Today I resigned from the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas (CMSA) because I view it as an organization whose values are at great odds with my own.
The recent global amplification of the long-ignored outcry for racial equality and social justice has elicited what feels to me like a complete lack of empathy from the CMSA; for me, this was the last straw. Coupled with the unjust annulment of the 2018 Masters exam, I have concluded that for myself, remaining a member would be to tacitly endorse the organization and its views.
This is not a decision that I take lightly, nor would it be accurate to characterize my resignation as one of “giving up.” I am doing this only after expending a great deal of time, energy, and my own capital in an effort to affect change in the organization.
I’ve served as a board member and have taught dozens of courses and exams over the past 17 years, and I’ve always trusted that the organization’s by-laws and code of ethics would serve the membership well. Regretfully I’ve come to understand that those by-laws have evolved in such a manner as to effectively prevent all but the old guard from running for the board of directors which is responsible for shaping policy. This is not the stance of a progressive or inclusive organization, it’s one of protectionism affording no reasonable opportunity for change on anything less than an extremely protracted timescale. I do not endorse this and hope that my renunciation of the CMSA may somehow abbreviate their timeline for change.
I took my first exam with the CMSA in 1997 (CMS then) and passed the Masters exam in 2003 at which time I saw the CMS purely as an educational body. By engaging with the CMS I knew I could better serve my guests while also enjoying learning about something I loved. Somewhere in the interceding 17 years, however, this organization has seemingly evolved from an educational one to an elite accrediting one. I find this disturbing.
Recently the discourse has been about “the pin”, “the credential”, and I believe this has come at the expense of hospitality and inclusive education. If “preserving the integrity” of some elite credential is the main priority, which in turn leads us to treat our candidates in an unfair manner, then I want no part of it.
The annulled 2018 Masters exam is a glaring example of this paradigm. I believe the CMSA unfairly upended lives and wrongly discredited the moral integrity of the candidates involved, all from a hollow stance of preserving the accreditation. Despite hundreds of hours of work and thousands of dollars of our own money, a few of us current Masters seeking answers have only been stonewalled by the leadership. They have cited a desire for confidentiality, refusing to disclose information about their annulment decision to the membership, while repeatedly stating that the integrity of the credential is paramount.
Then we have the present, where the United States is finally having a long-overdue reckoning with systemic racism. It is unacceptable that in some CMSA circles there has been rhetoric around not being a political organization and wanting to remain neutral. There is no neutral. By doing nothing, one passively endorses the status quo — and the status quo for BIPOC in America has been, and remains, horrible.
To be clear, my actions today are not a condemnation of any individual within the organization. This is painful for me and I imagine it may also be so for my friends, mentors, and colleagues. Some people may also be angry. Will this create a public backlash? Should I fear personal retribution or professional ostracism? Perhaps, although I’d like to imagine that this will not be the case. I acknowledge that people may feel as they choose, and regardless of your choice, I wish you peace and good fortune as you plot a path forward.
Finally, I have asked myself what it is I hope this letter will achieve. First, I’m voicing my opinion of dissent in the most effective way available to me today. Second, I am hopeful that my actions will spur others involved with the CMSA — at all levels — to ask themselves what they want from the organization and what it should stand for. Finally, it’s to personally mark my own commitment to work on other meaningful causes I care deeply about where I can affect change.
Given the short and precious nature of life, being deliberate about our energies is paramount.