In the wine world, perhaps no title is more coveted than that of master sommelier. But the New York Times has uncovered a pattern of harassment, sexual abuse, and rape perpetrated by master sommeliers and members of the title-granting organization, which has traumatized and made life near impossible for women who train for the title. Included in Julia Moskin’s Times report are accounts of women who were harassed so intensely that they stopped training entirely.
In the United States, the title of master sommelier is awarded to those who endure years of study, often with the assistance of GuildSomm, an educational resource and spinoff community of the Americas chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers; it was made famous in the 2012 film Somm. While many of the 12,000-plus members of the court and the GuildSomm community are young women, only 24 of the 155 people who have achieved master sommelier status since 1997 have been women.
One of the experts featured in Somm is Geoff Kruth, one of the court’s leading educators. Kruth is also the founder and president of GuildSomm. In the Times reporting, 11 women recounted experiences of sexual misconduct by Kruth, who denied any wrongdoing. One woman, a Charleston, South Carolina sommelier named Ivy Anderson, recalls taking Kruth’s champagne class when she was 22. Soon after, seeing that she had bought a ticket to GuildSomm’s 2016 holiday party in New York, he invited her to dinner. According to the Times, he also “invited her, she said, to stay in a Manhattan hotel with him and other court members.” But when she arrived at the hotel, Anderson noticed there was only one bed in Kruth’s room. He told Anderson he and his wife had “an open relationship” and that “sex between master sommeliers and candidates was common.” Anderson, who knew no one in New York, and had nowhere else to stay, recalls feeling that she had no choice but to go along when he initiated sex.
Alleged accounts of Kruth and other powerful men sexually manipulating women in the training program and leveraging their power are numerous throughout the report. Jane Lopes, a 35-year-old wine importer in New York, told the Times that after a dinner in 2013, Kruth “suddenly slid his fingers inside her underpants and kissed her breast.” Rachel van Til, who at the time was a wine director in metro Detroit, recalls being flattered when Kruth reached out online to offer to help with her work. After some professional back-and-forth messages between the two, Kruth “sent her a link to a graphic oral-sex guide, and asked which position was her favorite.” Til filed a formal complaint with the court’s board, and Kruth was barred from judging any of her future exams.
But herein lies one of the educational organization’s most deeply rooted failures: the secrecy surrounding the final test to become a master sommelier. “Grading of the final test is cloaked in secrecy,” writes Moskin, “determined by examiners drawn from the senior ranks of master sommeliers.” These are sometimes the very same sommeliers weaponizing their power to harass, abuse, and rape female students and those adjacent to them in the industry. Many of the women interviewed by the Times say that they believed interacting with — and sometimes sleeping with — these men was the only way to advance in their field.
Alexandra Fox recalls receiving an unprompted message in 2011 from Matthew Citriglia, a board member on the court from 2005 to 2017. Fox shared with the Times that Citriglia told her in his message that he was coming to Tampa, Florida for “a group dinner for wine professionals.” Only, no one else showed up for the “group dinner” and Citriglia made a pass at Fox when dinner was over. According to the Times reporting:
Mr. Citriglia apologized repeatedly, Ms. Fox said, and she agreed to take a class he was teaching a few weeks later in Cleveland. One night, she slept with a fellow student; when Mr. Citriglia found out the next morning, he closed the classroom door in her face as the class watched. Months later, concerned that he might be an examiner on future exams, she reached out to clear the air; he never responded, she said. “I never did anything further toward certification,” said Ms. Fox, 51.
Reached for comment, Citrigilia told the Times that he did “not agree with the accusations.”
Women who are shut out of the upper echelon of the wine world aren’t only losing access to a respected title or a dream career; there’s the loss of income, too. Master sommeliers score all sorts of glitzy brand partnerships and consulting gigs, and command an average annual income of $164,000 and a median consulting rate of $1,000 per day, according to a 2017 internal survey of the organization.
The Times reporting implicated men at every level of the organization. More than a dozen women told the Times that in the presence of Fred Dame, the court’s co-founder and honorary “chair emeritus,” they were subjected to sexual innuendo and unwanted touching. Dame did not respond to the Times request for comment. Kate Ham, who worked at Verve in Manhattan in 2018, recalls a traumatizing experience with an unnamed master sommelier. After agreeing to have a cocktail with the master sommelier who she met at a company party, “[t]he next thing she said she remembers is waking up in a strange bed, fighting back as he raped her.” Ham is no longer training for the master sommelier title, and tells the Times that she has “no desire to be tested and judged by these people.”
In response to questions from the Times, the court said that it expects members to “uphold the highest standards of professional conduct and integrity at all times.” Just last month, the organization opened an anonymous hotline to report ethical violations. But considering the damage done by countless representatives of the court and master sommeliers across the country, and the careers that have already been bulldozed and gaslit, it seems like much too little, much too late.
Correction: October 29, 2020, 5:07 p.m.: This article has been updated to clarify that sommeliers are not awarded a master sommelier title through, but rather with educational assistance from, the GuildSomm organization.