It’s 4 am on the fourth Sunday of my daughter Alba’s life, and mine as a new mother. As I feed her for what feels like the hundredth time that night, my free hand scrolls monotonously through Instagram.
An image of an empty bottle of aged Chambolle-Musigny whizzes by, replaced by a late-night snap of sommeliers seated around a well-known winemaker’s dining table. That picture is followed by several pastoral shots of vineyards from various corners of the wine world.
An unexpected sigh escapes my lips as I wonder whether I’ve inadvertently bid my “old” life in the wine industry adieu, replaced by one that couldn’t feel further from the images flooding my social media channels.
Two years later, Alba has tottered energetically into toddler-hood. While I’ve far from given up my career as a wine professional, I still grapple with the anxieties that emerged in those first sleep-deprived weeks of motherhood.
In a very male-dominated industry that rewards those who travel frequently, attend a multitude of events, and schmooze and drink into the wee hours, how do I balance being a mother and being someone who works in the business of alcohol when the two so often seem to contradict one another?
I couldn’t help but be curious about how other working wine mothers do it. I reached out to five mothers who are also fellow wine professionals on several sides of the industry. Compiling their responses to my questions, I found some answers of my own, along with an unexpected sense of camaraderie, comfort and inspiration.
Tracey Brandt started her wine label, Donkey & Goat, with her husband, Jared, in 2004. Today, they make about 5,000 cases of wine at their Berkeley winery from vineyards in the Anderson Valley, Mendocino Ridge, El Dorado and Napa Valley.
Jenny Lefcourt is the co-founder and sole owner of Jenny & Francois Selections, a New York City wine importer. Since 2000, Jenny has been at the forefront of the natural wine movement, responsible for introducing the U.S. to some of the world’s most renowned natural winemakers.
Dana Frank is best known for her work as a sommelier, and for her work alongside husband Scott Frank at their Oregon winery, Bow & Arrow. Dana recently opened Dame Restaurant in Portland with business partner Jane Smith. She’s also co-authoring a self-described hybrid wine/cookbook, due out in 2018.
How many children do you have and how old are they?
MV: Two sons, Cooper (15) and CJ (12).
TB: Two daughters, Isabel (11) and Lily (5).
JL: One daughter, Zoe (4).
DF: One daughter, Orly (5).
CF: Two sons, Eitan (12) and Amir (10), and one daughter, Orli (8).
What have you found to be the biggest challenges in balancing a career in the wine industry with raising children? And the best parts?
MV: Being a full-time wine director/sommelier on the floor five nights a week with school-age children. You can work nights when your kids are really young, but I found once they are school-age, you need to be home in the evening a lot more. The best part is enjoying what I do and having my kids seeing that. They’re older now, and they get it.
TB: I nearly always feel like I’m running ragged and late. I have a project manager’s mind, so I visualize the next 16 things that will have to happen in order to cram nine hours of work into six, get my daughter from school to rock climbing and to plan, shop for and make dinner early enough for my five-year-old to not get “hangry.” So even though it may be 10 am and hours away from much of that, I often already feel the pressure. I can’t possibly go out schmoozing, drinking and paying homage to our many accounts as much as I might like. Or as much as would be needed to generate the results I would like in terms of sales. We [Donkey & Goat] do what we can, but in all honesty, I don’t think we even compete on that front.
There are many best parts, too. I love that my kids know and respect, I think, that our vineyards are farmed and wines made in a manner that respects the earth and celebrates the magic.
JL: I used to go back and forth to France at least six times a year…between my travels to vineyards and New York. [Now] I really don’t want to put an ocean between myself and my daughter. I am very attached, and we don’t have relatives we can leave her with.
The great thing about running a business and having a kid is that I make my own schedule. I can take the day off if she has a day off from school, or stay home if she is sick. It’s great to be able to be there for her.
I recently told my oldest [that] he needs to start writing a business plan for a kid-care service during the portfolio-tasting season. He thinks I’m joking, but I’m not. —Christy Frank
DF: Finding the time to be both a dedicated, fully engaged mother and boss. I have worked really hard the last few years to carve out specific family time, to put my phone away and computer away, [and] to just let the unfinished work be unfinished. It will be there in two hours or two days, but the time to spend with my daughter is limited. Because I work nights, I miss a lot of time after school. I miss bedtimes. But I try to make up for it by being available and connected with Orly mornings and weekends before I leave for work.
I didn’t grow up in my parents’ businesses, but Orly is growing up in ours, and that feels really special. I think I’m providing a positive influence by including her in my career. She’s interested in smelling and tasting wine, and equally loves to be at the restaurant and my husband’s winery. We let her put her finger into a glass of wine and taste off her finger, taste fermenting wine in the winery, juice out of the press pan, etc. She’s really curious. But we’re certainly not ‘pouring’ her wine to taste.
CF: It’s always “Take Your Kid to Work Day.” When kid No. 3 was a newborn, she spent a lot of time napping at the shop. I would literally put baby in a corner. We went through a phase where the portable DVD player was a store fixture. And now, we set up desks made of case boxes so they can do their homework. I recently told my oldest [that] he needs to start writing a business plan for a kid-care service during the portfolio-tasting season. He thinks I’m joking, but I’m not.
Now that the kids are older, family trips are beginning to revolve around wine destinations. Luckily, it’s a broad topic, so I’m able to work in geography, history [and] chemistry.
Did you feel a social expectation to give up or significantly cut back on your job in order to raise your children? We rarely hear about men in wine making this choice. What have your experiences been in this regard?
MV: I once had a client in the restaurant say to me when I was full-time on the floor, “Why aren’t you home?” I told him I was working, supporting my family. He was a father and out socially so I asked him back, “Why aren’t you home?” I don’t know if this answers the question, but it says a lot.
TB: Definitely, but it was not in my cards. My first daughter was born in 2005, the year we released our first vintage of a few hundred cases. The business was far smaller, and I had a luxurious first three months spent more with her than working. With our second daughter, born in 2011, it was far different, and that did leave me dealing with guilt and the miserable feeling that I was performing all three jobs very poorly: mother, wife [and] winemaker/proprietor.
JL: I grew up with a mom who worked full time, and I always admired her for all the great things she did for women and the law [re-writing family court legislation, working with women in prison and starting the first all-woman law firm in New York City]. I am a feminist and the daughter of feminist parents. I never felt pressure to give up my career. What I didn’t expect was feeling so torn myself. I love work, and I also love being with my family. It is much harder than I imagined to balance the two. In retrospect, I realize my mother felt this as well. She passed away when I was in college.
I never felt pressure to give up my career. What I didn’t expect was feeling so torn myself. —Jenny Lefcourt
DF: Not at all. And furthermore, my husband is incredibly supportive about my having “as much of” a career as he has. I put pressure on myself not to overextend my obligations so that my time off of work is focused on my family, but I also try to balance that pressure with time for wine-related travel, running, and seeing friends.
CF: I didn’t feel this, and I’m still trying to figure out why, because I know it’s an issue both in and out of the industry. I think we can put a lot of that pressure on ourselves, and somehow, I’ve a managed to avoid it. Maybe it was because I was lucky enough to have kids just before this idea of full-contact motherhood took over. Society may expect me to never miss a recital or a PTA meeting, but with three kids, I would be missing something even if I weren’t working.
Have you ever felt any direct or indirect discrimination within the wine industry because you’re a woman and a mother?
MV: More indirect, like not being taken seriously for certain wine roles, but I now use it to my advantage. I am proud of being a “Mom Somm,” and I often talk to other women about how I have changed my career to allow some balance. I have no qualms about saying I can’t do something because I have mom duties. Do I lose some work? Occasionally, but there are no do-overs and work will always be there. My oldest is off to college in less than four years.
The reality is, it’s a burnout business for most people. —Marika Vida
TB: I regularly experience a prejudice where I must qualify, sometimes more than once, that I do in fact, make wine. That I do conceive ideas and direct the [wine]making and also roll up my sleeves and do the manual labor. I experience this while on the road visiting other markets, and I experience this in my own winery while dressed in grubby, grape-stained clothes.
JL: I spent 15 years tasting for hours in cold cellars filled with men, and it requires stamina. After every intense wine trip, I would come home sick. Despite it being incredibly rewarding, it was physically demanding in the way [that] an intense career as an athlete must be grueling. I definitely feel pressure from winemakers to be visiting more than I am currently. Same goes for restaurants and bars. It’s a difficult pull. I can’t be a mom and live on the road or be out every night like I used to be. At least, that’s not the kind of mom I want to be.
DF: Every once in a while, I’ll encounter a guest at the restaurant who expects the sommelier to be a man. They’re surprised to see me show up at the table. But that’s pretty much where it ends. I find that most people think it’s fairly heroic to be a mom, own a business and be married to someone who owns a winery. I don’t see it that way. It’s just my life, but I rarely feel any sort of discrimination.
CF: When I first opened the shop, wine sales people and other vendors would often come in and talk directly to the male person on the floor, rather than me. This doesn’t happen as much now that the shop has received more press, and it’s known that the “Frank” in Frankly isn’t a man. Interestingly, this rarely happens with customers. At this point, nearly all of my sales staff are women, so they don’t really have the option.
In terms of being a mother, I’ve made sure it’s known that I want to be considered for certain wine trips, even if it means being away from my kids.
Do you think there are ways the wine industry can adapt to become more sensitive to working wine mamas?
MV: Yes. I think more women would still work the floor if there was a way to job share with another working mom, or dad, for that matter. The reality is, it’s a burnout business for most people. I loved being on the floor [two to three] nights a week, but [five to six] is too much for most people to sustain for a very long time.
TB: I’m not sure. I think much of the prejudice is generational and with time will ease to cease to exist.
JL: I went from my office to the hospital to give birth. I started working again over email while still at the hospital after Zoe was born. With the culture of email, social media and cellphones, it’s really hard to pull the plug. I would like to feel supported from within the industry when I’m not answering messages for a few hours. I’m with my daughter, and the same person texts me 10 times. It is really hard for me to ignore. It really isn’t fair to our families or our own well-being. There is a lot of pressure to be available 24/7, and it isn’t compatible with being a parent.
DF: Not specific to the wine industry, but employer health care and better benefits for new mothers—extended paid maternity leave, for example—are crucial.
CF: It’s a different story in more corporate jobs, but I think in the more independent parts of the industry, as more women, some of them mothers, move into leadership positions and/or open their own businesses, there will be more acceptance of flexible, choose-your-own-adventure type career paths. Us mamas will need to accept that we can’t be there for everything in our kiddos’ lives or in our work lives. Rather than fear what we’re missing out on, we just need to enjoy what we’re doing at any given moment.