Napa's Court of Master Sommeliers seeks to oust 6 members in sex-misconduct investigation

The Court of Master Sommeliers, a prestigious club whose titles can give sommeliers a leg up in the wine business, has moved to revoke the certifications of six members who were first accused of sexual misconduct about a year ago, including one of the group’s co-founders.

In October 2020, several women in the program alleged sexual misconduct while participating in the program, according to the New York Times.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Napa-based chapter of the group said there were 22 individual cases in which women in the industry defined a culture of sexual impropriety. The allegations resulted in an independent report led by Margaret C. Bell that was delivered to the certification organization in September.

As a result, the group stated Wednesday it plans to terminate the membership of Fred Dame, one of its co-founders; Robert Bath, a professor of wine at St. Helena’s Culinary Institute of America; Matt Stamp of Compline Restaurant and Wine Shop in Napa; Fred Dexheimer; Drew Hendricks; and Joseph Linder. None of those whose certifications are being revoked are based in Sonoma County.

The revocations are pending a hearing within 30 days, as required by the organization’s bylaws.

The San Francisco Chronicle referred to Dame, a key figure in the “Somm” documentary series, as “arguably the most famous master sommelier in the U.S.”

In a story published in October 2020, the New York Times reported that more than a dozen women said that Dame, the court’s honorary “chair emeritus,” regularly engaged in sexual innuendo and unwanted touching. Two women said he had slapped them on the rear at court events; at another gathering.

Stamp, who operates Compline, is a former sommelier at the French Laundry in Yountville and served as vice chair of the sommelier group’s board. He and the board parted ways after an investigation found he had had sexual relationships with two women whose master class was suspended because some members were emailed exam answers in advance, the New York Times reported.

In addition to the board decision, Geoff Kruth resigned from the American chapter of the organization last year.

Since the explosive story of a pervasive, predatory culture aimed at women in the industry came out, the sommelier organization reported it has partnered with a special employment group tasked with creating environments in which sommeliers may thrive “free from harassment, misconduct and abuse” and hired a woman to lead the organization.

Emily Wines, vice president of Wine and Beverage Experience for Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurants for Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant out of Chicago, was elected chairwoman of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, board of directors last December.

“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,” Wines said in a statement. “The work does not stop here. The board of directors is committed to creating safe mentoring spaces as well as adding more diverse voices to the organization.”

There are 172 professionals who have earned the title of master sommelier, as part of the Americas chapter since the organization’s inception. Of those, 144 are men, and 28 are women. There are 269 professionals worldwide who have received the title of master sommelier since the first diploma exam, according to the organization’s website.

Efforts to reach the sommeliers whose credentials are being revoked were unsuccessful Wednesday. The Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, declined to comment further.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to indicate court Board of Directors Emily Wines was elected in December 2020.

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