Amid Sexual Harassment Scandal, Elite Wine Group Elects New Board

The Court of Master Sommeliers, the most elite body in American wine, has elected a new board of directors following a sexual harassment scandal in October and accusations of racism this summer.

Of the 11 new board members, three are women, and two identify as gay and two as Asian-American; seven are white men. (The two Black men who were eligible for the board did not run.) The outgoing board had two women, one Black man and no one who identified as gay among its 14 members; 11 were white men.

In the wake of a New York Times report in October, 12 men are currently under investigation for having inappropriate relations with female candidates for the title of master sommelier, which the court confers after a yearslong testing process. The conduct ranged from unwanted touching to quid pro quos to sexual assault. Women quoted in the Times article said that many board members had long been aware of the abuse, or were perpetrators themselves.

One of the men, Geoff Kruth, resigned from the court; the remaining 11 were suspended, pending the results of outside investigations. Still, they remained eligible to vote in the election. (A spokeswoman for the court said that was required by nonprofit governance laws in California, where the court is incorporated.)

The revelations of systemic abuse, coming after recent accusations of racism and smoldering suspicions about favoritism from a cheating scandal in 2018, have threatened not only the organization’s credibility, but the organization itself.

Following a fractious town-hall meeting last month, the board promised to resign en masse after the election of a new slate on Dec. 1. During the campaign, internal debates exploded onto social media, the idea of dissolving the entire organization was aired, three prominent women members resigned (many more have threatened to do so), and a deep generational rift in the court was exposed.

In interviews and on social media, younger members (including most of the group’s women, who make up about 15 percent of the total) have said that systemic change is needed to promote transparency, diversity and ethical standards. Older members, most of them white men, have argued that the court’s problems have now been exposed, and can be fixed without drastically reshaping the organization.

That view was reflected in candidate statements by three of the white men just elected to the new board, who have served on it in the past: Keith Goldston, from 2007 to 2015; Rob Bigelow, from 2003 to 2012; and Christopher Bates, from 2019 to 2020. (Mr. Bates, who wrote that the organization should not be “dismantled or destroyed” because of the actions of “a few,” resigned along with the rest of the current board, and was the only member to run for re-election.)

Since the court’s newest members are not allowed to run, there was a notable lack of diversity on the slate: 13 of the 18 candidates were white men, ensuring them a majority, and there were no Black candidates. Four new members — Emily Wines, Mia Van De Water, Kathryn Morgan and David Yoshida — now constitute all the diversity of gender, sexuality and race on the board. To those who have argued for sweeping change, the election process and results were not encouraging.

“There are mostly conservatives and moderates, not many progressives,” said Jill Zimorski, a master sommelier who was not eligible to run for the board because she has been a member for less than two years.

The master sommelier title represents an enormous investment of time and money for those who hold it. Since 1997, when the court’s Americas chapter was formally established, fewer than 200 people have climbed all four rungs of testing: introductory, certified, advanced and master. Those who make it through then supply mentorship, education and examinations to the next generation of candidates.

As high-level players in the $30 billion beverage industry, master sommeliers also have access to lucrative job opportunities, luxurious travel, expensive wines and other perks. The combination of money and power, guarded by the men who had it, has long proved toxic for women who tried to gain access to the court’s upper levels.

Some changes to remedy that are already in effect. Sexual relationships between masters and candidates are no longer permitted by the court’s code of ethics. The requirements to run for the board, previously complex, have been simplified to two years of membership. Four additional board seats have been set aside to be filled later by candidates for the master title, so their interests can be represented alongside those who have already reached the inner circle.

Karen MacNeil, a wine expert and educator, said it is too soon to rebuild the court, but if major strides are made toward inclusion, objectivity and fairness, it may be possible. “When an organization is seeded with pain and distrust, it’s difficult to restore from within,” she said.

“The men that have been called out are just the tip of the iceberg in the court,” she said. “and the court is just the tip of the iceberg in the industry.”

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