Sommelier advocate says sexual harassment scandal among reasons wine business must move away from such titles

Cristie Norman, 26, has been a wine sommelier for five years, having passed her wine certification at the same time she was of legal age to drink alcohol.

The Los Angeles resident has worked at Spago’s of Beverly Hills and since March became the president and co-founder of the United Sommeliers Foundation, a charitable organization designed to help “somms” who are out of work for reasons beyond their control, namely the coronavirus pandemic. With her many outreach efforts, Norman has launched an online wine course and through the foundation has raised money for sommeliers in need.

My hope for the future is that wine professionals will be measured by their impact in the community, rather than what title they hold. I hope that being a good person will be valued more highly than being smart or knowledgeable.

The profession has gotten media attention recently when the New York Times published an investigation into the claims of 21 women who reported being sexually harassed, manipulated or assaulted by male master sommeliers, while seeking certification from the overwhelmingly male American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers. The examining body confers the title, after an extensive qualification process. After publication, several directors of the organization resigned and the chapter promised a full, independent investigation into the womens’ allegations.

The Business Journal posted some questions to Norman about the job and the controversy.

What is it actually like to be a sommelier?

“"A hospitalitarian is a highly curious optimist — they like to learn, and they have a great work ethic. It's just in their DNA to do their job well. They're empathetic — it matters to them how they make other people feel and they possess the judgement to do the right thing. I cannot train any of those skills. And either can you."

Danny Meyer, ”Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business,“ 2006

If you want to be a sommelier, also known as a wine steward, it’s important to be a complete hospitalitarian. We take care of people first and wine comes second, so if that means bussing a table, making a cocktail, taking orders, or anything the guest wants, we do it. Anything to make the guest happy.

Speaking for myself, it was moving a lot of wine boxes, being organized — especially, since we had a large cellar — reading a lot, and teaching others what I know.

Do you consider it a man's world? Why?

Most of the wine industry is white, especially at the higher levels. When you’re studying for wine exams, you form a group of people in your network and typically bring bottles to taste together.

This limits your education by the people you know and their socioeconomic status, what they can afford to buy and bring.

White people taste with white people, and therefore, more white people pass the higher-level exams. It’s nearly impossible to taste the wide range of wines and get the mentorship required to pass higher-level exams unless someone gives you access.

Working at a top-tier restaurant, I had access to the wine at a low cost and could pass the savings on to anyone who wanted to learn.

I opened my doors wide to anyone who was studying for an exam or in the trade. I used my network to bring mentors they might normally never get to meet and create opportunities for others, because I was lucky enough to make the right friends when I was just getting started. I understand my privilege and have taken it on as my responsibility to blaze a path for others.

How long have you been one?

A little over five years. I started studying for a sommelier certification when I was 19, and I passed my first wine certifications at 21.

Any regrets?

I always declined going on enrichment trips to wine regions, because I felt like someone else should go instead of me. I wanted to prove myself a bit more, but I wish I had gone! Especially now, during a pandemic, when I can’t travel.

Would you consider yourself a foodie, too, since I'm guessing you're all about pairing?

I love trying new restaurants, but I can be just as happy at a food stand as a Michelin-rated restaurant. When I do go out to dine, I usually just tell the waiter and/or sommelier to build our perfect meal with their favorite dishes. I’m not picky, and usually it’s an amazing experience, since they know what the best items on the menu are.

What's the most memorable time you provided a recommendation and were surprised by the diner's reaction?

It was a Friday night and a lovely couple came in and asked me to find them a wine they would love. They described Australian grenache, so I asked if they had tried it. She said she hated grenache, however she seemed to be describing grenache made in France. I hid the bottle and poured her a taste of the Aussie grenache I brought anyway. She loved it and was screaming, “I like grenache!“ on the patio at Spago.

Do you find it's easy to look at people and get a preconceived notion of what they may like?

I have served so many guests and so many people have ordered wildly different things than I first anticipate. So, no. Although after just a few words, their body language (how comfortable they are speaking with a sommelier) and the dynamic between the guests can tell me a lot about what someone might like though.

What was the first word that came to mind when you read the New York Times piece declaring the industry has the appearance of having a rampant problem of sexual harassment? Do you agree?

It’s time for the current leaders of these organizations to resign.

Whether or not the structure of the organization needs to be dismantled remains to be seen, but to move forward we must have new leaders immediately. Elect a well-liked and respected leader to act in the interim while the America’s chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers is reimagined and redesigned to create a safe and fair program for this generation, and develop a system therein to hold new leadership accountable in the future.

There should be a zero-tolerance policy for this type of behavior going forward.

What would you like people to know about the business?

Until this point, wine professionals generally lived in a social hierarchy based on the level of certification they held.

My hope for the future is that wine professionals will be measured by their impact in the community, rather than what title they hold. I hope that being a good person will be valued more highly than being smart or knowledgeable. I hope the best and brightest in our industry will focus their energy and attention on improving the trade, rather than studying thousands of flashcards for a certification program.

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