The wine world’s most elite circle has a sexual harassment problem
Master sommelier is the most prestigious title in American wine, and those who earn it instantly join the ranks of the highest-paid and most influential members of the profession.
Only 155 people have achieved the honor since the 1997 founding of the Americas chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers, the examining body that confers the title on those who survive its grueling, yearslong qualification process. Of those, 131 are men.
The court and its separate educational spinoff, GuildSomm, have seen a flood of new candidates since 2012, when the documentary “Somm” chronicled the intensive training process for the final exam. More than 12,000 people are now members of the community, many of them young women hoping to avoid the sexist hazing that is notorious in the wine industry by joining the court’s program of mentorship and education.
What they have encountered is very different. Twenty-one women told The New York Times that they have been sexually harassed, manipulated or assaulted by male master sommeliers. They and other current and former members of the court say the abuse is a continuing problem of which its leadership has long been aware.
One master sommelier, according to these accounts, propositioned at least 15 candidates, sometimes promising professional favors in return for sex. Another shut the door to a classroom full of students in the face of a woman who had refused his advances.
One student said a master sommelier in Texas asked her for a pair of her underwear “to snuggle with.” Several said the slur “sommsucker” is used for women who have relationships with members of the court. And one woman said she was raped by a prominent master sommelier in New York City after meeting him at a wine event.
“Sexual aggression is a constant for women somms. We can’t escape it, so we learn to live with it,” said Madeleine Thompson, 28, a wine director in Dallas who said she opted out of the court’s qualification process because of harassment by several master sommeliers. “It’s a compromise we shouldn’t have to make.”
In a written response to questions from the Times, the court said it expected members “to uphold the highest standards of professional conduct and integrity at all times.” It has “investigated every accusation of such conduct that has been brought to their attention” and imposed multiple disciplinary sanctions.
Last month, the group established a hotline for anonymous reporting of ethical violations, including sexual misconduct. Previously, there was no mechanism for doing so other than a direct approach to the board — a body that has often included the men accused.
The Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, a nonprofit headquartered in Napa, California, is part of an international network of affiliated courts, all swathed in pomp and privilege. Master sommeliers show up tableside at top restaurants; they act as paid ambassadors for global brands like Krug and Moët Hennessy, consultants for top hotel chains, guides on luxury cruises and senior executives at the biggest wine distributors.
Earning the red-and-gold lapel pin that denotes a master sommelier brings a lifelong payoff. Working their way up through four levels, from introductory to master sommelier, candidates pay for classes, tastings and testing — but then command high fees. In an internal 2017 survey, master sommeliers reported a median annual income of $164,000 and a median consulting rate of $1,000 per day.
Grading of the final test is cloaked in secrecy, determined by examiners drawn from the senior ranks of master sommeliers. Letters of recommendation, access to expensive wines for tasting practice and educational trips to wine regions are also needed to pass — and are all in the hands of these senior masters who are, overwhelmingly, older white men.
This dynamic has turned a system that should provide mentorship and equal opportunity to women into a bastion of sexual harassment and coercion.
“Among certain men, there’s no attempt to hide it and no shame in it,” said Jonathan Ross, 37, who has been a master sommelier since 2017. “It’s like something from another era.”
Geoff Kruth, 45, has long been one of the court’s leading educators — the founder and president of GuildSomm, a former board member, and featured as an authority in “Somm” and its sequels. Eleven women told the Times they had experienced sexual misconduct by Kruth; through a lawyer, he denied any impropriety. Last week, he resigned his position at GuildSomm “to remove the Guild from any controversy.”
Jane Lopes, 35, a wine importer in New York, said Kruth suddenly slid his fingers inside her underpants and kissed her breast as they said good night after a 2013 dinner. Courtney Schiessl, 30, said that when she assisted Kruth at a 2013 event in Chicago, he asked her out for cocktails afterward, inquired which of the bartenders she would choose for sex, then insisted that the taxi driver skip her hotel and take them both to his — where she rejected his advances.