Thursday, June 20, 2013

Sexism in the wine industry: Observations from a blog post

Last week I wrote a post asking people how common they think sexism is in the wine industry, and asking for insider stories of sexism that people have actually witnessed.

I got very few of the latter, even though the post was widely read and I opened my blog to anonymous comments, which meant I spent the whole week deleting unrelated crap. (A little inside-blog thing: if you have lots of pageviews and you don't check your comments, bots will place links to weird gibberish sites.)

I ran a very unscientific opinion poll, and while about 30% of respondents believe sexism is common at all levels in the wine industry, about the same number of people think it is not unusually common.

Here are the highlights of the observations I did get:

* Women are underrepresented in management. This is the most serious point.

* Women viticulturists may not always be included in men's discussions of vineyard management, even if that is their job.

* Some male winemakers joke openly about sex with female interns.

* When consumers see a man and woman together presenting a wine, they assume the man is the winemaker.

* Male customers enjoy testing the wine knowledge of female servers.

That's what I got. It's a huge step up from the 1960s, and the industry may have reached parity or nearly so at hiring for entry-level positions, but the executive suite remains a man's domain.

Here's one observation from the poll, which doesn't surprise me:

* People think sexism is least common in technical jobs.

Here's why I wrote the original post.

It would be good for me, professionally, if sexism is still widespread in winemaking. US newspapers and magazines are endlessly interested in stories of women overcoming barriers in male-dominated industries. I've written the "women winemakers in region X" story a few times, and since I get paid by the story, I'd like to write it every two months for the rest of my life.

But it has been getting harder to do. I ask women winemakers all the time if they find difficulty being a woman in the wine industry. The answer, lately, has almost always been "no." You can't sell the "women winemakers in California" story anymore: it's just not news. You have to look further and further afield. It probably is news in Croatia, and maybe I'll do that next.

However, I was at the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers Association convention a couple of months ago, and I noticed that women are rare in that most profitable segment of the industry.

Not many people, if any, write about sexism in the wine industry. So I thought I'd take a poll, take comments, start a conversation.

Much of the conversation ended up being about -- and against -- the post itself: is it trivializing sexism, how were the paragraphs constructed, etc.

You don't have to do months of academic research to write about high-alcohol Pinots or natural wines or the 100-point scale or any other important wine topic. You can just post an opinion and start talking. Not too late, folks: here or anywhere else on the Internet you can talk about this topic.

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Unknown said...

I found this an interesting topic and some surprising results, Blake. Another issue to explore might be sexism in wine writing in particular. As a female who has worked in the business for only three years, it's surprisingly prevalent for such a creative, 'open-minded' group of people.

W. Blake Gray said...

Amanda: This surprises me, because media -- especially at the bottom level, which is writing (sigh) -- tends to be very open to women. Tell me more: what specifically have you seen?

The Sommeliere said...

Blake, thank you for bringing this issue to the forefront. Women in our industry have had some giant hoops to jump over.

As a sommeliere in Manhattan from 1999=2002 (keeping in mind that even now, NY is more conservative than the West coast where I now live), I got quite a few raised eyebrows and "where is the wine GUY" remarks. But I am a woman not easily intimidated. I am, however, risk- averse as are many women, and I was very careful to know as much as I could about wine, with no lapses.

When an elderly gent asked for the wine guy, I whipped out my tastevin, which impressed him enormously (I was wearing a jacket clearly marked "Sommelier, so he should have known) I said, "Sir, I AM the wine guy." I then advised him on a great bottle of wine and he ended up thanking me.

When I moved west to California, I found the attitude toward women somms, and in the indie generally, a bit more welcoming. I retired from somming in 2006 and now am a wine columnist for a number of upscale publications.

W. Blake Gray said...

TS: You're making more money as a freelance wine writer than as a somm? There's hope for us all!

Can you address Amanda's comment?

Emily H. said...

This is a topic that could be written about ad nauseum, but I find some of the most telling examples in marketing. Wines marketed to women seem to be synonymous with wines for the uneducated chug-a-lug plebeians. Just slap a cute label on some mass-produced plonk and watch the stacks fly. I really can't believe that this works or can be a successful long-term business model for a winery. As to the comment about wine writing, I feel that women are pretty well-represented in a lot of the old guard formats of the big consumer magazines (Spectator, Enthusiast). Though I do remember an interesting occasion when one of the magazines (I think it was Enthusiast) was doing a write-up about two promotions within the magazine, one female and one male. It struck me that the woman had been working for the magazine for MUCH longer than the man had, and in the brief summary seemed to have a more impressive resume to me, but they both had received the same promotion at the same time. Also, restaurant work has been touched upon, but I find the discrepancy at the retail level even more noticeable. Women make up a large part of the wine-buying public, yet female wine buyers and retail managers seem to be pretty few and far between. I really enjoyed reading the back and forth about this subject, and just the wanted to add a few more thoughts about it :) Thanks, Blake, for the entertaining read!

Debann said...

As a female wine steward I'm "tested" by male customers fairly often. Just love it when they tell you they were testing me and I passed. I am finishing up my level 4 (diploma) WSET. I am also a beer steward. The conversations are very different here. It more along the lines of wow another beer geek who speaks the language, cool. I'm from the Pacific Northwest so work in both strong wine and beer cultures.

Joanna Breslin said...

Regarding Emily's observation about the scarcity of women in retail, it may have to do with the amount of heavy lifting usually required in these positions. Being a restaurant sommelier is physically demanding,to be sure, but retail tends to be more so. The question might be, do fewer of us want these jobs, or are we not hired because of an assumption that we are not capable?

sidewaysandtotheleft said...

Even the tiniest woman can develop the upper body strength to huff around wine boxes- maybe we won't be as fast shelving but we can get the job done. ;)

Sadie Drury said...

I am a woman assistant viticulturist at a leading Washington state vineyard. This is the second top vineyard I've worked in. I've also worked harvest in the cellar at two top Washington wineries. Women ask me frequently about viticulture being a man's industry or sexism in this industry. Maybe I've had unusually good experiences, but so far I have only been treated with respect from peers and winemakers. Since I work with interns and students, my advice to women entering the industry is this: Don't let your gender be a handicap. Men will treat you respectably if you act respectable. If you aren't strong enough to do something, ask for help, no one will fault you. If you want your co-workers to see you as capable, go out and work along their sides and get your hands dirty, don't make excuses for why you can't. I feel this is how I've made it in the industry. If a women wants to keep her nails clean or claims she can't do punch-downs, she might want to find something else to do. That's not sexism, that's a job requirement.

Alana said...

Blake, the problem with the question itself is how can you even ask such a silly Q? You're so much smarter than that and I know it. Take 6 weeks (and that's more than necessary really) of college level Gender Studies courses and you'll agree that it's a silly question. I poise to one industry where there is gender parity.

Alana said...

PS: to ask us for examples is boring for most of us mature gets very tiresome.... Also conclusions can't be drawn (30% means what?) as to whether ir exists more in this industry or not.

W. Blake Gray said...

Alana: OK, so your suggestion is what -- we just not talk about it? We've been doing that, and I'm done with this for now so we can go back to it.

Breckwineandcheese said...

I think about this topic quite often. I have been in the wine industry for 17 years, as a wine rep and as a retail wineshop & winebar owner. The movie Somm just brought it to the fore again for is a movie about 3 men trying to attain the level of Master Sommelier. But, I questioned...where are the women? When will there be a story about the female sommeliers in the world? There are exponetially fewer of them. It certainly still feels like a boys club to me. I would love to hear the perspective of some of the current female sommeliers: Alpana Sing, Laura Maniec...Andrea (Immer) Robinson. Their stories are more compelling to me...because it seems they have climbed a higher mountain.

Anonymous said...

I think that Sadie Drury's comment is most relevant to my career. I am an enologist, my winemaking crew is only the winemaker, cellar master and myself. I do a lot of heavy physical labor and I get really dirty, but I LOVE it and it shows. I have had problems within the industry with sexism but I think it is mostly confined to certain companies, not really the whole industry. Its true that the majority of the people I have professional relationships are men but I really think that I am respected for my knowledge, work ethic and passion not for my gender.

Lisa said...


Don't let Alana bully you; the question is valid, and silence outside of the walls of feminist academia is not the answer. Frankly, it simply institutionalizes the problem, so bravo for asking.

We are exploring sexual parity, such as it is, in the military this week at our blog

rangeragainstwar. There is much tension surrounding the matter.

(BTB: Are you going for blue glasses b/c you're a boy, or do the red ones prevail?!?)

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks Lisa. Red is so 2012, but a column sig doesn't change as quickly as one's face. Without red, I am anonymous. I may be eating at your local coffee shop right now.

Lisa said...

You are so cryptic, m'dear. I think your final comment merely refers to the anonymity and homogeneity of the male sans his signature frames (?)

Don't underrate your ability to swim amongst the fishes. As Mr. Finch said on the t.v. series Person of Interest, "Anonymity is power."