More than 20 women have come forward to describe the culture of sexual harassment and abuse they suffered at the hands of master sommeliers and other prestigious members of the wine industry in an explosive new report.
In the U.S., the organization that conducts the exam for the master sommelier accreditation, the wine world’s most esteemed honor, is the Napa-based nonprofit, the Court of Master Sommeliers. Only 24 of the 155 people who have achieved the sought-after status are women.
More than a dozen of the women interviewed by the New York Times accused the court’s co-founder and honorary “chair emeritus,” Fred Dame, of sexual innuendo and unwanted touching.
One of the court’s leading educators, Geoff Kruth, was accused of sexual misconduct by 11 of the women who spoke to the Times, including Jane Lopez, 35, who alleged he suddenly slid his fingers inside her underwear and kissed her breast after a 2013 dinner in New York.
Kruth, 35, was also the president of GuildSomm, an educational spinoff of the court — until he resigned last week “to remove the Guild from any controversy,” his lawyer said in a statement to the Times.
He was featured in the 2012 Netflix documentary “Somm,” which chronicled the intense accreditation process for master sommeliers.
The report also includes allegations against at least one other board member and several master sommeliers.
One of the women said she was raped by a master sommelier after meeting him at a Manhattan wine event in 2018.
The woman, Kate Ham, 31, did not name her attacker in the article but said that she moved back home to Nashville to start her own wine business after she repeatedly ran into him at industry events in the Big Apple.
“I have no interest in the court now,” she said. “I have no desire to be tested and judged by these people.”
Several other women also said they faced such fierce harassment at the hands of educators, mentors and others in the wine world that they abandoned their dreams of becoming master sommeliers.
Some of the women said they felt as though giving into the unwanted advances was the only way they could advance in the field.
“Sexual aggression is a constant for women somms. We can’t escape it, so we learn to live with it,” said Madeleine Thompson, 28, who opted out of the qualification process because of alleged harassment by several master sommeliers.
“It’s a compromise we shouldn’t have to make,” Thompson, who now works as a wine director in Dallas, told the Times.
Last month, the court launched a hotline for anonymous reporting of ethical violations, including sexual misconduct. The court’s representative said it had recently received its first formal complaint of misconduct against Dame, and was “actively following up.”
The court said in a statement that it expected members “to uphold the highest standards of professional conduct and integrity at all times.”
It has “investigated every accusation of such conduct that has been brought to their attention,” and imposed multiple disciplinary sanctions, the statement said.
Dame, 67, did not respond to requests for comment from the Times. Kruth denied the allegations through his attorneys.