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Posted: Saturday, 07 November 2020 09:55

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Alpana Singh Resigns as Master Sommelier Due to Sexual Harassment Scandal

Nov 07: Alpana Singh, the Indo-American born to Fiji Indian parents and a Chicago-area restaurateur and host of “Check, Please!” has renounced the highly prestigious MS title after over 20 women accused male members of the group of sexual harassment in a New York Times article, reports Subhash Arora who feels that the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) Americas was not directly involved but many of the senior members took undue advantage of their position, resulting in a significant dent to its prestige and reputation

Alpana Singh made the announcement on Wednesday night in an Instagram post, a week after a New York Times article on October 29 gave lucid details of the accusations made against male members of the CMS Americas. 21 women reported they had been sexually harassed, manipulated or assaulted by male Master Sommeliers.

“We don’t realize the insidious social programming to stay silent, to not make a ruckus, to do whatever we need to do to stay within the boundaries, and it’s a self-preservation method.  Where my guilt and complicity lies, is that I did what was the most comfortable thing for both sides,” she reportedly told the Chicago Tribune.

First South Asian to become MS

“I was the first South Asian and Woman of Colour to become a Master Sommelier and now I am the first to resign,” Singh renounced her title as a Master Sommelier in the Court, a title she acquired in 2003 when 26, making her the youngest American woman as well as the first coloured woman ever to achieve the level. She had come to Chicago from California in 2000 as wine director of Everest, an acclaimed fine-dining restaurant.

Also Read: Richard Betts MS : Resigns from Court of Master Sommeliers America

Alpana gave up the title in solidarity with the women who came forward to complain. She said the master sommelier certification opened doors for her and she leveraged the title to build her reputation, both of which have caused her to feel immensely guilty now that she’s fully aware of the accusations against members of the organization.

The women who reported their accusations to the Times shared accounts in which sex was the cost of professional advancement. Many said they ended up abandoning their goals because of the alleged abuse.

Shaken but not stirred

Seven members of the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas, an elite body of wine professionals, have been suspended from all court activities, and another has resigned after a New York Times report last week on the group's long-time pattern of sexual harassment and conflicts of interest. Greg Harrington, Eric Entrikin, Robert Bath, Matt Stamp, Matthew Citriglia, Drew Hendricks and Fred Dame, the first Master Sommelier and co-founder of the CMS have been suspended from the Court activities and will be subject to an external investigation, as required by California law.

Each one already holds the title, and has tremendous influence over the women’s ability to advance in the profession. Each man has been accused of sexual misconduct involving women who were candidates for the court’s top title.

Also Read: Indian American Master Sommelier Alpana Singh back on Popular TV Show

One more MS goes

Last Sunday, Geoff Kruth, a prominent educator and Founder of GuildSomm, a spin-off organisation of CMS, who was also a Speaker at the first Must-Fermenting Ideas-an International Wine Conference in Portugal attended by Subhash Arora in 2017, also resigned after his shenanigans with women came out.  Eleven women who had been candidates told The NY Times that he had tried to pressure them into sex, sometimes in exchange for professional favours.  He admitted to having only consensual sexual relations, however. 

For more gory details, read another Article in NY Times.

Why the revelation now

Why the sudden revelation, one might wonder? Last month, CMS 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 which has often included the men accused and thus a conflict of interest.

Many of the women said they were told that sexual relationships between male Masters and candidates were common and widely accepted (think recent accusations in Bollywood in India!). The court’s non-fraternization policy does not explicitly prohibit such relationships, as long as they are disclosed to the board and do not create any conflict of interest.

These women said that they had 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 been aware for a long time.

Prestigious organisation, powerful male members

Only 155 people including 24 women have achieved the honour since the American chapter was founded in 1997. Though the candidates have to spend a huge amount to earn the title, they are well-paid once they become Master Sommeliers. According to an internal survey conducted in 2017, the median annual income of an MS was $164,000 with a median consulting rate of $1,000 per day for this breed.

Grading of the final test is laced with secrecy and is in the hands of examiners who are senior ranked Master Sommeliers. Letters of recommendation, access to expensive wines for tasting practice and educational trips to wine regions are all in the hands of the seniors who are older white men with a lot of power. One Master Sommelier reportedly propositioned at least 15 candidates. The system has turned women into a bastion of sexual harassment and coercion, according to New York Times.

Many women who entered the programme subsequently dropped out as a result of this pestering and one male even reportedly said that among certain men, there was no attempt to hide it and no shame in it.

Also Read: Easier to be a ‘Somm’ than a Master Sommelier

Mired with controversies

CMS has been mired by controversies on earlier occasions too. In 2018, it 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 Master Sommeliers including those who were not suspected, were suspended. An investigation later revealed that the vice chairman of the board had sexual relationships with two women who took the exam that day but did not disclose the fact to the board.

In June this year, there was yet another case where the Court smirked of white supremacy and did not raise any voice on the ‘Black Lives Matter’ riots that swept across the USA. It did eventually make a feeble attempt of solidarity with blacks and announced its support for a couple of black wine groups. Too little too late! In fact, one of its bright Master Sommeliers, Richard Betts, resigned from the Court because of these two incidents.

Too little, too late

As a remedial measure, all members will henceforth be required to sign and updated Code of Ethics which includes much “stronger language” on sexual harassment, coercion and discrimination and all members participating in CMS-A programmes will be required to undergo sexual harassment training, according to the Drinks Business.

CMS might be tardy in reacting to the gender issues and sexual harassment but is very prompt in keeping its website updated. You would not find the names of Geoff Kruth and Alpana Singh in the list of members.

Also Read: Blog: Singh- The Tee-Total True Singh

While apologising to women subjected to the trauma and keeping quiet about it, Alpana says she wants to be respectful and mindful of all the women, and other good players, who decide to stay in the court.

But the CMS Americas is not salvageable because of systemic problems built into the organization, she feels.

Subhash Arora

delWine salutes Alpana Singh for taking a bold stand and be the first woman to have let go of the prestigious title because of the attitude of male members towards the women candidates at the Court of Master Sommeliers-editor

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