Sommeliers Speak Out

After writing an omnibus article on the problems facing the Court of Master Sommeliers, we heard from many high-profile sommeliers who did not like how we portrayed the Court. Below are excerpts of the comments.

Note: We removed many of the ad hominem attacks from their statements. We also edited comments for clarity and brevity. The full unedited versions are in the comments under the original article:

Following their statements, I have included my response.

Steven McDonald, Master Sommelier

 If I’m reading this right, you are somehow responsible for your employer’s political views? Also, does the author have evidence about sexual violence as it directly relates to the court? If so I would be interested to see that. But it doesn’t seem to be in the article… The author’s arguments are non-sequiturs and their basic misunderstanding of how non-profits work leads them to sensationalist conclusions.

Brandon Tebbe, MS

Whispers are not facts. They are usually derived from individuals scorned over not passing some level of the exams. Perhaps before deciding to take down an organization over rumor and conjecture….take part in CMS with an open mind and see for yourself what is fact and fiction.

Brandon Tebbe, Master Sommelier
Court of Master Sommeliers
Lead Sommelier at Encore Boston Harbor

As both a female and a Democrat, I do not believe a boycott is reasonable. It’s ridiculous to hold individuals responsible for the donations or political leanings of the company they are employed by.

I also don’t agree with the claim that you have to know the “right” people to succeed, since I had NO master sommelier recommendation letters and still got into the exams.

To blame the Court for the harassment of women in the wine industry and various other offenses listed, without so much as mentioning the disparities of giant wine corporations such as Constellation or other educational routes such as WSET or CWE, is both irresponsible and biased.

Brian Browning Sommelier

As a Master of Wine (MW) candidate and person of color, I believe this entire outlook is absolute insanity… I also believe that automatically assuming a person, business, or organization is immediately evil because they are Republican shows a level of ignorance that ironically is what they are complaining about… Of course, I am against sexual violence (being a victim), as well as hate and prejudice (being a victim), but to look at the world and this organization in such a narrow-minded, ignorant, and purely fascist way makes you no better than what you are fighting against.

The Institute of Masters of Wine

Our Response to the Sommeliers Defending the CMS

We understand your concerns surrounding our previous article. We can distill the arguments to the following:

  • An individual is not responsible for the politics of their employers.
  • The Court is not responsible for sexual violence in the restaurant industry.
  • We are partisan hacks/crazy leftists looking to discredit the Court.

You are correct that an individual is not responsible for their employer’s politics. However, we are not talking about private individuals. We are talking about the Board of directors of a nonprofit trade organization: duties and ethical obligations bind anyone who accepts such a position.

Let’s get the technical information out of the way and then talk about their implications.

The Court of Master Sommeliers is a 501 C (6) Charity Organization registered in California. According to California Code, Corporations Code – CORP § 5210, the Board is responsible, under the law, for the charity’s acts and omissions. Therefore, board members have two basic duties: a duty of care to the corporation and loyalty. The duty of care is fundamentally about acting prudently. The duty of loyalty is fundamentally about putting the corporation’s interests before the director’s interests.

Under IRS rules, the Court is a nonprofit trade association. As such, it must represent an entire industry and promote the common interests of its members. Furthermore, it must not provide services to individuals the way a for-profit business does.

The Court of Master Sommeliers was established to encourage improved standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants. Education was then, and remains today, the Court’s charter.

Court of Master Sommeliers, americas

TL;DR: A significant amount of the CMSa budget is supplied by a major Republican donor, and other Republican donors mostly employ its Board. Our article was not about shaming individuals for being Republicans. It’s to point out that the Court’s Board does not represent its membership at any level. If you are a Democrat, woman, or person of color, you should have much more representation on the Board than you do.

The claim that the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas (CMSa), is only culpable if there is a direct link to rape and sexual violence is incorrect. The CMSa makes the legal argument that they are the trade association for sommeliers in the restaurant trade. Being a trade association allows them to be a tax-free 501 (c) 6 nonprofit. This is a double-edged sword. In exchange for not being taxed, a trade association is obligated to promote the general interest of its members and the entire industry.

Let’s take a look at how a similar trade association dealt with rising reports of sexual assault in the workplace during the #metoo movement:

The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) said more than 5,000 hotels and resorts in the U.S. have offered employees safety devices and training this year specifically aimed at tackling sexual harassment in the workplace. The group said another 15,000 hotel properties have committed to offer safety devices and training to workers by 2020.

Huffington Post, Oct 10, 2019

The AHLA spent months working to keep hotel employees safe from assault. The CMSa has the same obligations and a similar workforce but did nothing. As members of the sommelier community, it is up to the CMSa –our trade association– to take a stand on sexual violence. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to criticize CMSa for failing to act on this grave problem.

A Final Thought

We do not have a political agenda, as some have claimed. We want sommeliers to take a long and hard look at the CMS and demand that it does better. We are not asking for a lot.

  • We are asking for its board of directors to reflect its members. Sommeliers are not just white male Republicans.
  • We ask the Court to address the ongoing scandals that threaten to tarnish everyone who is a member.
  • We are asking the Court to address the racism and sexual violence within our trade.

If the Court can’t address these issues, it may be time to boycott the Court of Master Sommeliers until they address these systematic shortcomings.

Opposing Viewpoints from the Sommelier Community
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6 thoughts on “Opposing Viewpoints from the Sommelier Community

  • 31st December 2021 at 5:52 am

    As a Canadian member of the court – Who cares about the democrat/republican views of some members of the board?
    As a white male, many of my mentors are LGBT and or BIPOC, many that I teach are BIPOC and or LGBT. Politics shouldn’t have such a prevalent space, especially to be used as a divisive argument.

    I’m sorry but this is totally an American-centric mentality that everything is ”Us against Them” and seriously, can we just aim at fixing the sexual assault and racism, and leave the politics out of Everything?

    I, for one, wishes for a wine industry that isn’t politized and aims for the bettering of our industry, its members and its image in general.

    • 4th January 2022 at 12:37 pm

      If you are not aware–how could you not?–the inclusion of BIPOC and LGBT are a the core of politics in America. Pretending that isn’t the case is simply allowing the injustices to continue.

      There is no reason to support a racist and misogynist company except for one reason: you don’t want to lose status. That is a terrible reason to defend a corrupt instition. If you are a proponent of diversity as you, then you really cannot support a company that has a decades-long track record of promoting and nurturing white men over all others.

      This is not a USA issue, but a universal one.

  • 2nd December 2021 at 10:02 am

    Having known a couple of these fellows & familiar with their behavior while representing the Cof M program. I have to say they nneded to be stopped.Do i believe this organization had to upended for this NO but as a participating member a lot was wrong with the program. Besides it was outdated in its goals.

  • Pingback:Is it time to boycott the Court of Master Sommeliers?

  • 7th November 2020 at 8:01 am

    “We are asking for its board of directors to reflect it’s members. Sommeliers are not just white male Republicans.”

    Agreed on the overall gender and racial representation of the court board, but I’m really not understanding the argument you’ve presented with regard to political affiliation. You’re arguing the court is employed by and funded by Republicans, but then somehow equating that to the board individuals also being non-representative of Democrats and made up of Republicans. That doesn’t make any sense. How many individuals in the industry are employed by the corporations you’re calling out that also serve in leadership positions in various industry non-profits? Are they also inherently Republican or representing Republican interests? How many wineries are there that have owners that contribute heavily to Republican/conservative causes? Are they on our wine lists? On our retail shelves? This is a pretty slippery slope.

    • 8th November 2020 at 10:09 am

      As a Calfornia non-profit, the CMS board of directors has specific legal obligations to represent their constituents, which in their charter is the wine trade in general. We point out their Republican-centric affiliations because that shows they are failing these requirements in many ways.


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