Dec 07: Rocked by an unprecedented sex scandal in high places of the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas, and in an attempt to save the reputation of the elite institute, the Board has been reconstituted with minor changes and banning sexual encounters between the mentors and female students, writes Subhash Arora who feels it is too little too late to salvage the situation and the institution needs a complete overhaul which might not be palatable to the echelons accused of sexual improprieties in a big way as the current action is not likely to stem the rot
Less than 2 months after the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas (CMSA) was rocked by the sexual harassment scandal of the budding female Master Sommeliers at the hands of predators-the senior Master Somms either mentoring them or conducting tastings or written tests-compounded by the accusation of racism during the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protest last summer and the 2018 cheating scandal involving women candidates, the elite body has elected a new board of directors.
The 11 new members include 7 whites, 3 women, 2 Asian-Americans and 2 gays (delWine wonders why the emphasis on gays!). The outgoing board had 14 members-11 white, two women, one Black man and no gay. 12 men are under investigation for having inappropriate relations with female candidates-ranging from unacceptable touches to quid pro quo, opening the doors by naked men for women and even sexual assaults. Women quoted in the NYT article had claimed that many board members had been aware of the abuse but condoned it. Some of them were even directly involved.
Also Read: Alpana Singh Resigns as Master Sommelier Due to Sexual Harassment Scandal
One of them, Geoff Kruth, resigned from the court; while 11 were suspended, pending the results of outside investigations. However, they had been eligible to vote in the election, both according to the non-profit governance laws in California where it is located.
The revelations of systemic sexual abuse, coming after recent accusations of racism and suspicions about favouritism from the notorious cheating scandal in 2018, have threatened the organization’s credibility and reputation. Younger members, including most of the women making about 15 percent of the total, feel a drastic change is needed to promote transparency, diversity and ethical standards.
Since the court’s newest members are not allowed to run for a place on the Board (minimum 2 years after certification), there has been a lack of diversity in the members: 13 of the 18 candidates were white men, ensuring them a majority, and there were no Black candidates.
According to The New York Times, which caused the furore with global rumblings and members resigning or being suspended, the new female members of the board are: Emily Wines, Mia Van De Water and Kathryn Morgan.
Also Read: Richard Betts MS : Resigns from Court of Master Sommeliers America
Nothing much else has changed materially except that 4 additional seats have been created in the Board-reserved for people from outside the Court. Moreover, the CEO will also be hired from outside to oversee day-to-day operations. Curiously, there is no HR department where the complaints of harassment can be made and needs to be seriously looked into. Significantly, sexual relationships between Master Sommeliers as the mentors and the female MS candidates are now banned- an area with reportedly the maximum abuse.
Following the scandal, three female Master Sommeliers – Alpana Singh of Indian origin, Laura Fiorvanti and Pascaline Lepeltier have already suspended their membership to the CMS-A in protest. "Removing just two initials at the end of my name doesn't take away all I have done," reportedly says Alpana Singh, adding that she felt guilty to enjoy the benefits but not asking questions about the going-on with other women pursuing the course. “The concept of the Court is to serve with integrity, humility and honour and we failed to live up to our own code," she rues. Curiously, when she started studying for the title, she was underage but no one in the organization even bothered to check her date of birth initially.
Some of the other 23 American and Canadian Female Master Sommeliers are wondering if they too should give up their hard-earned pins and walk away from their elite credentials. However, the MS title implies an enormous investment of time and money. It ensures access to lucrative job opportunities and travel to iconic vineyards, enjoying fine wines and other perks. The combination of money and power gives men an unfair balance of power over increasing number of women who have long succumbed. Incidentally, the Basic and Certification Course started in Mumbai, India a couple of years ago, is tied with the UK arm of the Court.
Marie-Louise Friedland is a Certified Sommelier, studying for her MS certification. She had approached The New York Times (NYT) with her experience since she didn't trust the Court to address the issue fairly.
Also Read: Seeds for SOMM to be Sowed in India
It is not that the women have complained of rape-most have conceded it was consensual but clearly tainted by the strong power balance that the officiating MasterSomms had in making or breaking the careers of these women- similar to the Casting Couch in Bollywood. Talking about her mentor predator Marie-Louise admits, "He mentored me for the blind tasting part of the exam at his house. We would study and then the switch flipped and it became more consensual sex. " Geoff Kruth, has been termed as Super-predator who was asked to resign when the story appeared first in NYT.
This is apparently not the end of the full story. As they say in Bollywood, ‘Picture abhee baaki hai, mere dost!’ (the movie has still not come to end, my friend!)
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