The Court Needs to Adapt or Die

In the modern era, wine education and certification are tied to systems and cultures of white supremacy, gatekeeping, and patriarchy. Why the Court of Master Sommeliers, and other certifying bodies, need to be dismantled

Miguel de Leon
Oct 31 · 8 min read

The saddest part about the recent news story about the twenty-one women who spoke to the New York Times about the sexual harassment rampant in the Court Of Master Sommeliers (CMS) and a separate but equally guilty arm of education at GuildSomm isn’t that their private lives are now spectacle, it’s that it wasn’t a surprise to a lot of people. It shocked those who weren’t adjacent to those circles, it angered lots of us who are, and it leaves us wondering about the what-ifs and the what-could-I-have-dones when the damage and the trauma are already deep.

What it further acknowledged was the continual prioritization of white comfort in the larger wine community: that these men had been known to prey on female candidates, and that their reprimands were comparable wrist-slaps to the otherwise consequential outcomes of other sexual harassment reckonings in the #MeToo era. Clearly it took bravery and courage to speak out against these violations and violences, and the women finally have an outlet to allay their concerns, but within the organization, the accountability is so non-existent that short of a full renunciation of their involvement with the court, the reliance on its pedigree and its brand is still what keeps them in the horrific system that they’re in.

It is not lost on me that it took twenty-one white-presenting women to finally blow this out of the water. In November of last year, a similar reckoning was leveled on the smaller, niche community of natural wine; it led to the ostracizing of a notable sommelier of color and upending the lives of the two women of color who decided to commit their names to paper, stakes that don’t feel like they exist in this situation because of the privilege that both the perpetrators and survivors carry. (In the words of a few colleagues: somehow, in the end, relatively, everyone will be okay: they have jobs to come back to, book deals to write, their whiteness and their money shielding their pivot to other fields somewhat smoothly.) Silence from a specific sector of the wine community was deafening then; namely, older white women who had chalked it up to younger women of color making dumb decisions as if they had choices in the matter. Now, they trumpet the news loudly about the court’s egregiousness in handling the situation, but were just as quiet in the court’s other shortcomings.

After the gigantic failure that was the lackadasical, foot-dragging, hand-wringing response to Black Lives Matter and George Floyd’s killing that took weeks to write, and before then, the absurd boil over from the cheating scandal that led to no other change aside from the removal of titles, it is clear that there is no push for the court and its adjacent, comfortable bodies, to want to, let alone need to, change. A Diversity Committee is meaningless when the Black, brown, and queer memberships they’re happy to take money and dues from are in fact devalued, underprioritized, and unrecognized. When it takes less than a day for your organization to respond to the complaints of your white women members, it sends a message to the BIPOC bodies that we’re not worth your time.

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This harmful, violent complacency is couched in whiteness; as an ancillary service to hospitality, the arcana and errata surrounding sommeliership and wine obfuscates and conflates education with legitimacy and confers status to those who can afford it and decode its jargon. Education, also, is the slowest of all the systems in wine to adapt to modern concerns and challenges, yet traditional wine education is mired in maps and legacies with colonialist and imperialist roots and the erasure of the experiences of its Black, brown, and queer members.

Under rubrics of current wine courses, curriculum is presented from Europe-out, cementing the idea that wine came from whiteness, and presents all of its information as such. There are no further talks about fiefdoms and land allocations so much as there are romances about particular plots in Burgundy and Champagne; there is always a legend or fable inevitably thrown in as a quirk, isn’t-old-Europe-so-relatable? While the yearning for an Old World is codified, we gloss over the unnatural colonization of places like Chile, California, and the Canary Islands, where the story repeats itself, when white settlers “civilize” the natives as they rape and pillage the women and the land, convert them to Christianity or destroy them outright, and then talk about the indigenousness of a certain grape variety when it is just as foreign to those places, when millenia-long histories are eschewed for the glorification of the short centenary lives of exceptional vines. We can talk about how recent apartheid actually is and how that affected the development of South African wine, but we won’t. We can talk about the emergent growing areas in China and India and Japan perpetuated by French money, but we won’t. We spend eight or so weeks on the minutiae of France and its Appellations d’Origines Contrôlées, then spend a day on Italy and Spain, America (read: California), and minutes on places like Georgia, Australia, Hungary.

Tasting grids center on cuisines and locales exclusive to Europe and have yet to reconcile these grids with the rich, cultural diversity of its memberships; both the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) based in London and the Court use flavors mainly associated with European cuisines. The largest expansion in their memberships’ growth is well outside of Europe and the United States; the cultural translation is poor when cultural values in local eating and drinking traditions are deemed unacceptable to the “correct” way of tasting, a betrayal of the expertise of the palates that define cuisine.

This curriculum also purports to speak to overconsumption and safe alcohol drinking practices, but instead takes the requisite minimum teaching hours and does not address the deeper dangers of such activities. It seems, the less you know in this instance, the better; most of the men named in the article were happy to flex their power, wealth, and access to expensive and rare wines to gaslight the women in their grasp.

But our own identities fail us sometimes. Women were front and center during this summer’s Puglian brouhaha over labor relations and the fallout among those parties continues; our reliance on migrant labor forces coupled with COVID and wildfires almost threw California into chaos and persists with the virus still running loose and wildfires still a true threat in an Indian summer; even a new kind of sommelier made headlines a few years ago when it decidedly was not white, and the “news” of another group wearing the sommelier mantle pessimistically conjures tokenism in our space. Last year’s natural wine reckoning saw the public outcry and scapegoating of a brown man when other, worse accusations were flying around. We rallied around the existential threat of tariffs, the shortcomings of the three-tier system, of the remnants of teetotalism and Prohibition-era politics that plague us still. The centering of these white ideals is crucial to the upholding of fear, the perpetuation of threat, the insidious carrot-dangling of what we could have on the other side. It is haves and have nots. It is white men who benefit and not white men who suffer.

Ask any of your queer colleagues who have sat for the service parts of the exam about a note that says something along the lines of an “outsize personality,” one of the court’s code words for fem- and outwardly-queer-presenting bodies, whether the affect actually changed the perception of the service that was necessary in the situation. Ask about the dress codes for the group and why the requirement for gendered dress continues to exist when potential Trans members can’t strive for equal and fair representation. The added layer of the opaqueness of the process compounds the ability of our queer colleagues to qualitatively improve, and that the future of our our careers are in the hands of homophobic, transphobic, queer-phobic fraternity members who can keep calling the “personality” fault, a roadblock to our potential because of the normative, gatekeeping aspect of the organization.

This gatekeeping, coupled with the the establishment of white standards as white excellence, is the most dangerous of all; when something does not fit the rubric, it does not belong. On top of our BIPOC and LGBTQ+ colleagues, we see a denial of the existence of our disabled, differently-bodied, and older professionals; if you do not fit the mold of an attractive, film-worthy look and personality, you do not belong. It is the opposite of the inherent joys and goals of wine: to share, to commune, to connect. It continues to widen the gaps, to only follow one “right” path in the acquisition and dissemination of information, to separate.

Wrapping up this certification as legitimacy is inherently problematic. Talent is not defined by a pin. Certifications are, for all intents and purposes, technical in nature; we consider less the art and creativity required in making wine and telling its stories as custodians and stewards of these legacies. If the goal of the organizations is to educate the most people, why demonstrate expertise only through tests, blind tastings, and mock services? There are plenty of self-taught individuals flourishing in the industry that do not wear pins: why does everyone else need one? The reliance of the certification as the only metric to our knowledge and experience does all of us a disservice. For those of us who carry our heritage and our differences on our proud faces, on our contrasting bodies, on our weighted persons: your face is your pin.

Selling wine is the commodification of this cultural treasure we all love. We are fascinated by the obsessive details of the transformation of the mundane to the divine, from juice to wine. But when the systems that produce these products actively work against us, accountability is meaningless. Disguising white supremacy as wine education is painful and harmful. Perpetuating white standards of beauty is dangerous. Change is performance. Our adjacency to whiteness is not a benchmark for our own successes. The modern needs of our wine community rely less and less on traditional established notions and norms, and with the evolution of wine wrapped in the future of climate change, pandemic politics, race relations, and the spectrum of identities, who becomes the arbiter and standard-bearer of good wine, and who becomes the beacon for us to rally around Good Wine People? Who can bring the joy of wine back? Who can lay the foundations for the magic of our storytelling, and galvanize our efforts for the future of our industry?

It is not the Court.

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Miguel de Leon

Written by

restaurant operator, wine director, sommelier. cal 05, nyc since 07. MNL -> LAX -> SFO -> NYC. //\\//\\ ig @migueld1 tw @migueld // he/him

An Injustice!

A new intersectional publication, geared towards voices, values, and identities!

Miguel de Leon

Written by

restaurant operator, wine director, sommelier. cal 05, nyc since 07. MNL -> LAX -> SFO -> NYC. //\\//\\ ig @migueld1 tw @migueld // he/him

An Injustice!

A new intersectional publication, geared towards voices, values, and identities!

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