What is it like being a woman in wine?

Before everyone cringes and has the “OMG we’re going over that dead horse again” reaction, just hear me out.

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to lead a red wine blending seminar at the Women for Winesense Grand Event in Geneva, NY.  We had a good time and I feel that the 17 people who attended got a sense of what we, as winemakers, go through on nearly a daily basis.  The stress of finding the right mix, the impatience and nervousness of waiting to see how a blend is received and for a few, the joy of triumph as their blends were selected as the top few.

After the blending seminar, our small group rejoined the rest of the conference goers for a lunch with a key note speech by Karen MacNeil.  Her talk focused on what it means to be a woman in the wine industry.  She made several interesting comments during the talk, many of which I agreed with and others that made me wonder if she was right.  One such topic including pointing out that women have yet to really reach parity with men at the top management of major companies.  While the facts are undeniable that men maintain the majority of senior leadership, I have to question if it is truly a failure of companies to recognize and promote women or if it is more ourselves as women shying away from roles beyond a certain level.  MacNeil also seemed to believe it was women holding ourselves back.

She also read a quote only referencing a well known woman winemaking consultant stating that that woman had found that the most successful women winemakers tended to dress more masculine, have short hair or hair pulled back, and adopted a “manly” attitude to better fit in.  The quote seemed to be saying that this particular woman felt that maintaining a womanly demeanor was instant career suicide in our industry.  Being a woman who likes to get dressed for the occasion whenever possible, I didn’t exactly agree with this concept.

This got me thinking about my time in the industry and what I have encountered.  I learned quickly during my time in Napa that at public events if I dressed up, particularly in heels, nearly everyone assumed I was either sales or marketing.  Therefore I adopted a habit to dress up from the waist up and jeans and vineyard boots from the waist down.  This look, while odd, got the point across to most people.  My husband even mentioned at one point “Why don’t you just dress like a winemaker?”  I laughed and  responded, “I am a winemaker. Therefore, however I dress is dressing like a winemaker!”

“Why don’t you just dress like a winemaker?”  I laughed and  responded, “I am a winemaker. Therefore, however I dress is dressing like a winemaker!”

I’ve had more than one occasion where I’ve been spoken over in a meeting, had my opinion dismissed, or been completely ignored.  I’ve even been told that I don’t know what I’m talking about from a male colleague and I’ve been told that my passion is dangerous by a female colleague.  I’m not sure either would have said the same to a man.  I was told by someone, after I had my son, to not bother sitting the MW exam that year due to the natural shrinking of a woman’s brain which occurs during and after pregnancy. I’ve also been mentored by some of the most generous people in the industry both male and female.  These people have given me advice on my career even if what was in my best interest would make their lives more difficult.  It is these mentors I hope I can become more like.  I strive everyday to be less like the former colleagues and more like the latter.

In the end, I’m not convinced it is a male vs female issue anymore.  I think it may be more those who are self confident vs those who feel threatened.  The lack of women in leadership may be because the women who would be most qualified are making a choice to maintain some level of work life balance.  It may be that those women who can have it all, are choosing to have it all by still being routinely home for a family dinner every night rather than storming the global business world.

I’m always trying to run the gambit of how things will be perceived to avoid labels of being “soft” or the dreaded “B” word.

So what is it like to be a woman in the wine industry?  I can only speak from the perspective of a winemaker.  It’s being aware that the clothes you wear project an image of who you are to people who don’t know you. Having to pick outfits with care balancing a desire to appear feminine with socially acceptable norms for winemakers wear, particularly for industry events.  Being in meetings waiting patiently for a moment to speak with the hope that you’ll have a voice when the time comes. Pouring wine for people, knowing full well that they had no idea you are the winemaker behind it, while mentally arguing with yourself about how pompous you would sound if you just said “I’m the winemaker.”  Always trying to run the gambit of how things will be perceived to avoid labels of being “soft” or the dreaded “B” word.  Just assuming that you’ll always end up making some one mad just by existing where ever you happen to be and trying not to take it too personally.

That is what it’s like being a woman in the wine industry today.

9 thoughts on “What is it like being a woman in wine?

  1. Rodney, she used the word woman correctly. The piece is written from her perspective about her experiences and she is one woman. Hopefully you read the rest as it rings true for other women in the wine industry, very much so for sales and marketing.

  2. I’ve been in retail wine for 10 years but am just finishing up my first year as a department manager in a big box retail liquor store. Wouldn’t you know it, first crack out of the box I get a male employee, whom I worked with before, an entitled retiree/wine snob (really) who has treated me with complete silent contempt from the beginning, because I have required him to work and not just stand around enjoying himself. When I have asked upper management for advice on dealing with him, (twice), I’ve been told (by men) that it’s my problem and I’m a disappointment. I’m coping, but the learning curve has been miserable and I sense that the men are thinking “a man manager wouldn’t be such a pain.” This kind of experience may be what keeps women from storming the corporate world. Women always have another layer of self-monitoring they have to do just to get by, and meanwhile it sours you on trying for further advancement. A career of power struggles until retirement does not interest me — I think I’d rather go be a receptionist somewhere.

  3. Hi Renee. Rodney did catch an error which I have since corrected. The title originally said “a women in wine” which was not what I had intended.

  4. Sorry to hear that Nancy. I definitely wouldn’t let one (or even a few) bad experiences sour you from trying anything. There are many amazing people in this industry willing to lend a helping hand of all genders. Don’t let the bad apples get you down.

  5. Things have gotten SO much better in the 21 years that I’ve been working in wine- but I don’t think we’ve reached parity yet. It’s always a little disappointing when I stand up in front of an industry audience and see what a minority the women are. But if I break it down by age, it’s clear that we have a truly impressive number of young woman coming into the business, and that means that we’re heading the right direction. I’m truly appalled by some of the incidents you report, though sadly, not surprised. Keep up the good work. :)

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