Amber-tinted qvevri wine flowed at Lopota Lake Resort & Spa this week as some 75 women from 15 countries gathered for the second Women in Wine Expo in Napareuli, Telavi, a picturesque winemaking region in the Republic of Georgia. I was grateful to be among them, sipping wine and munching churchkhela, a gently sweet Georgian snack made from walnuts and grape juice.
The conference is for and about female wine professionals, so I expected to think about global gender dynamics while I was there. But my own, distinctly American challenges crystallized when a draft opinion to overthrow Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision that guaranteed abortion rights, leaked from the Supreme Court on May 2. “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito in the document dated February 2022.
As I sat in a balconied Georgian conference room on Thursday, three days after the leak, and listened to the experiences of female wine professionals from South Africa to Ukraine, I wondered what it means to be an American woman in wine. Who are we in the global sphere—those blessed with comparative fortune and opportunity? The resented and resentful stepchildren of an ill-conceived empire? Or something somewhere in between?
Years of activism preceded my arrival to Georgia, a country with a female president where first-trimester abortions have been legal since 2000. The conference wouldn’t have been possible without groundbreaking attendees like Marina Kurtanidze, who, in 2012, cofounded Georgia’s first female-owned winery; or Zaruhi Muradyan, the first female winemaker in neighboring Armenia.
At the expo, Muradyan spoke movingly about her career path, noting how an early experience studying in the U.S. encouraged her to fight for gender parity back home. It was a striking sentiment to hear as my country’s highest court debated whether I deserved bodily autonomy. While Armenia has what Al Jazeera writer Reem Shaddad once called “a complicated history with women’s rights,” it was an early adopter of abortion access. First-trimester abortions have been legal in Armenia since 1955.
Wine is and always has been political.
I was born in the U.S. in the 1980s, before the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union and after President Ronald Reagan cut federal aid and services for working mothers. Prior to last week’s Supreme Court leak, since 1994, only three countries outside of the United States have reportedly made abortions harder to access: Poland, El Salvador and Nicaragua. During the same period, 59 countries worldwide have expanded abortion rights.
“In this century, nobody in wine can avoid talking about politics,” said Marina Revkova, the no.1 sommelier in Ukraine, in her speech at the expo on the intersection of war and wine. Besides, she added, it’s hardly a new phenomenon. After World War II, Champagne residents created so-called bloody vintages from the grapes picked early to evade German invaders as an act of acidic resistance.
Wine is and always has been political. Amid the glassware debates lie centuries of border disputes, sociocultural identity wars and workforces with little or no federal protections. While I didn’t attend the Women in Wine Expo specifically planning to ruminate on human rights and American mythmaking, it wasn’t as if I was bringing an elephant into a dollhouse, either.
Despite the $20 trillion spending power of women worldwide—more than the economies of China and India combined—we lack systemic power in wine. According to some estimates, 5% of independent California wineries have female ownership. Such figures are considerably starker with an intersectional lens: only two of Washington State’s 1,000 bonded wines have Black owners, both of whom are female.
These disparities shape what wines get produced and imported, how and with whom in mind. For me, it’s easy if painful to imagine how much wider these statistical gulfs will become if women cannot prioritize their careers once reproductive rights are reversed. In a 2019 New Yorker article, Katha Politt wrote that the 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling had a greater impact on American women’s careers than birth control. “Under the old rules, inculcated from girlhood, if a woman got pregnant at a young age, she married her boyfriend; and, expecting early marriage and kids, she wouldn’t have invested too heavily in her education in any case, and she would have chosen work that she could drop in and out of as family demands required,” she writes.
There are countless exceptions to this paradigm, including single and queer parents, but gender dynamics do affect how parents’ careers progress. A 2013 Pew Research survey found that working mothers “were much more likely than fathers to report experiencing significant career interruptions in order to attend to their families’ needs.” More recently, pandemic shutdowns revealed similar dynamics in many heterosexual households across the U.S.
The wine business is extraordinary, providing opportunities like the one I had in Georgia this week, but it’s also demanding. Restaurant work typically requires nights and weekends, and winemaking is physically and intellectually taxing with long hours, particularly during harvests. These jobs aren’t easy for anyone, let alone working parents.
“We encourage the next generation of women in wine and we are grateful for our mothers, who paved the way for us,” said Senay Ozdemir, the charismatic Woman in Wine Expo organizer, in her opening remarks at the conference.
I agree. I’m extremely thankful to the female wine professionals worldwide who came before me and eager to support those to come. And I was lucky enough to be born with a U.S. passport that has and continues to open doors for me at home and abroad.
But we all inherit the worlds of our forebears. I wish I had an easier road to offer future generations of American women in wine.