It was a spectacular implosion for an organization that skyrocketed to fame over the previous decade on the coattails of a booming restaurant trade and consumer fascination with wine. The “Somm” series of movies portrayed the dedication and professionalism required to pursue the coveted red lapel pin of the master sommelier, the profession’s highest rank. The films also showed the sacrifices and, to some extent, the recklessness inherent in a professional pursuit centered on the consumption of alcohol.
A cheating scandal in 2018 tarnished the court’s image, and the triple blows of 2020 brought it to the precipice of irrelevance. A lot of money was at stake. Master somms are rare. There are only 172 in the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, out of 269 worldwide. Once they attain their lapel pins, few continue to work the restaurant floor. They typically move on to corporate positions, managing a restaurant group’s beverage program, working with importers or distributors, even wineries. That’s not to say they leave the profession — they often do wine education and training for restaurant staff, and they teach the court’s certification courses and proctor its exams. (Which loops back to the sexual harassment scandal.) If the court were to lose its stature and prestige, the pin would lose its Midas touch.
So in late 2020, the Americas chapter board of directors resigned en masse and members elected a new board, led by two women. (Of the 172 master somms in the chapter, 28 are women.) The new board hired a professional ethicist to revamp its code of ethics, contracted with a firm specializing in workplace harassment issues to transform its organizational culture, and hired a third-party investigator to look into the harassment claims. That investigation culminated in November when the court expelled six members, including Fred Dame, who was the first U.S. sommelier to earn the master title and helped build the organization in the United States.
“We faced a lot of criticism, but when the previous board entirely stepped down, that allowed us to say everything was on the table,” said Emily Wines, the appropriately named chair of the new board of directors. Wines earned her pin in 2008 and is vice president of the beverage program for the Cooper’s Hawk Winery restaurant chain.
To make the organization more professional, the board hired an executive director to handle day-to-day operations. They chose Julie Cohen Theobald, who brought more than two decades of experience as a brand manager for Procter & Gamble as well as work in the nonprofit sector.
Theobald had no experience in the wine or service industry, but she liked the challenge of addressing the court’s scandals.
“There are few opportunities in life to make an impact on gender and diversity issues,” Theobald said in a recent interview. “We may be a small organization, but we have a degree of influence on the industry and maybe even society.”
Since Theobald joined the court last autumn, the board added four new members from outside the wine industry. They brought expertise in human resources, credentialing, hospitality and diversity. The goal is to move to a “classic nonprofit structure” that will have lasting change to ripple through the wine service sector, she said.
Diversity is key to that change. “It’s a male-dominated industry, so we want to make sure it’s a safe space and give women a way to report problems instead of just silently walking away,” Wines said. To that end, the court established an independent hotline for harassment complaints.
It also took steps to improve racial diversity. “We can’t just say our programs are open, we have to look at who’s coming to the door in the first place,” Wines said. “So we created 100 scholarships for people of color, women and people in need to take our introductory program.” Because of the coronavirus pandemic, that program is now online, which eliminates travel costs for candidates to take the exams in big cities.
The new board is also moving away from the celebrity somm to emphasize professionalism.
“It’s a service industry and a trade, so we don’t want to elevate sommeliers as superstars, but elevate the profession,” Wines said. “Especially after covid, the profession has changed a lot, and we need to change with it. When restaurants hit hard times, sommeliers are often the first to be cut. We want to emphasize not just wine knowledge, but how to run a beverage program and a restaurant.”
We may not see lapel pins for master “sommager,” the slang term for a combination sommelier and manager. But by becoming more versatile, the sommelier may become more essential.