On the Sexual Harassment Charges at the Court of Master Sommeliers

court logoIf you’ve been paying attention to the wine news over the past week, you know the Court of Master Sommeliers is in hot water again, this time over credible, sexual harassment allegations reported in the New York Times. Here is a summary of the allegations that is not behind a paywall.

It goes without saying, but apparently it must be repeated again and again, that this behavior is intolerable. But expressing sentiments isn’t enough. Action must be taken, although, as the cheating scandal of two years ago makes clear, the Court is utterly incapable of managing its affairs. I’m not holding my breath.

Jeff Siegel, aka The Wine Curmudgeon, hosted an interview with Melanie Ofenloch, aka The Dallas Wine Chick, on the subject of sexual harassment in the wine industry; its worth checking out the interview because Siegel asks the right questions and Ofenloch’s answers are clear and concise.

So why were people in wine so complacent? Why did it take so long for this to come out? Why did it happen in wine, which prides itself on being different? And what can be done to fix it?

Melanie’s answer is essentially that, yes, there is an old boy’s network in the wine industry, and it persists because no one is ever held accountable.

I’m not an industry insider and I’m not connected to the culture of sommeliers, so I don’t have any direct experience to rely on. But I am an academic and academia has its own very persistent problems with sexual harassment. The wine industry (especially sommelier culture) and academia are similar in that, in both cultures, prestige is the coin of the realm, and there are powerful gatekeepers who can regulate who earns prestige and who doesn’t. That is a situation ripe for abuse.

In academic institutions, harassment is tolerated and victims of harassment often have little recourse because the offices that handle complaints are there to protect the institutions, not to get justice for victims. As long as they have policies on the books, and they do the bare minimum to comply with those policies, they can escape consequences for allowing harassment to persist. The burden of proof is always on the victim and the whole process is so tortuous and perilous that victims have little incentive to file complaints.

I wouldn’t be surprised that similar obstacles exist in the wine industry. Melanie Ofenloch suggests that is the case.

The most immediate solution is to have people in positions of power who care about this issue, meaning more women with influence. But, obviously, that is not an adequate solution since it depends on the contingencies of who is in charge.

Changing the culture is necessary but cultural change is slow. In addition to having more women in authority, what is needed is more men who refuse to allow other men to get away with harassment, and an incentive structure where accountability becomes the norm.

Heads must roll if that incentive structure is to come into existence.

Update: An earlier version of this post mistakenly identified the interviewee as Melanie Krause.

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