Women in Wine: Change is a Process

Oct 21, 2020

Josh Billings once said, "What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know. It's what we do know for sure that just ain't so.”

In a robust panel discussion during Vinimark’s recent Women in Wine webinar, hosted by wine journalist and creator of the HanDrinksSolo community, Jono Le Feuvre, an international panel of women began exploring a series of assumptions and attitudes in the realms of gender equality, and women working in wine.

The debate unearthed some interesting and tough questions, “How much of what we see defines what we think is true? Should all receptionists be women? Is this simply a status quo that can be changed? And if it can be changed, how will that happen? Are women-only awards patronising? Would the existence of a “girls club” connote a weakness in the women who chose to be part of such a club?”

It became clear that you do not talk about the Wine Industry Girls Club. But not for any clandestine reasons à la Chuck Palahniuk, simply because there is no Girls Club of which to speak. And, this seems to be the way women professionals in the wine industry prefer to go about their business.

The following panellists all shared valuable and hard-won insights into carving out a career in an industry that is still male-dominated, both locally and abroad:

  • Jancis Robinson, international wine critic
  • Samantha O’Keefe, Cape Winemakers Guild member and award-winning winemaker
  • Penny Setti, sommelier and Champagne Bollinger brand ambassador
  • Rose Kruger, winemaker at Stellekaya
  • Palesa Mapheelle, one of the four dynamic female online influencers behind @wine_ish
  • Cha McCoy, New York and Portugal based wine consultant at Cha Squared LLC and
  • Ginette De Fleuriot, Vinimark Marketing Manager and Cape Wine Master

The conversation teased out an interesting conundrum revolving around women supporting women, in that almost all panellists agreed that they would explicitly support other women, but also (almost unanimously) would like to be seen as professionals first and foremost, and not be categorised by their gender. The point was raised, though, that there is a need to support and mentor women noting that they are not operating on a level playing field as discrimination still exists – and challenges for women and more evidently, for women of colour, are very real.

It was striking to note that, whilst none of the panellists expressed deep grievances against their male counterparts in the industry, there was agreement that women are wary to talk openly on the topic. This was echoed by Le Feuvre, who reported repeatedly being asked, “not to be quoted” or to only answer questions around gender equality “off the record”. If nothing else, one of the most important questions asked was, “Why is it still seen as problematic to speak out even when it is something really serious like reporting on sexual assault in the workplace or more specifically, in the vineyard.”

It brought home the point seldom spoken about, that for most women it was easier to stay quiet or as McCoy put it, stay in your lane and not stir the pot to avoid derailing your hard- earned place and career in a male-dominated industry.

Instead, what emerged was a matter-of-fact acknowledgement of the wine industry’s gender gap and a steady resolve to forge a path with savvy and determination, juggling the multiple and complex roles women in wine have.

“Certainly, there is the ‘boys club’ aspect that people don’t talk about,” said De Fleuriot. “It’s very much a cultural thing, but it gets forgotten. It also begs the question: how are we changing the way that we think about work and who is fit to do what?”

It was in response to this that Le Feuvre posed the possibility of the ‘girls club’ as an answer to the ‘boys club’:

Why a Girls Club is not the answer

While Le Feuvre’s question was posed almost in passing, it became something of a golden thread that ran through the rest of the discussion.

The panel was unanimous in its scepticism around the ‘women-only’ concept – whether in terms of wine competition judging panels, events or listing only wines made by women. It became clear that what really matters is the motivation behind these types of efforts and whether they really contribute toward making a real change in the gender gap.

“Personally, I prefer to be seen as a person, to be seen as professional and that should be the reason why I’m invited to judge on a panel rather than because of my gender,” said De Fleuriot.

Despite her own doubts about the efficacy of ‘women-only’ efforts, O’Keefe admitted to having wanted to start an actual ‘girls club’ at one point to showcase the excellence, efficiency and mutual support of South African winemakers who are women to a global audience.

“But, do you know what? As I ticked down the list of the women I wanted in my ‘girls club’, I realised the reality was that I couldn’t expect any of these women to add an extra thing to their already busy lives,” she said, mentioning the fact that many women winemakers are also mothers and partners, and fulfil any number of other important roles in their personal and professional lives on a level that men simply aren’t expected to.

So, in response to the question whether there is a growing sense of women gathering and making deals in the same way the ‘boys club’ does, the answer was a simple and straight-forward one. Women simply don’t have the time for girls’ clubs or making deals over a round of golf, they are balancing too many other roles.

Making your mark through mentorship

What O’Keefe’s desire to start a ‘girls club’ certainly does highlight is the debunking of a pervasive and toxic cultural myth that women are forever in opposition to and competition with one another. Especially those who find themselves navigating a man’s world.

The importance of women supporting other women was raised by a number of the panellists, but exactly what this should look like on a high level is still somewhat murky.

“As a woman of colour, we definitely have our code: we want all black people to win,” said McCoy. “But when it comes to women, do we all walk into the room and say, ‘I’m rooting for her’. How do we speak up in support of one another?”

Mentorship is a good place to start, McCoy suggested.

Women who have done the hard yards in the wine industry can make a positive impact on their less experienced women colleagues by sharing knowledge and advice in whichever context they find themselves in.

Adding to this, O’Keefe pointed out that mentorship should not stop with other women, but also include up-and-coming men in the industry as a way of changing perspectives around gender roles.

The importance of representation

Closely related to mentorship, though slightly more subtle, is representation. As pointed out by De Fleuriot, we have to interrogate our unconscious perceptions of jobs as gender specific.

“Who is the cleaning staff in your company? Who makes up the clerical staff? Sure, those people may have chosen to be in those positions, but how are we challenging our perception of what is men’s work and what is women’s work?”

While the women agreed that being singled out on the basis of gender rather than merit doesn’t sit well in certain contexts, it does make sense in terms of representation. Apart from offering young girls role models to look up to, it can also do much to challenge the perception certain men may have of women.

As sommeliers who are also women of colour, both McCoy and Setti have had experiences of male customers openly doubting their competence. Rather than seeing this as a challenge, both women see it as an opportunity to subvert long-held discriminatory perceptions.

McCoy added that while something like a wine list featuring only women winemakers may seem somewhat trite, it can go a long way in making people aware of the fact that women do, in fact, also make wine.

Of course, the importance of representation doesn’t end with women who work in the wine industry, but also includes those who enjoy the fruit of their labour.

Despite the fact that a growing percentage of South African wine drinkers are black women, wine brands’ marketing strategies are largely still ignoring this important segment of the population.

In her role as a wine influencer, Mapheelle offered an insider’s perspective on this and identified it as a missed opportunity for a host of brands.

In many ways, @wine_ish - the platform she runs along with three other young black women – is bridging this gap by communicating and sharing about wine in a way that is fresh and new.

“We occupy a unique, creative and somewhat disruptive space in the industry where we’re quite resolute on wanting to reach people who look like us, who have similar experiences to us,” Mapheelle says. “I think there is a huge gap for how you reach those people.”

Change is a process

While Vinimark’s Women in Wine webinar didn’t end with any neatly packaged conclusions or solutions to deeply complex issues around gender and equality in the wine sector, it highlighted the fact that women are indeed the catalysts required for authentic, lasting and sustainable transformation in an industry that is long overdue for change.

Ultimately, as McCoy pointed out, it’s unrealistic to think that this will happen overnight. But as long as these conversations are happening and women are taking up the mantle of mentor, there is hope.

The conversation will continue on Vinimark’s recently launched podcast, so stay tuned for a new two-part episode as we unpack the lived experiences of two women making their mark in wine in South Africa.

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