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.”

Singled out

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.

Christina Chilcoat, 35, a sommelier in Jacksonville, Florida, said that in 2015 Kruth opened the door to his New Orleans hotel room naked, having invited her and a friend to taste some “special bottles” after his master class on Champagne.

That same year, Rachel van Til had a job as wine director at Mabel Gray restaurant near Detroit and a dream of putting Michigan wines on the world map. She was flattered when Kruth contacted her online to offer help with her work.

“I was living in a tertiary market at best, I knew nobody, and I was happy to friend anybody who could help me,” said van Til, 30.

After months of chatty, work-related Facebook exchanges, some of which she shared with the Times, Kruth sent her a link to a graphic oral-sex guide and asked which position was her favorite. She submitted a formal complaint to the court’s board, which granted her request to bar Kruth from judging her future exams.

Rania Zayyat, 33, met Kruth at a class he taught in Houston in 2015. Soon after, she said, he messaged her on Facebook about a selfie she had posted, commenting on her beautiful eyes, and repeatedly urged her to meet him at a Florida tasting competition that he was judging.

She asked some female colleagues about Kruth and was stunned to hear many similar stories. When she later earned a spot on a tasting trip to Germany, she said others asked, “‘How did you get on this trip? Did Geoff get you on this trip?’”

“It was heartbreaking and insulting,” said Zayyat, who went on to found the organization Wonder Women of Wine. “I thought, is this going to be my entire career?”

Ivy Anderson, a sommelier in Charleston, South Carolina, was 22 and had just taken Kruth’s Champagne class when he contacted her, saying he noticed that she had bought a ticket to GuildSomm’s 2016 holiday party in New York.

He invited her to a dinner at a glamorous restaurant, Piora, the workplace of one of her heroes: Victoria James, the restaurant’s wine director and — as the youngest person to become a certified sommelier, at age 21 — a celebrity to young candidates. He also invited her, she said, to stay in a Manhattan hotel with him and other court members.

Thrilled to be singled out, she accepted, assuming she would be crashing on a sofa somewhere. But at the hotel, Anderson was taken aback to find only one room with one bed. On the way to dinner, she said, Kruth told her that he and his wife had an open relationship, that he had had a “passionate” affair with James, and that sex between master sommeliers and candidates was common. (The court's nonfraternization policy doesn’t prohibit that, as long as it’s disclosed to the board and doesn’t appear to pose conflicts of interest.)

“I can’t reject this person,” she remembered thinking. “It’s freezing cold, I know no one in New York, and he’s going to throw me out in the street.” Back in his hotel room, she said, she felt that going along when he initiated sex was her only option.

Anderson said she went home shaken and disgusted but convinced that she had done what was expected of women in her profession. “I guess this is how you get to be the next Victoria James,” she thought.

James, 29, now a partner and beverage director at Cote, in Manhattan, said she believed the same thing about her role models when she was working her way up. “It breaks my heart that Ivy believed it," she said.

In 2014, James won a place on a tasting trip to Switzerland led by Kruth. She had been warned not to be alone with him, she said, but he seemed respectful during pre-trip text exchanges.

On the trip, she said, he repeatedly angled to get her away from the group and into her hotel room. Eventually, they had sex. “I thought it would appease him and he would go away,” she said. She was angry, she said, but not surprised.

“The sad thing is that you get used to being beholden to men in this industry,” James said. “I felt like I didn’t have a choice.”

About a year later, she said, Kruth offered to write a recommendation letter she needed to proceed to the next exam if she would meet him for sex at a court event in Austin, Texas. She did. “I got off the waiting list the next day,” she said. “I felt dirty and terrible, and that was the end of the court for me.”

Through a lawyer, Kruth said he believed that all the sexual encounters the women described were consensual and that many of the women remained on good terms with him; he was invited to James’ and Lopes’ subsequent weddings. He also said he did not give special treatment to women with whom he had sexual contact.

A spokesperson for the court said that the board issued a “letter of warning” to Kruth in 2017 after investigating two formal complaints about sexual misconduct and that he is barred from court programming and upper-level examinations.

A climate of fear

Kruth is not the only high-ranking master sommelier accused of sexually inappropriate behavior by multiple women.

Robert Bath, a professor of wine at the Culinary Institute of America, is a longtime board member and former vice chair. He was suspended from the court from 2007 to 2009 because of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, the court’s spokesperson confirmed.

Bath, 65, acknowledged the suspension, writing in an email, “I have been a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers since 1993 and remain in good standing with the Court to this day.”

Liz Dowty Mitchell, 37, a sommelier in New Orleans, said that when she was a candidate in 2011, her mentor, Matthew Citriglia — a board member from 2005 to 2017 — pursued her repeatedly with sexual invitations, which she declined. “He said that master-candidate relationships were fine, that it happened all the time,” she recalled.

Alexandra Fox said Citriglia messaged her out of the blue in 2011, saying he wanted to talk about her next steps toward becoming a master and that he was coming to Tampa, Florida, where she lived, for a group dinner for wine professionals. No one else showed up for the dinner, she said, and he made a pass at her on the way home, which she rejected.

Citriglia apologized repeatedly, Fox said, and she agreed to take a class he was teaching a few weeks later in Cleveland. One night, she slept with a fellow student; when Citriglia found out the next morning, he closed the classroom door in her face as the class watched.

Months later, concerned that he might be an examiner on future exams, she reached out to clear the air; he never responded, she said. “I never did anything further toward certification,” said Fox, 51.

In an email to the Times, Citriglia, 55, wrote, “I do not agree with the accusations levied by Ms. Fox and Ms. Dowty.”

More than a dozen women said that Fred Dame, the court’s co-founder and honorary “chair emeritus,” frequently engages in sexual innuendo and unwanted touching. Both James and Mitchell said he had slapped them on the rear at court events; at another gathering, Thompson said he had called her “the prettiest little girl at TexSomm.”

Dame, 67, did not respond to more than 20 requests for comment via email, text and phone. The court’s representative said it had recently received its first formal complaint of misconduct against Dame and was “actively following up.”

In 2018, J.R. Ayala felt lucky to meet Drew Hendricks, a master sommelier who was then a director at Republic, one of the nation’s largest wine distributors, and a major celebrity in Texas wine.

He was an invited guest at a professional retreat she attended at the Clubs at Houston Oaks, a luxurious resort. As she headed to her room after a late-night group swim, she said, Hendricks intercepted her in an empty lobby and grabbed for her breasts. She pushed him away, horrified.

“What I remember after that is white-hot rage,” she said. But Ayala, 33, didn’t tell anyone in the industry what Hendricks, 54, had done. “People sat at his feet,” she said. “I was sitting for the certified somm exam, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be allowed to if I rocked the boat.”

Courtney Keeling, a sommelier in Dallas who said she had met Hendricks several times and had just chatted with him about his wife and children, offered him a spot on her couch after a 2018 event because she feared he was too drunk to drive. When they got there, he asked to share her bed, she said; she refused. “Are you at least going to give me a pair of panties to snuggle with?” she said he asked.

“I had to lock the door to my bedroom in my own home,” said Keeling, 31. “That’s a terrible feeling.”

Through a lawyer, Hendricks said that he attended the retreat but that the encounter with Ayala did not take place. He said he had slept at Keeling’s home but did not make the remarks ascribed to him.

Although she had been propositioned twice before by master sommeliers, Keeling said she never felt safe enough to tell even her female colleagues — until the #MeToo movement changed her mind. “You never know where people’s allegiances lie,” she said.

Kate Ham kept quiet. In 2018, she was working at Verve, in Manhattan, when the staff went to a party at a wine bar that included several master sommeliers. She said she was starstruck, drank more wine than usual and agreed to have a cocktail at another bar with a master sommelier she’d been chatting with.

The next thing she said she remembers is waking up in a strange bed, fighting back as he raped her. She left, she said, knowing that she could never confront or report him because of his high stature in the wine world. (She did not name him for this article.) Ham, 30, said she felt increasingly unsafe in New York, where she often saw her attacker at work events, and soon moved home to Nashville, Tennessee, where she started her own business as a private wine consultant.

She is no longer working toward a sommelier title. “I have no interest in the court now,” she said. “I have no desire to be tested and judged by these people.”

A scandal and a reckoning

For all of the court’s secrecy, recent crises have begun exposing its workings to public view.

In 2018, the court was rattled by a cheating scandal involving a master sommelier who emailed answers to some candidates on the morning of the test. All 24 newly inducted masters, even those who were not suspected (including Lopes) were suspended.

The subsequent investigation brought to light that the board’s vice chair, Matt Stamp, had sexual relationships with two women who took the exam that day and failed to disclose them to the board. He recused himself from the decision and left the board soon afterward.

In an email, Stamp, 43, said he had resigned; the court’s representative said he left by “mutual agreement” as part of a disciplinary action stemming from his failure to disclose the relationships. He is currently barred from all court programming and examinations.

“I prefer not to discuss my romantic relationships as a matter of privacy,” Stamp wrote.

In June, the board stalled on making any public acknowledgment of the killing of George Floyd. In internal forums, members were roughly divided between the old guard, who felt that sommeliers should stay out of politics, and younger members who were furious that the court wouldn’t express support for its Black members and racial justice.

On June 22, the board made a statement, announcing a new committee on diversity and inclusion. The court’s posts on social media immediately began to showcase women and people of color in the organization.

That did not sit well with Mitchell, who then decided to come forward about sexual misconduct in the court. “They do not get to use us as PR when we have been subjected to so much misogyny, put up with so many unwanted touches and stares and invitations to get where we are,” she said.

For Thompson, the Dallas wine director, inclusion is a life-or-death matter for the industry.

“We need more people of all kinds to love wine,” she said. “White Claw is going to eat us all if we don’t change.”

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