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Alpana Singh: Dismantle The Court Of Master Sommeliers

How an organization dedicated to service and excellence may be too slow to change.

Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 20/21, a collection of interviews with leading voices in hospitality, food, media, tech, politics, design, and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2020, or what’s likely to happen in 2021, in the world of restaurants and hospitality. See all stories here.

Alpana Singh is a sommelier, restaurateur, speaker, and the television host of Chicago restaurant review show Check, Please!. She owns Terra and Vine restaurant in Evanston, Illinois, and was the youngest woman and first South Asian and woman of color to pass the master sommelier exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers. After her own struggles with the Court, and in light of alleged sexual misconduct by fellow master sommeliers as reported by the New York Times, Singh resigned from the Court in November 2020.

You could cleave my life before and after the master sommelier exam. When you spend your entire life trying to claim your stake in a room, and people are always questioning your right to be there, it’s so important to have that pin, that thing you can wear. It shuts up the critics. Passing the master’s exam in 2003 opened up opportunities for travel, invitations to panel discussions, press, and notoriety. It’s this endorsement that says you know what you’re talking about—just like any credentialed field. How else would somebody take me seriously?

I had no plans of entering the wine business. It wasn’t even on the radar. My dad is not wealthy. I didn’t have collector friends. We didn’t go to France. I mean, my parents think a road trip to San Jose is a vacation.

I applied for a job at this restaurant, Montrio Bistro in Monterey, because I heard the servers there made a lot of money. They turned me down, because I didn’t know anything about wine. But I bought a couple of books, memorized them, and came back. They ended up hiring me, and at first I wanted to learn about wine so that I could sell it with more confidence and get my check average up. But lo and behold, I just loved it—the history, the science, the geography, the travel, the intrigue. And in an act of serendipity, the wine director was studying to become a master sommelier. My first taste of wine was literally according to the grid.

This light bulb went off—maybe this is my plan. Instead of going to college and getting into debt, maybe I could just pass this test and write my own ticket.

Back then, the Court of Master Sommeliers was small. You literally wrote a check. They reviewed your application, and you got a seat for the advanced exam. I showed up. I behaved. I remember going to Macy’s and spending more money than I ever thought possible on a Jones New York suit. I wanted to look the part.

I passed the service and tasting portions in 1997, and then came back the next year and passed the advanced exam. A local newspaper did an article about me, and the writer asked, “Wait, this is your second time taking the exam? That means you were 20 the first time. How did you do that? You weren’t old enough to drink?” I’m like, “I don’t know. They didn’t check.”

Of course, that article gets to the Court. I get in trouble and am suspended for a year. I did not start off on the right foot with the organization, and it’s a reputation that chased me for a long time—being a troublemaker, arrogant, conceited, too full of herself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called too big for my britches. But you get used to these things, right? And that’s unfortunate, because when you get used to it, you kind of let it go. And those are things you should call people out on.

My motto in life has always been, I can’t let your problem with me become my problem with me. I think that we wake up every morning with a certain amount of energy, and we have to make hundreds of decisions about how we’re going to choose to spend that fuel. So am I going to waste it swatting at windmills, or use it to better myself and make positive changes wherever I can?

I had this cumulative feeling that fighting the Court just wasn’t worth my energy. I wasn’t willing to edit myself anymore, because I didn’t see other people having to do that. When I speak my truth, all of a sudden, people have a problem with it. I have to apologize. I have to diminish myself. It seems as if only certain people are allowed to speak their truth, but their truth matches with the message the Court wants to project, and it’s not challenging the culture of the organization.

What makes me angry is that, yeah, I have made some off-color comments that offended people. I apologized. I never allegedly sexually assaulted anyone. Nobody allegedly covered it up for me.

I knew about the New York Times article for over a year. A friend called and said, “Hey, I’ve gotten phone calls from journalists, and they’re investigating certain male members of the Court for sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.” I alerted the board and said, “I want to let you know that this is happening. You may want to do something about it.”

Of course, we hear nothing. I assumed they would launch an internal investigation and a soft inquiry amongst members. But the majority of master sommeliers didn’t know about the article. It was going around in whispers. But I could tell that the pressure was building. All of a sudden we started getting these emails about sexual harassment training. We were asked to sign an updated ethics policy. They didn’t even send a letter to membership saying, “Prepare yourself. We just want to let you know that we are on it. A statement is being made.”

Every action from the Court that I’ve witnessed has always been from a reactive position. It seems like any time change happens, it’s because the press has written about the Court in a very bad way. So if the article never came out, are you telling me that the behavior would have continued? Would Geoff Kruth still be in his position? Why didn’t we have the mechanisms in place to figure it out on our own? Why did it have to become an investigative article from the New York Times on par with Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Keith Raniere, Mario Batali, and Ken Friedman?

How bad is it? Think about how many articles the New York Times has published on this subject, and how many people are in jail, or have lost their livelihoods, or are dead.

Earlier this year with the Black Lives Matter movement taking shape, a group of colleagues and I put together a manifesto, with actionable items the Court should consider. Forming a diversity committee. Changing the language in our bylaws to say we do not condone racism, sexism, and classism. Changing the board structure to allow newer voices to join. Instituting implicit bias training.

Tahiirah Habibi had also come forward with her story about how she was asked to call her examiner “master.” Yes you, a Black woman, will refer to me as master. How horrifying is that? The original manifesto said we needed to banish the term. Some people were supportive, but in some cases, people accused us of a power grab. What? Wanting to be inclusive is a power grab?

When the diversity committee was finally formed, the Court appointed two co-chairs. But I still wanted to serve because I thought I could share my experience as the Court’s first woman of color. I sent three emails to ask to serve, and they were all denied. I was told, “We wanted to keep the committee small and nimble, so that we could move more effectively.” Okay, so, you’re starting a diversity committee with an act of exclusion?

We had also wanted to take a look at exams to see if they’re as inclusive as they can be. I feel like they’re fair. I’ve never seen anything in the exam process that made me question my own morals, but the path to the exam is not equal-footed, as far as having access to wines and information. And that’s one of the reasons why GuildSomm was created, as an educational body. And, of course, Geoff Kruth, who’s at the center of the sexual misconduct allegations, was in charge of that. I gotta say allegedly. You gotta put that out there. Right?

The real issue is there’s no transparency. The Court’s code of ethics allows a master sommelier to date and have sexual relations with a candidate. You just have to disclose it, and then that master sommelier is not allowed to test the person. But if the candidate doesn’t know what their exact results are, and they know that their examiner is best friends with the person they slept with, there’s room for conspiracy.

I’m just thinking of my 26-year-old self. Say I met a master sommelier at a bar, went back to his hotel room, things happened, and he’s required to disclose that. Now, when I go into that exam room, I’ve got this scarlet letter on my blazer. I’m a marked woman.

Then you have some of these nefarious characters that can infer a leg up for sexual favors. “If you take care of me, I’ll take care of you.” Or perhaps, “If you don’t take care of me, it’s not going to be good for you.” What you’re creating is this weapon of mass destruction, and if it gets into the wrong hands, these characters can leverage their power.

After the documentary Somm came out, there was this explosive interest in the Court. I don’t know the exact numbers, so I’m just throwing this out as an example. Let’s say you only have 200 seats for the advanced exam every year, but there are 1,200 candidates. Now, you have to have this process to select which candidates are most prepared for the exam.

Even for somebody like me who said, “This is my ticket. This is why I deserve to be in the room.” All of a sudden, I think that if I don’t give into someone’s demands, then I’m going to jeopardize my ticket to get into that room.

After the New York Times article was published, there was this explosion, and I reached my tipping point of being treated like I don’t matter, or that I didn’t do the work to pass the test. I wanted to do all this stuff to help, but the Court still wasn’t giving me a seat at the table. Then they asked me to run for the board. Why? Why would they want me all of a sudden? Is it because I’m a brown woman? And you want to use me to say, “See, look, everything’s great. We believe in women and women or color.” Like they have ever listened to me for 17 years.

I can’t predict the future, but here’s what I can tell you. The biggest mistake the court’s making is they’re not talking to candidates. If I was in the chairman’s seat, I would immediately do a town hall to get candidates’ perspective and really, really listen.

I find it suspect that the Court thinks they can fix the organization with the resources that they have right now. If they did, then maybe this shouldn’t have happened in the first place. I’m not saying they don’t have the will to do it. The intention is certainly there to make it better. What I’m saying is they simply may not have the capacity. Things have to change, and the loudest call I’m hearing is from the candidates. They are screaming and yelling, and Court leadership is like, “La, la, la. I can’t hear anything.”

That’s a travesty. It’s short-sighted. Our code is to do what’s best for the guest—to serve with humility, integrity, honor, and excellence. We are here to serve candidates, not ourselves, and I can’t be part of an organization that has failed to live up to its own code.

Can they rebuild? If they do everything, right, sure. The only reason I say that is because there are lots of candidates who have spent so much time and want to finish what they started. But I’m also conflicted. I don’t believe in institutions anymore. We don’t need organizations. We need community. We need different perspectives. I struggle with the fact that you have this very powerful organization that sets this one way to enjoy and speak about wine.

Wine is diverse. It’s complex. It’s subjective. Even in a blind tasting, when we say these are “classic wines,” well, whose classic? Think of something like gueridon service, where you’re in a fancy restaurant, rolling some cart over and decanting wine—when was the last time you went to a restaurant that had a gueridon? What message are we sending? If you’re not the type of person that goes to restaurants with a gueridon, then you don’t belong here, in the Court. There are these micro acts of exclusion. You want to be able to test to the highest level. I get it. But I think we need to question what that “highest level” means.

What the Court does in the next six months will determine the longevity of the organization, and I’m hopeful they really do take all of this criticism to heart, and perform an active autopsy of how we got here to begin with. They need to dismantle the Court. This is not a retrofit. This is a tear-down. I’m also in favor of changing the name to something that doesn’t have “master” in it—I don’t know, maybe “the society of people who love wine.”

Some people think I’m being harsh. But I see it like this—you have your home, you take it down, you pull up the studs, you tear up the foundation, you put in a new foundation. Maybe you keep the same address, but how is that not a different home?