Lia Jones had passed the introductory and certified examinations for the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas (CMSA), garnered her level-three Wine & Spirit Education Trust award, and been certified through the Sommelier Society of America. She was highly credentialed when, in 2014, she decided to go for CMSA’s advanced certification. She had her eye on the coveted Master Sommelier title after that. For support through the process, Jones went looking for a mentor.
“They didn’t have any Black female MSs,” she says, so she contacted one of the Court’s few Black males. “I realized everybody that’s Black is probably reaching out to him. He’s one person in the spotlight getting all these diverse people asking for mentorship,” she recalls. “He didn’t say he wouldn’t mentor me, but he wanted to see effort. What do I aspire to do?”
That was tough for Jones to show because in New York, where she lived, she had been looking in vain for a wine gig. The Court requires both current restaurant employment and two years of restaurant work within the seven years prior to applying for the advanced. She was turned down for 76 jobs. “I kept every email,” she says, “because that is crazy. If you’re certified and can’t get a job, what do you do?”
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Moving to Los Angeles, she found the market as tough. Finally, in 2018, she landed a position at NoMad LA. But she needed letters of recommendation for her advanced course application. Though the Court’s executive director, Kathleen Lewis, says those didn’t have to come from MSs, Jones says that they did. She wrote to the few she could find in Southern California. No one replied.
In an organization that prides itself on mentorship, no one helped Lia Jones — not with mentorship, recommendations, or even acknowledgement of her emails. Says Jones, founder and executive director of Diversity in Wine and Spirits, an organization that assists companies in the hospitality industry with diversity and inclusion initiatives: “The barriers for me as a Black female were different from my white male counterparts. I wondered, ‘What is my need to become an MS when there are so many barriers?’”
Though the Court has since dropped the recommendations requirement, Jones’ story is not unique. It is illustrative of the problems with access, inclusion, transparency, and diversity for which the CMSA now finds itself called out. Shrouded in pomp and circumstance, made famous by the “SOMM” film series, the Court is the nation’s premiere wine educator. It confers the MS title; it has taught tens of thousands of aspiring sommeliers. It is a powerful influencer in an industry that, critics say, has ignored Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) talent. Now, BIPOC wine professionals and their allies are demanding that the CMSA board of directors work on diversity and equity within the Court and across the industry. To do so, this elite organization must acknowledge its implicit biases, overhaul its structure, and fix its culture to support an increasingly diverse talent pool — and to stay relevant in a food and drink landscape that is evolving.
With high-profile resignations and leadership fumbles igniting a debate about the organization’s very need to exist, it’s do-or-die time for CMSA. As sommelier Tahiirah Habibi, founder of HUE Society, a hub for BIPOC wine pros, puts it: “You are either anti-racist or you support racism. You’re fixing it, or you are going to get caught on the not-OK side.” As a newly appointed diversity committee begins its work amid tumult, the Court of Master Sommeliers is scrambling to wake and do right.
‘They Were Botching This Thing’
On May 25, when protests erupted over George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, “within the wine industry, people were adamant that there is no more patience for gradual changes,” says Vincent Morrow, MS, the wine and service director at San Francisco’s ONE65, and one of few persons of color in the Court. “We need stuff to happen now.”
Across social media, organizations quickly pledged to work on anti-racism. The Court was not among them. On June 7, CMSA board chairman Devon Broglie, the global beverage buyer for Whole Foods, finally emailed the 172 Master Sommeliers who were the Court’s members, then quietly posted an anti-racism statement to its website. It contained few specifics as to the diversity actions he and the other leaders would take. The board stayed silent over social media until June 17, when it finally announced to members and the public that it was forming a diversity committee “to determine best practices for diversifying our member pool.” But by then, the damage had been done.
Earlier, Habibi had posted a video in which she related her horror, as a Black woman, at being told during her CMSA introductory exam a decade prior to address the proctor as “Master.” She detailed how the Court had added insult to injury by including the Hue Society in its initial anti-racism statement. The unsolicited mention looked, erroneously, like an endorsement from her organization. Afterward, Broglie revised his statement, removing Hue Society from it and outlining the Board’s initial steps toward diversity and inclusion.
Master Sommeliers resigned over the board’s stalling and missteps: First Richard Betts, co-owner of An Approach to Relaxation wines and Casa Komos Beverage Group, and a 17-year veteran of the Court; then Brian McClintic, owner of Viticole Wine Club and a star of the “SOMM” films; and Nate Ready, co-owner of Oregon’s Hiyu Wine Farm, who had been an MS since he was 28. Others, like Dustin Wilson, co-owner of bicoastal retailer Verve Wine, took to social media “to get in the board’s face,” he says. “They were botching this thing. It reflected on everybody who has the MS title. Just because I’m a Master Sommelier doesn’t mean I’m involved in their communications. I have zero control over that.”
Wilson’s frustration bespeaks problems with transparency and structure that everyone I interviewed, from board members to resigned MSs and outside observers, said are endemic to the Court. These issues, argues Habibi, can derail diversity efforts. “You don’t want to bring inclusion into a structure that’s still racist and broken. You have to fix your systems first,” she says.
‘There’s Really No Need for Secrecy’
There was no ill intent behind the Court’s slow response, says CMSA board member Christopher Bates, MS, co-owner of Upstate New York’s F.L.X. Hospitality. “The board is a volunteer position. I don’t want it to come off as an excuse, but there are thousands of fires in everybody’s life, trying to find our way through Covid. Things also take time, and I think it’s important that we took time to consider what to do.”
But as Jill Zimorski, MS, senior specialist of education with Strategic Group, representing Moët Hennessy, points out, “the longer you’re silent, the longer people can interpret your silence.”
Rumors flew. In his resignation letter, McClintic stated that the board’s heel-dragging was in part because decisions were required to be unanimous. Broglie says that’s untrue; under his tenure, the board operates by majority vote. “But it is important that we have a strong consensus when we make big moves,” he told me. “Rather than the performance of social media, we wanted to make sure that we were taking constructive action. But the statement on social media didn’t come fast enough, with hindsight.”
Zimorski isn’t buying it. Even while you’re considering larger changes, how hard can it be to speak out against racism? “This is an organization of humans that does exams for other humans. Our industry is about taking care of people,” she says. “I don’t think it’s very complicated.”
Time and again, MSs have spoken out against the CMSA board’s inscrutability. It played out in 2018 following the disclosure that a blind-tasting proctor had fed answers to a small group of examinees. The board revoked the MS title from all 23 who passed. The decision “put this credential over human lives and screwed with people’s ability to earn a living,” says Betts. “We said, ‘We need accountability, facts. You serve the membership.’ All we got was a stonewall.”
Zimorski was among the 23. She re-tested the following year. “This is an organization that administers wine tests,” she says. “There’s really no need for secrecy, except with the wines we’re blind tasting.”
‘How Are You Going to Hold Us Accountable?’
If the workings of the Court are mysterious for members, they’re more so for the rest of the wine world. “They’ve created this allure,” says Larissa Dubose, director of education for the just-launched talent resource, Black Wine Professionals, and a CMSA-certified sommelier. “This isn’t the time to be enigmatic. Let’s see what you’re doing to promote inclusivity.”
With MSs Alpana Singh, owner of Evanston, Ill.’s Terra & Vine and Chicago’s AMT Hospitality consulting firm; Jonathan Ross, co-owner of Legend Imports; and Emily Wines, who runs the wine programs at Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants, Zimorski circulated a petition on the Court’s internal forum, gathering signatures to force the board to act on diversity. “There was so much initial pushback,” says Zimorski. “People said, ‘This isn’t a political group.’ I said, ‘This isn’t a political matter. This is about identity, who you are, and what you love.’”
The petitioners prevailed, and the CMSA board took up many of their suggestions. It raised $10,000 through the first of its virtual tastings to benefit a scholarship fund for BIPOC students. It announced the end of the “Master” address. As co-chairs of the diversity committee, it appointed June Rodil, a partner at Houston-based Goodnight Hospitality, and board member Thomas Price, estate division educator for Jackson Family Wines. The co-chairs chose five other MSs, including Morrow, Wines, and Carlton McCoy, president and CEO of Napa’s Heitz Cellars, who had taken to Instagram after Betts’ resignation to declare that quitting was a privilege that he, as a Black man, did not have or desire. He was staying on to transform the Court for the sake of Black candidates after him.
Three weeks in, the committee has hired poet, activist, and noted corporate trainer Azure Antoinette — a TedX speaker whom Forbes magazine calls “the Maya Angelou of the Millennial generation” — as the membership’s implicit bias trainer. They are looking to her for lasting effects. Says Rodil, “We asked her, ‘How are you going to hold us accountable and give us the skills to continue to do this as we move forward and not just have a training session be, ‘I learned this. I’m good?’”
‘Being Color Blind Isn’t Being Diverse’
The Court has long thought itself equitable, despite the sea of white male faces in the MS lookbook. “We’ve believed that the organization has been entirely inclusive, that we’ve held to a strict non-discrimination policy, and that the meritocracy of our exams speaks for itself,” says Broglie. “In the past month, we’re learning that’s not enough.”
Inclusion work involves probing questions, says Jones: “Do you have a diversity policy? Who structured it? How did you choose the diversity committee? Who is on your board? Who is implementing other programs? Where are you giving the exams? Are they accessible? Who are your students?”
CMSA is hard-pressed to answer that last one. Says Thomas Price: “When I passed in 2012, I was pretty sure I was the only person of African-American descent to ever do it. I called our PR department and said, ‘You need to check this for me, if I’m going to say it to people.’ They vetted it really well.”
That may be, but why wasn’t this information transparent? In 2019, when I was working on a profile of Court founder Fred Dame, Lewis could tell me that 28 Master Sommeliers were women. She could not say how many women had studied or examined at any level, only that “the Court is gender-neutral when it comes to examinations and enrollment.” But if the Court kept statistics, perhaps it could follow the trajectory of women students, see where they fell off in the process, and examine why a demographic that’s more than half the U.S. population has only 16 percent of the Court’s memberships.
There’s even less information about race and ethnicity. In her experience with the Court, says Dubose, “I’ve never been asked who I am. Maybe my pronouns, but never ethnic background or race. Being color blind right now isn’t being diverse because that shows there isn’t any color in the organization.”
Broglie says demographics collection is now on the table. Rodil wants the questions to go further: “One big thing is getting a better database of our students and information on the mentorships they seek. Many MSs were interested in being on the diversity committee, so we asked them for a commitment to mentorship, and they all said yes for BIPOC students.”
Mentorship is crucial to navigating the MS exam. “I never would’ve passed if I hadn’t been surrounded by people who gave me the code,” says Nate Ready, who was working at MS Bobby Stuckey’s restaurant Frasca at the time. “You didn’t just study wine. Someone on the inside had to give you insight on what kind of knowledge was important. That can be used to control who gets in.”
Over the years, the Court has circled wagons around the MS credential, sacrificing pedagogy for an increasingly impossible test, says Betts. “Do you have 10 years and $10,000 dollars for a 3 percent chance to pass? No one would make that bet,” he says.
The diversity committee, says Wines, will “take a hard look at teaching materials, examinations, and the ways we interact with candidates to make sure there’s no implicit bias or anything we are doing unintentionally or intentionally that stops them from pursuing our programs.”
Wilson says that will involve a shift in the Court’s self-image. “Leadership’s first order of business is always communicating to the membership,” he says. “That’s simply Master Somms up to date on dues. The board doesn’t think about others that have a vested interest, people who’ve taken first, second, or third level. By the time they’re advanced, they’ve been giving us money and studying for years. You can’t tell someone who wears that advanced pin on the floor of their restaurant that they’re not part of the organization.”
‘It Should Not Just Be Old White Guys’
In 2018, in the wake of the cheating scandal, says Wilson, “it became clear that the board doesn’t think in the same way that younger, more progressive members think.” Fired up, he considered running, until he realized he wasn’t eligible. He had spent eight years in the Court proctoring at other levels, but he hadn’t observed at an MS exam, a prerequisite for a board seat. Echoing the words of Lia Jones, he says, “The barrier to entry is very high.”
Broglie acknowledges the problem. “It takes 16 years on average to pass the MS exam. Then it takes five or six years to become eligible to run for the board. Someone is in their 40s before they can even run. So how do we capture fresh perspectives?” The sticking point for him is balancing new voices with a proven commitment. “Are you willing to take the time to work through the system to prove that you have the dedication?” he asks.
Wilson says the high bar leads to board elections with just a handful of candidates. “You get this revolving door of similar people,” he says. “You get less connected with what’s happening on the ground, what young somms are thinking and care about.”
Wines is more blunt: “It should not just be old white guys.”
‘We Need to Be Less Myopic’
The diversity committee serves an advisory role. To get things done, it must go to the board. But its members are trying to shake the board out of an in-group mentality. “The diversity committee is identifying for us that there is a perceived aloofness,” says Broglie.
The Court’s social media platforms are just two years old, and they’ve been used to broadcast, not interact. That’s not how new generations communicate, say critics, and the Court has a responsibility to dialogue with the industry. To be more inclusive, says Rodil, “we need to be less myopic.”
Essential to the task is the question of access. “We’ve had a policy that the door is open to everyone. We’ve come to be sensitive that not everybody has access to that door in the first place,” says Wines. “How can we reach out to other communities, proactively increasing diversity in our industry?”
Covid-19 has done some of that accessibility work by pushing the Court into online learning. The diversity committee is also talking about developing wine programs at historically black colleges and universities. Then there’s economic access. CMSA courses are costly, and blind tasting takes practice.
“The dirty secret is you need to taste thousands of dollars of wine to pass,” says Singh, who is the CMSA’s only MS of South Asian descent. “The bullshit that I had to go through, it shouldn’t be that difficult.” Unlike her white male counterparts, she says, “I was not getting invited to tastings, panels, conferences. The only thing you can muster up is they’re white and a man. We’re in similar buying positions, but they’re friends with the distributor? There was an assumption that you’re not going to turn the opportunity into dollars for them. How many good men and women have we lost because they didn’t feel welcome?”
Morrow wants CMSA to use its clout as a bully pulpit for inclusion. “We have to change the industry, not just the Court. That’s how you make a lasting impact.”
Habibi agrees. “The Court happens to be at the top of the wine world, and if they get their shit together, others flow,” she says.
‘There’s a Tectonic Shift, Then There’s an Earthquake’
Right now, with the hospitality industry stalled, “Covid-19 has provided the Court with this padding,” says Ross. “This is the first year we won’t have an MS exam, and it’s an opportunity to regain trust.”
But the pandemic is a double-edged sword. Though she commends the Court for its diversity efforts, Jones says, “I don’t think people are going to pay that amount of money for certification for a job that’s becoming obsolete under Covid-19.”
The wine world has long been transforming. “The Court was born out of a different era when it was all European wines and white guys at auctions or high-end restaurants,” says Wines. “We did not take into account back then the middle tier we see today, the range around the world, and the fact that a lot of somms are not white, male, or straight. There’s diversity in the community and kinds of restaurants.”
What’s happening, Singh says, is “a tectonic shift from the old generation to the new. There’s a tectonic shift, and then there’s an earthquake. Sometimes it’s a little quibble, but other times, there’s a shaking up.”
For the Court, the current moment is a 10 on the Richter scale. “Gen Z does not mess around,” Singh says. “They want equality, diversity, fairness. And the wine buyer of tomorrow is probably a BIPOC sommelier.” The CMSA should be thinking ahead, Singh contends, putting itself in the position of a Black MS candidate and thinking about the factors she needs to be successful. That means helping candidates with access and opportunity, and making sure they see themselves represented in the Court’s membership.
“Otherwise,” Singh says, “we’re just outdated.”