Wine’s most prestigious group expels six master sommeliers after sexual misconduct investigation


Six master sommeliers stripped of their prestigious wine titles following investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct – including Fred Dame of San Francisco, who has been called “the godfather of the American sommelier community”, and two others Local personalities: Robert Bath, professor at St. Helena’s Culinary Institute of America and Matt Stamp, co-owner of the Napa Compline restaurant.

The Napa, Americas-based Court of Master Sommeliers, the influential organization that can make a career in a sommelier, announced Wednesday that it will also terminate the membership of Fred Dexheimer, a wine consultant in Brooklyn; Drew Hendricks, director of business development at Pioneer Wine Company in Texas; and Joseph Linder, sommelier in Seattle.

They are accused of a range of inappropriate behaviors, including non-consensual touching, flirting and abusive sex. The court did not specify what acts each individual was charged with. Some of the charges were broadcast in an October 2020 New York Times article, prompting the court to order an external investigation into the allegations. This investigation informed the current layoffs.

Arguably America’s most famous master sommelier, Dame was the focal point of the documentary series “Somm”, which celebrated him as a legendary figure who started a wine revolution in the 1980s. Dame began her career as a sommelier at the Sardine Factory in Monterey. He now works as a Global Brand Ambassador for Daou Vineyards in Paso Robles. He was co-founder of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas.

More than a dozen women told The New York Times that Dame had engaged in unwanted touching with them, including two cases of slapping women on the buttocks at work events.

The other two local men named in the survey, Bath and Stamp, are well known in their Napa Valley community. Bath, who passed the master sommelier exam in 1993, was one of the first to earn the title in the United States. In addition to teaching wine courses at the Culinary Institute of America, he operates a wine import business in St. Helena and Cave Alpha Omega.

A time sommelier at the French Laundry, Stamp operates a popular restaurant in downtown Napa, Compline. He is also known for his work as a writer, having worked for years as a copywriter for GuildSomm, a Bay Area educational platform for sommeliers. According to the New York Times report, Stamp supervised the master sommelier exams of two women he had had sex with and did not disclose this information to the court.

The six men have 30 days to appeal the decision under California laws governing nonprofit organizations. After this period, if the board maintains its decision to terminate their membership, they will be excluded from any future court-related activity. They will also be prohibited from using the title of “master sommelier”, a powerful honorary title that confers enormous weight in the wine industry.

None of the six immediately responded to a request for comment from The Chronicle.

A seventh master sommelier accused of misconduct, Geoff Kruth, had already voluntarily resigned from the tribunal before the end of the investigation. Kruth, formerly the head of GuildSomm, is said to have made unwanted sexual advances to at least six candidates for master’s degree in sommellerie. As he has already resigned, the court was unable to terminate his membership, said Emily Wines, chairman of the board, but he will be barred from reapplying for membership.

The title of master sommelier is a sort of holy grail for wine hotel professionals, with a notoriously exhausting exam that involves a “blind tasting” segment, requiring applicants to identify grape variety, origin and the vintage of the wines in a glass without any external information. . Candidates spend years preparing for the test; 3-5% of applicants pass.

Originally created to establish a set of professional standards among sommeliers in restaurants, the title of master sommelier has a much broader currency today. Certification offers a wide range of lucrative employment opportunities with prestigious restaurant groups, large wine wholesalers, large wineries and more. In recent years, master sommeliers have acquired a sort of celebrity status, in large part thanks to the documentaries “Somm”.

Emily Wines, Master Sommelier in Oakland, is the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas. She works as the Vice President of Wine and Beverage Experience at Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant.

Courtesy of Emily Wines

The Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas represents these selective ranks. Only 172 people have already obtained the title of master sommelier thanks to the organization. (Including those who went through the UK chapter of the tribunal, there are 269.) Of those 172, only 28 are women.

The court was already in a publicity crisis before allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced last year. In 2018, she admitted to discovering cases of cheating during a master sommelier exam. The 23 people who had passed that year’s exam subsequently lost their new titles.

Then, in the spring of 2020, a black wine professional by the name of Tahiirah Habibi criticized the court for asking her to address the white supervisors as a “master”, which recalled the dynamics of slavery. As a result, the court said it would no longer require the use of that term.

But damage had already been done. Prominent master sommeliers, including Richard Betts, Brian McClintic and Nate Ready, have announced that they will relinquish their titles, no longer wishing to associate with the court.

Other defections continued after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced later in the year, including from well-known female master sommeliers Alpana Singh, Pascaline Lepeltier and Laura Maniec Fiorvanti.

Public appeals have multiplied for the tribunal to make sweeping changes. In response, the court suspended at least 11 master sommeliers who had been identified as perpetrators of sexual abuse. Then its entire board of directors resigned.

Shortly after the election of a new board of directors, the board hired Margaret C. Bell, an independent workplace investigator, to investigate the allegations of sexual misconduct that had come to light. Finally, 22 master sommeliers were investigated. Bell interviewed more than 80 people, the court said, including alleged victims, witnesses and defendants, over a nine-month period.

Master sommeliers must pass a difficult exam that requires them to demonstrate an understanding of traditional restaurant wine service.

Master sommeliers must pass a difficult exam that requires them to demonstrate an understanding of traditional restaurant wine service.

Sarah Rice / The Chronicle 2013 Special

After Bell’s interviews were completed, the tribunal’s board met to review each case. This effort was primarily led by the two co-chairs of its ethics committee, male master sommeliers Michael Meagher and David Yoshida, according to Wines. An outside organization called Raliance, which has advised the NFL and Uber on how to handle incidents of sexual harassment, has helped the group.

Based on the information it received from Bell, the board of directors decided to terminate the membership of six people. Some of the other accused sommeliers may still retain their titles but face other penalties, such as temporary suspension or the requirement to undergo further training. Wines said the goal in these cases was to offer rehabilitation rather than just “cancel someone.” The court did not want to identify their names or specify their sentences.

Board members said that in addition to the investigation, they have taken other actions over the past year in hopes of change. The court removed its dress code, which required master sommeliers to wear certain colored suits and specified that men must wear ties of the master sommelier brand; the new change is supposed to be more inclusive of all gender identities. It also launched a scholarship program for women and applicants of color, implemented anti-discrimination and harassment policies, and drafted a new code of ethics.

“It’s going to take time to regain that trust, but we felt that moving from a two-page code of ethics to a 26-page ethics suite was the right first step,” said Meagher, master sommelier at Massachusetts. So far, he said, 80% of master sommeliers have signed a pledge that they will follow the new code of ethics. Anyone found to be in violation of the code will be the subject of a future investigation.

“We know that’s not going to solve it,” said Sabato Sagaria, a master sommelier who co-chairs the board’s diversity committee. “We have eroded a lot of confidence. And it takes time.

Esther Mobley is the San Francisco Chronicle’s lead wine critic. E-mail: [email protected]


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