Scholarships and Events for Women in Wine Abound. Will the Industry Make Room?

Illustration by Susanna Harrison

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“It was literally a dream come true,” says Chasity Cooper of the Women Behind the Wine scholarship she was awarded last year. Part of an E. & J. Gallo campaign to promote gender parity in wine, Women Behind the Wine provided grants to 21 women in various stages of their wine careers.

Cooper, a marketing professional, had taken a Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) course and is using her scholarship to enroll in WSET Levels 2 and 3. She hopes to work as a wine consultant and educator, and eventually open her own wine shop.

The scholarship provided more than just economic assistance, says Cooper. “It really lit a fire within me to keep going.”

Illustration of woman in wine cellar tasting near barrels
Illustration by Susanna Harrison

Women Behind the Wine is just one of several new initiatives that aim to make wine careers more accessible and viable for women.

In 2018, Dream Big Darling, a nonprofit women’s mentorship program, launched along with Wonder Women of Wine (WWOW) and the Bâtonnage Forum, both of which hold conferences focused on female wine professionals. Meanwhile, Wine Empowered, another nonprofit organization that offers tuition-free wine education to women and other marginalized communities, debuted last year.

While these programs aspire to correct gender imbalance in the industry, their existence raises a question: What comes next? Once the grants have been deposited and conference venues flipped for the next event, is the wine business willing to rearrange the seats at the table? And how would that work, exactly?

Who’s Buying

According to Bâtonnage, women comprise 62% of viticulture undergraduates at the University of California, Davis, but only 10% of winemakers in California are women. The Red Cabinet, an industry organization, finds no women CEOs at wineries that produce between 100,000 and 500,000 cases per year.

“Women only occupy about 23% of leadership positions [in wine], and that’s a stark contrast to the number of women in hospitality and the wine industry, which is more than 50%,” says WWOW founder Rania Zayyat.

These figures are even more dramatic when you zero in on intersectional demographics. Black women, for example, are exceedingly underrepresented in winery leadership positions, but are 15% more likely to spend more than $20 on a bottle of wine, says Cheryl Grace, a consumer engagement executive at Nielsen.

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This dynamic presents an opportunity for forward-thinking industry members. According to a recent Gallup poll, women are three times more likely than men to prefer wine over other alcoholic beverages. Imagine the possibilities if wine businesses prioritize this community in their hiring and marketing practices.

“You could probably profile [most wine executives] with an age range and a gender, but those aren’t our consumers,” says Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins, founder/president of Dream Big Darling, vice president of operations at Ancient Peaks Winery and a 2019 Wine Enthusiast 40 Under 40 honoree. “That’s not a great representation of our market. If we want to continue to grow our segment, we need to hear from everybody.”

Pinot Grigio and Rosé

A major step to change course is to abandon generations-old misconceptions about who drinks what, and why.

“There’s a longstanding belief that women don’t really like wine,” says Paul Freedman, a professor of history at Yale. “They don’t care about the taste… They like Pinot Grigio or rosé because they are light and not very complicated, but still provide a buzz.”

Freedman chalks such prejudice up to “regular old discrimination. Wine requires a lot of knowledge,” he says, “so how could women learn it?”

Illustration of woman in wheelchair speaking about wine on podium
Illustration by Susana Harrison

Modern scientists and wine experts provide solid counterarguments. A 2014 study by Marketing Sciences, a UK research firm, found that women are naturally better tasters than men prior to wine training. In 2015, two beverage instructors at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) told NPR they had found a similar disparity among their students at the start of training.

To make up that initial difference, “men use confidence in lieu of ability,” says CIA instructor Robert Bath. Then comes the instruction.

The Graduates

Gina Gallo, vice president of estate winemaking at E. & J. Gallo, believes programs like Women Behind the Wine can advance the careers of women and benefit the industry. “Education gives us power,” she says. “Every new voice helps the industry grow and evolve for the future.”

Organizations offer different paths and resources to help their graduates develop. Women of the Vine & Spirits, the organization that Gallo partnered with for Women Behind the Wine, provides members with access to a digital job board. Wine Empowered aims to connect students past and present with mentors in the field.

Wittstrom-Higgins adopts a hands-off approach. “You open the door for someone with an opportunity, but it’s up to them to walk through it,” she says. “The leadership retreat we held in the fall was great, but the intention is not to hold the hands of these people throughout their entire career.

“It’s like, this is an opportunity. Now, you need to make the most of it.”

Notable First Women in Wine History

‘You Can’t Have Equality Without Equity’

Some in the industry see the need for larger, structural changes to counter marginalization.

“There are plenty of POC, WOC, women and other marginalized people who have wine education, but have not been given access to the same types of opportunities that allow a sustainable and supported growth in our industry,” says activist Ashtin Berry, cofounder of Radical Xchange and another 2019 Wine Enthusiast 40 Under 40 honoree.

Lia Jones, executive director of nonprofit organization Diversity in Wine & Spirits, can attest to this firsthand. Jones attended culinary school and WSET classes before she began work at such Michelin-starred restaurants as NYC’s Eleven Madison Park. Still, as a Black woman in wine, she says that she often struggled to get hired.

“I look great on paper,” she says. “But I would go in for an interview, and the moment where they saw what I looked like, I would get a completely different attitude. You can’t prove it… but people of color, anyone who’s marginalized, knows that look.”

Ultimately, Jones feels an inclusive education is the starting point, not the finish line, when it comes to diversifying demographics in the wine business. “You can’t have equality without equity,” she says.

Illustration of woman in apron and tie holding wine and two glasses
Illustration by Susanna Harrison

Change Agents

Whether the goal is to implement broad, structural changes or simply support a few talented individuals, those who seek to expand the wine community agree that mentorship is key.

“It’s really romantic to think these sorts of changes will happen naturally,” says Zayyat. In reality, she says, shifting the status quo requires commitment to “intentionally carve out space for people who have otherwise been excluded.”

Fortunately, the distance from passive observer to change agent is a short one. Anyone in the wine industry, be they beverage directors, marketers, executives or editors at wine publications (ahem), has ample opportunity to invite new wine professionals to events, educational forums and job fairs.

Those who hope to develop talent from the ranks of the industry can look to the dishwashers, bussers, cleaning crews and delivery people who keep the wine business afloat. Cultivating their interest and making the industry more inclusive will only benefit its future.

Cooper, the aspiring wine consultant and shop owner, upholds the industry’s potential to reach new audiences. “I’m so excited to take this plunge and start this next chapter,” she says.

The rest of us would be wise to meet her there.

Published on February 20, 2020
Topics: Advocacy