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How Napa’s Court of Master Sommeliers is trying to rebuild trust after allegations

Shaken by allegations of sexual impropriety last fall, a Napa-based certification organization for wine experts has taken steps since then to reassure the professional women in its ranks that it’s fixing the problems that have come to the surface.

The Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, announced last month it had appointed an executive director, Julie Cohen Theobald, set to start in the role next month. At the end of last year and one month after a bombshell New York Times story with the accusations, court membership elected new board members for one-year terms, including three women, two of whom were appointed to chair and vice chair.

In the July announcement that she had been hired, Theobold said she wanted to "bring a new vision to life in reshaping this historic wine education and examination body to make it into an organization that is more inclusive, accessible, and transparent while upholding the values of integrity, exemplary knowledge, and humility.“

There have been multiple video conference sessions with members to talk about the issues, and a new code of ethics and disciplinary process have been crafted, according to the group’s website.

An independent investigation commissioned by the board on the allegations against nearly a dozen members is expected to be completed soon, Chair Emily Wines told trade publication The Drinks Business.

The New York Times last year reported the accounts of 21 women who claim male master sommeliers engaged in sexual harassment, manipulation and assault, and that such behavior has been tolerated by the organization.

To master sommelier Catherine Fallis, the change in leadership and tightening of standards for acceptable behavior is a welcome change.

“The changes have been for the greater good, obviously, with the new board, led by a woman,” Fallis said. “It remains to be seen if the new ethics code and new leadership will be enough to right the ship.“

She earned her master sommelier accreditation in 1997. She helps instruct new candidates for the court’s rigorous review program and also operates the San Francisco-based online Planet Grape Wine Review.

Emily Wines works at the Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant flagship location in the Chicago area. She told The Drinks Business that the court’s new top executive wasn’t brought in to clean up the mess but was specifically chosen from outside the wine business.

“We didn’t expect for Julie to come in to fix things. We want her to look towards making our future better,” Wines told the trade publication.

Wines and other board members declined interviews for this story.

Fallis, who ran for a board seat in the last election but wasn’t elected, told the Business Journal that the new board members also bring a needed younger, fresh perspective to the organization, particularly those with active experience in restaurants.

“It does really help to have that type of person on the board,” she said. “Because that's what we're trying to do is bring more people into the restaurant industry, to certify them, to say, ‘You can go with this credential and be a fantastic world-class sommelier,’ not, ‘You can go get a job and sell wine” or ‘You can go get a job and own a retail store’ — though those are certainly options.”

Those seeking the certification of master sommelier face tastings and exams. The Americas organization was established in 1987. Genderwise, the group is predominately male.

One of the new court board members, David Yoshida, a master sommelier and wine director at Threadfin Bistro, co-chairs the board’s ethics committee and has experience with restorative justice in the California prison system.

“I refuse to let the misdeeds of a few mar the accomplishments of people like me,” Yoshida told trade publication The Somm Journal.

Fallis said that the court’s new ethics code is an important part of the changes that have come to the organization in the past nine months.

One of the aspects addressed in the code is acknowledging that a job that involves alcohol can lead to abuse by the professional and problems in work settings, according to the posted document.

“It’s happening industry-wide in the restaurant industry,” Fallis said. “It’s good that it is finally being addressed.”

She points to work to clean up “bro culture” in high-technology, media and hospitality industries as a positive sign that abuses of professional women won’t keep to the shadows or be overlooked by management.

"I think we're collectively coming to an end of this era of abuse that was thought of as OK,” Fallis said. “And not only gender, but also racial abuse — the whole can of worms.”

That includes hazing and bullying, she said.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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