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A Celebrity Sommelier Is Accused of Sexual Assault

Outgoing, charming and an expert networker, at 29 Anthony Cailan was already a celebrity in the small world of high-end wine. He had worked at influential Los Angeles restaurants like Bestia, Animal and Eggslut.

New York Times

Updated:November 2, 2019, 2:48 PM IST
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A Celebrity Sommelier Is Accused of Sexual Assault
Celebrity sommelier Anthony Cailian at the Usual in July 2019, the Manhattan restaurant where he has served as beverage director. (Ricky Rhodes via The New York Times)

On Sept. 10, Wine & Spirits magazine posted an image of its October cover on Instagram. Behind the bold type — “BEST NEW SOMMS” — was the smiling face of Anthony Cailan, a sommelier named by his peers as a future leader of the $300 billion global wine business.

Cailan’s coronation was unsurprising to many in the industry. Outgoing, charming and an expert networker, at 29 he was already a celebrity in the small world of high-end wine. He had worked at influential Los Angeles restaurants like Bestia, Animal and Eggslut, where his brother, Alvin, is the chef. Last year, the two were recruited to open a New York restaurant, the Usual.

For some, however, that accolade was the last straw. In the weeks after the post, four women in Cailan’s professional circle contacted The New York Times to allege he had either sexually assaulted them or tried to do so — allegations Cailan has denied.

Raquel Makler, 22, told The Times that Cailan — who hired and mentored her as a manager at a Los Angeles wine bar, then invited her to move to New York to work for him at the Usual — asked her last year to come to his Manhattan apartment late at night to keep him company while he sobered up. There, she said, he forcibly kissed and touched her, pulled off her clothes and repeatedly tried to penetrate her.

Sarah Fernandez, 29, was working as a sales representative for a wine company in June when Cailan sent her a late-night text offering to taste the wines she was selling. They ended up at his apartment, she said, where he became sexually aggressive, ignoring her objections until she had to shove him off to leave.

“I want to be clear: I am a grown woman who was consenting to make out with him, consenting to go to his apartment, consenting to sit with his arm around me,” Fernandez said. But, she said, she strongly resisted what happened next. “He would not take no for an answer.”

The two other women talked to The Times on the condition of anonymity, saying they believed their careers would suffer if they spoke out against Cailan. Both described incidents similar to the one Fernandez described.

Contacted for comment, Cailan said in an email Tuesday that on the advice of legal counsel, he would make only a single statement: “The truth is, these allegations against me are false. I look forward to the opportunity to clear my name.”

Over the last two years, the #MeToo movement has prompted allegations of sexual assault and harassment against numerous chefs and restaurateurs. But few public complaints have been lodged in the wine business, another male-dominated field where many women say workplaces are dogged by a toxic combination of “bro” culture, free-flowing alcohol and sexual aggression.

Both Makler and Fernandez said they believed that rejecting Cailan’s sexual advances could ruin their careers. Each told a co-worker about the incident soon afterward, as corroborated by The Times.

When Makler’s experience was relayed to people in Los Angeles who knew Cailan, some of them saw it as part of a troubling pattern that had begun years before. In January, five of his former co-workers, including his former employer Jill Bernheimer, owner of influential wine retailer Domaine LA, sent him an email asking him to stay away from their workplaces. They said they had heard accounts of his treatment of women that made them “deeply uncomfortable.”

Cailan responded in an email, asking them to specify any allegations. “I’m sorry for whatever story you’ve heard,” he wrote, “but I really do not know what you are talking about.”

Interviews with more than 30 women in the industry suggest sexual harassment is routine and sexual assault is pervasive. Many said they had been assaulted on the job by men they reported to or had professional relationships with.

Cailan was born and raised in Los Angeles, and his brother’s success as a chef gave him a foothold in the restaurant business. He was the wine director at Hayden in Culver City, California, then a cutting-edge wine bar, when Makler started working for him in December 2017.

When he decided to move to New York, Makler said, he offered her a job. She visited the city in June 2018.

Cailan texted her in the early hours of June 24, she said, asking her to keep him company because he was too intoxicated to sleep.

At his apartment, she said, Cailan repeatedly tried to give her wine and cocaine, then started kissing her and asking for sex. When she refused and reminded him he was her boss, she said, he told her, “We can just forget about that” and “The restaurant isn’t open yet.”

As she continued to say no, Makler said, he became physically aggressive, forcing kisses on her and pushing his penis into her mouth. She said she was frozen by the knowledge that her career and future were in his hands, and so shocked by his assault that she didn’t physically resist.

Over the next hour, she said, Cailan repeatedly tried to have intercourse with her but was too intoxicated; when he roughly pushed his fingers inside her, she feigned pleasure, hoping the encounter would end. Eventually he fell asleep.

She said she heard nothing from Cailan until September. “Yo! Are you officially in NYC?” he texted. She responded, reminded him of the details of the encounter and wrote: “This all boils down to how I no longer think it wise to work for you, let alone look you in the eye.”

He responded apologetically. “I did not intend to take advantage, but understand that I used poor judgment,” he said.

Cailan’s star continued to rise. The Usual landed on Wine Enthusiast magazine’s list of “America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants 2019,” and he made it a destination for winemakers’ dinners and “industry nights,” after-hours gatherings for restaurant workers.

That is how Fernandez met him.

Around 1 am June 14, Fernandez received a text message from Cailan. She had been trying to get him to taste some wines she was representing, so she agreed to meet him in the bar at Atoboy, a restaurant near where she works.

“As soon as I got there, I could see he had no interest in the wines,” Fernandez said, noting that he appeared intoxicated.

When they left the bar, Fernandez was mildly intoxicated, and when Cailan invited her to his apartment to taste more wines and watch television, she agreed. There, she said, he started kissing her aggressively and trying to slide his hands under her dress. Fernandez immediately pulled back. “That’s not going to happen tonight,” she said she told him.

Cailan persisted, she said, even as she continued to say no, until he repeatedly slid his hands under her dress and tried to pull off her underwear. She kept swatting his hands away, she said, until she became angry and alarmed enough to leave.

Afterward, she continued to exchange occasional texts with him. She felt she couldn’t afford an enemy in the tight-knit world of New York wine professionals.

A few weeks after their encounter, Cailan was the guest sommelier at an event in the restaurant where Fernandez works. At its end, she leaned in to politely hug him goodbye.

Then, she said, he tightened his grip, slid his hand down her back to her buttocks and squeezed, in full view of her customers, his friends and her co-workers, one of whom confirmed her account for this article.

It was Cailan’s public aggression in her workplace as much as the incident in his apartment, she said, that persuaded her to contact The Times.

Julia Moskin c.2019 The New York Times Company

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