• Matt Ellingson

The Court of Master Sommeliers needs to go.

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

When I began my wine journey and as my passion was developing, I felt quite alone. I was in my early twenties and working in restaurants but I didn't have many peers that really cared as much as I did about the subject. This was back around 1999 and information was tougher to come by. There were a few books but as far as information online, not much to be found.

Kevin Zraly's book Windows On The World Wine Course was my favorite source of information. I dove in, trying to memorize as much as I could and understand the world of wine I was getting to know. Not only did my enjoyment of wine increase with my understanding, but the ability I developed to sell wine to my guests and bring joy to their palates became something I was very proud of.

I became the go-to wine guy for my fellow servers when they had a big fish on the line that intimidated them. They'd come running to ask me to go sell wine to their table.

"Okay fine, you take two hot teas and a coffee to table 12 and I'll go sell some wine for you."

I first remember hearing about The Court of Master Sommeliers from my mother. I think as she was finding my new hobby curious, not expecting her little metal head to grow up into a wine guy, she came across the organization. I was so intrigued! It was a group of people who I could learn from! It was also a way to quantify my knowledge and my growth and perhaps give me a road map for how I could continue my evolution.

I traveled to Las Vegas to attend my Sommelier Certification course. It was both intimidating and thrilling. I learned one of the most important lessons during that experience. There is always something more to learn and the wine world is always changing. I remember many thoughts shared by Master Jay James over those two days. One stuck out to me and resonated.

"You're either a Master Sommelier, or you are not." - Jay James, MS

I think what he was trying to do was ground us in humility in order to understand that we were just beginning our journey. It wasn't about levels. The idea of referring to myself as a level 1 or level 2 Sommelier at the time would have sounded ridiculous. It would've been like bragging about being a freshmen or junior instead of being proud to be a student.

At the end of the second day I was so scared waiting for my name to be called for a certificate. When it did, I almost cried from relief. The feeling wasn't that I had 'made it', it was more like I had been accepted into grad school or something. I felt like I was officially beginning my journey and that I had received, however minor, an acknowledgment that I was on the right track.

When I returned to work, I wore my pin proudly on my vest, but I never came across anyone at the time that new what it was. I was still just that one server who could talk wine with people comfortably. But it did help back up my resume among professionals that I at least took wine seriously. This led to my next job working for a wholesale distributor.

As I headed out into the market and met buyers, my pin or 'level' didn't come up, although I did come across the rare curiosity of a buyer claiming to be a Master Sommelier. I was almost star struck as I tasted him on the wines. But wait...he didn't seem to know what the hell he was talking about. I was so confused until I was leaving the restaurant. In the lobby was a framed diploma from the Certification Course that I had just taken! I guess he didn't hear the message that I had from Master James.

Later I met and began working for one of my greatest mentors, returning to the restaurant side of the business. He brought me back into the fold of wine education along with all of his staff. With about a month's notice, he told me I would be sitting for the Advanced Exam. I wasn't ready, having not really studied in years, but I took the exam. It opened my eyes to the challenge it would be to take my education to the next level. While I didn't pass, I committed to studying for 4 hours a day, every day, for an entire year in order to be ready to take the exam again.

A year later I took the exam. I put my heart into it. I nailed the service portion, I happen to have called the same six wines in my blind tasting that a future MS had called, and I breezed through 90% of the written theory exam comfortably. The interesting thing about the exams is that it is pass or fail. You don't get results. If you're lucky, you get direct feedback from a mentor to continue guiding you, or congratulate you, but I didn't. After a week of work, I sat in a room with a Master Sommelier who had just flown in that day who told me I didn't pass. I was disillusioned and confused, but I found solace in what I did and my love for wine.

What I began to really see that week was that the culture of the organization had changed dramatically. The feeling of learning and passion I experienced just 7 years earlier had morphed into something else. I watched as candidates passed, most deservingly so, while others it didn't seem to make much sense. I didn't just come out of a week long study and exam, it was more an initiation into a competitive mess.

I thought that being a Master Sommelier was about being an ambassador of wine to the consumer. It was about truly serving a guest and helping them to find enjoyment. And it was about being a mentor to those who had so much desire to learn. But now it seemed the Court had entered its frat party phase. A new rag tag group of socially awkward young boys for the most part, all scrambling to be the coolest wine kid on the block. These weren't hospitality professionals. Maybe they were seeking some kind of validation that was lacking in their own lives. They were going to be elite members of one of the smallest clubs in the industry. And then would come money, and then would come publicity, and then would come the adoration of those that aspired to join their club. And then would come the predators wandering among them.

I distanced myself from the organization years ago, or rather did not make much effort to stay in contact with it. But even from the outside of the circle, in a small industry, the stories began to be told. Stories of Master Sommeliers sleeping with student candidates, exam trips turning into some want-to-be Van Halen tour re-creation, and aspiring female professionals carving out their way through the wine industry having to deal with this bullshit and the court's industry power to anoint.

There's no reason to listen to me as a middle aged white male on this or any number of issues. I struggled with hearing these stories at the time, much as I did the stories within the bar industry, not knowing what I could do or how I could help. I could only support those that opened up to me and encourage them to be strong. I never felt it my role to be the one to out anyone for the conduct I heard about within an organization I was not a part of. But I think my role, and any man worth being called one, is to be an immediate and loud voice of support. It should be known, more every day, that women and victims of these intolerable acts should feel safe to come forward. And that when they do they will hear a chorus around them saying we hear you, we believe you, we support you.

These are brave women that I admire for coming forward. They are stronger than I have ever been challenged to be.


To the men named and the many that have yet to be...

I don't want your wine club. I don't want your self congratulatory channels and films. I don't want your lack of transparency, and selfish political control over too many peoples careers. I won't respect you for your silence that sanctioned the actions among you. I assume you will continue to scramble and act like you have a voice of compassion and responsibility toward whatever issues you think people are judging you for. You will no doubt try and form a new coalition or board and hand over power and direction to those you have hurt. But why should they bother adopting your name, your court, your title of 'Master'. The Court of Master Sommeliers needs to go. Something better needs to be born.

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