and often most obscure) wines in the world. Achieving that dream essentially defined his 34-year career in which he spent thousands of hours mentoring thousands of applicants to work their way up the Court’s demanding ladder. Now he is one of the six MSs expelled (according to the San Francisco Chronicle “More than a dozen women told the New York Times that Dame had engaged in unwanted touching with them, including two instances of slapping women’s rear ends at professional events.”).