One of America’s most prestigious wine organizations is currently under scrutiny after countless allegations of sexual harassment have come to light.
The Americas chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers is an elite wine organization with a reputation for its male dominated leadership. This is clearly seen through the number of people that have received the prestigious title of master sommelier; only 155 people have received this title and yet only 24 out the 155 are women. It is this male dominated leadership that is now being highly criticized over allegations of their complacency and even participation in sexual misconduct.
A total of 21 women have come forward to the New York Times to report their sexual harassment experiences as members of the court. The stories they shared all held similar patterns of abuse: the abuse of power of the male master sommelier towards women who were upcoming candidates for the same prestigious title. The women explain that the road to earning that prestigious title can either be helped or hindered by the master sommeliers themselves, as they are the ones to give letter of recommendations, access to expensive wines for tasting practice and educational trips to wine regions. Moreover, the master sommeliers are also responsible for evaluating the exams that determine if a member can become a master sommelier.
One of the high ranking members accused of sexual harassment by 11 of the women that came forward is former board member Geoff Kruth. The women report that Kruth is widely known to candidates for having a long history of sexual misconduct. In the past women have alleged and reported Kruth for making inappropriate comments, groping, exposing himself and coercing candidates to have sex for favors in return. Rachel van Til one of the women who came forward recounts an instance where Kruth sent her a graphic oral sex guide through text and asked her which position was her favorite. Ms. van Till, disgusted, refused to answer and made a formal complaint to the court’s board. The board in response simply barred Mr. Kruth from evaluating any of Ms. van Till’s future exams with no further consequences. Another woman in the court, Victoria James, alleges that Mr. Kruth offered to give her a recommendation letter that is needed to proceed to the next exam in exchange for sex. James feeling pressured felt she had no option but to agree. James has given a comment saying “I got off the waiting list the next day. I felt dirty and terrible, and that was the end of the court for me.” Kruth has since resigned and even forfeited his title after intense scrutiny from court members and the press.
Recently the Times has further reported that even the chairman of the board himself, David Broglie, has been accused of sexual misconduct. Marie-Louise Friedland, a previous member of the court, alleges that in 2013 Brogile, who was by then already a master sommelier, offered to give her private study sessions in his home. Ms. Friedland comments on the ordeal saying “At first I was flattered, but also very confused and afraid. I never enjoyed our encounters and really tried to make that clear in the hopes that he would stop trying” Ms. Friedland further comments that despite her initial rejections she still had sexual relations with Brogile. “I forced myself in my head to treat it as a fling or relationship … but it never fit. We weren’t dating. We never spoke about it. I felt like I was on call for sex from someone I couldn’t say no to.”
Brogile has resigned as chairman yet still holds membership as part of the court. Another ten men, some who were previously on the board, have also been suspended from the court and are under investigation for sexual misconduct. The board has since apologized to the women and assured that they have hired an independent firm to “examine all allegation to the fullest extent possible.” Furthermore, the court has also created a hotline that allows for members to anonymously report violations like sexual misconduct. In the past, the only way to report these violations was by going to the board itself, which was frustrating for many women as many of the accused were also part of the board.
The women who came forward and many current members have expressed that the recent apologies and actions by the board are not only too late but insufficient. Since the accusations came to light members are demanding for the entire board to be replaced.
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