Though women have made up more than 50 percent of the graduates of the viticulture and enology program at UC Davis for the last decade, they still make up slightly more than 10 percent of the lead winemaking positions at wineries in Napa and Sonoma. In a recent GuildSomm 2017 survey of more than 1,000 sommeliers, a third of the somms were women, but they made an average of $4,000 less per year than their male counterparts. The representation of women of color within the wine industry is particularly stark, with limited or no examples within each category to even compare.
Will there ever be equanimity between genders within the world of wine? Hopefully, but it won’t happen without a lot of change. I’ve been in the wine industry for years as both a writer and a vintner, and I’ve worked with both male and female winemakers, viticulturists, marketing and sales professionals, and a host of other roles.
A child of the mid 1960s, I come to most interactions saddled with a host of conflicting gender role assumptions, and being sensitive to a person’s gender is perhaps the greatest hurdle of all. Today’s young people seem nearly unaware of another person’s gender, skin color or sexual orientation, but people over the age of 50 often notice these things—not out of inherent bias but more an awareness of difference and a sensitivity to how one should “act” around these differences. My own Millennial children see such awareness and sensitivity as highly suspect and an actual source of the problem.
“How can people act differently to different people—they're all just people,” my daughter asked me years ago when we were on our way to swim practice. She was 6. We had just gone through a fast-food drive-thru for a snack. I reached back to hand her the bag and watched in my rearview mirror as she carefully removed a napkin and spread it out on her lap before pulling out a bag of French fries. “Well, don’t you think you’d act differently with a police officer compared to a criminal?” I asked. She pondered my question for a long time as she nibbled slowly on a single fry. “Is the criminal robbing me or something?” she finally asked, her words slightly garbled by the half-eaten food in her mouth. “Why does that matter?” I asked. She looked at me in the mirror and her eyes narrowed. “Well,” she said, “if you don’t know the answer to that then I just can’t help you.”
I laughed and glanced in the mirror to see if she was smiling. She wasn’t. Her expression was serious, almost contemplative. Her point, as I was to learn over the course of numerous additional such conversations, was that she and her peers view people as human first—and then they make a decision about their intent or role after learning more about them. For generations before them, the situation has been nearly the opposite.
Perhaps what this shifting perspective means is that in the long term, when the younger generation is making decisions, the gender of a winemaker or other wine professional will not enter into the conversations and the idea of a “woman winemaker” will be as foreign as distinguishing people by their hair color (which, by the way, my parents’ generation actually did—“redhead” this, “blond” that—and it was taken seriously.)
Years ago I was working on a piece that I had intended to call “Women winemakers of the 21st century.” I reached out to dozens of my friends and acquaintances while conducting the initial research. Time after time I was rebuked, with a particularly shocking response from one of the more famous contacts. “When will people stop it with this ‘woman winemaker’ obsession?” she said, obviously irritated. “I am just a winemaker, and I don’t need any other qualifiers.”
Clearly there is immediate work to be done. It’s important that anyone with hiring power looks for ways to build a culture of inclusivity and focus efforts on building a team that reflects the future and not the past, if not for the sheer fairness of such practices then for the ability to gain insight into new ways of seeing and doing business.
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