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Women and the Wine Industry

By Karen MacNeil
December 29, 2017

I want to end 2017 with the most important piece I’ve written all year: Beyond the Wine Glass—A New Glass Ceiling?  This article appears in the current edition of Somm Journal along with photos of the fifty women I interviewed and is based on my keynote speech at the national Women for WineSense 2017 conference.

Beyond the Wine Glass—A New Glass Ceiling?

Given our current environment which is so charged with sexual politics, it seems like a good time to take stock of the status of women in the wine industry today.

And in honor of Madeleine Albright, the former United States Secretary of State, who once said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” I’d also like to talk a bit about how women interact with each other to help (or not help) move our careers forward.

When I started in wine in New York City in the late 1970s, there were fewer than ten women who held significant roles in the wine industry—that, in a city of 7 million people. There was one wine class for consumers. And virtually no consumer wine tastings. There was, in effect, no way into the wine industry.

In terms of wine writing, New York was controlled by five men, and because they wrote for most of the top magazines and newspapers, they effectively controlled wine journalism in the entire United States.

One of those men was a friend of mine, and he convinced the others to let me taste wine with them each week. (As an aside, these men were invited to hundreds of tastings a year conducted by producers and trade groups from around the world.) The deal was, I could come to the tastings…. as long as I didn’t talk.

I accepted. And I didn’t talk for the next 8 years that I spent tasting with them.

But I learned a lot from those men. I learned

  • Respect for wine
  • I learned to be a disciplined taster
  • And I learned to be serious and professional in my approach

I was of course desperate to ask these men the thousands of questions I had about wine, right down to what made red wine red. But given my vow of silence, I could not.

As it turned out, that silence wasn’t wasted.

Years later, all of my questions—all of the myriad of things I didn’t understand—became the basis for The Wine Bible. I wanted to write the book that I had needed professionally—a book that I thought others might need, too. The Wine Bible has now sold 1 million copies.

Before I address some of the broader issues regarding women and wine, I’d like to share two experiences of my own.

The first happened in a famous New York restaurant. I was dining with a friend, a women executive in the food business. To start the evening, she ordered the chef’s signature appetizers and asked me to choose a wine. I did—a white Burgundy–then I returned to our conversation. But within seconds I realized the waiter hadn’t gone away. He had stepped slightly behind me. Then, leaning down so that only I could hear, he said,

“Madame, I regret to inform you that you’ve made an unwise choice for the wine.”

That encounter happened 25 years ago, and maybe it wouldn’t happen today. But I share it because of my initial reaction, which was to be immobilized by insecurity. Was he right? Maybe I had made the wrong choice…

I remember being engulfed by a sense of powerlessness. This man had, with a sentence, plunged me into self-doubt. He had gotten me to question my own professional ability.

After a few seconds, I had the correct response and was furious with him. But when I think back on this, I’m mostly mad at myself. Mad that I had let this man professionally unravel me—even for a second.

All women have stories like this, and most of us swallow them down and just move on. But let me contrast that early story with something that happened recently.

I conduct a lot of wine seminars for corporations. A few months ago, I was called by the managing partner of a global law firm. He asked me if I’d be interested in giving a seminar in Philadelphia for 150 of the firm’s lawyers. He then passed the details and negotiations over to a leading woman in the firm.

After speaking with her on the phone for 30 minutes about the topic, the wines, the operations of a seminar that large and so on, she asked me my fee.

I told her.

She immediately came back with, “That’s way more than I expected. Why should I pay you that amount when I could probably get a local guy to do it for a fraction of that?”

I quickly understood the sad irony. This was a woman challenging another woman about her worth… and hoping to rattle me enough that I’d back down.

And for a second, I nearly did. Every ounce of me wanted to justify why I was worth it. I wanted to recite my accomplishments. I wanted to apologetically defend my fee.

But instead, I waited. I let the silence on the line get good and heavy, and then I said, “I guess there’s a perfect analogy here. If I had a legal problem, I’m sure I could find some local guy in the Napa Valley where I live, and he’d be comparatively cheap. Or, I could go to the best and hire you and your firm.”

And then I offered to give her some names of local guys in Philadelphia  who would undoubtedly cost a lot less than me.

The seminar I did for them was, by the way, one of the highest rated seminars the law firm has ever done as part of its business retreats.

I will come back to this idea of worth in a moment.

But first, what do we know about what it’s like to be a woman in the wine industry today?

We know there are women in all aspects of the industry from viticulture and winemaking to sales and marketing. But there aren’t many women at the top. There are, as yet, no statistics nationally on women CEOs in the wine industry who are not running their companies by virtue of being in a family business. But we do know that the number of women CEOs who head Fortune 500 companies has fallen in the last few years and now stands at just 4%.

We know that the gender wage gap is alive and well. On average, women today make 20% less than men, even controlling for experience, education, and location. On a more granular level GuildSomm has tracked sommelier salaries for the last three years. The most recent survey—2016— revealed that the median income of female sommeliers ($58,000) was $7000 less than the median income for male sommeliers ($65,000), again controlling for education, experience and location.

We know that many investigations, including a recent McKinsey report, show that men are promoted based on potential while women are promoted on accomplishments. And that women are 15% less likely to be promoted in general. Effectively this means that it will take about a century to achieve gender parity among executives.

Most puzzlingly and sadly, we know that a lot of women opt out professionally even when they are most poised to advance and gain some measure of professional power. This is true in dozens of industries. Women now earn the majority of the bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and PhDs in the country. Generally speaking, learning more has meant earning more—for men. But somehow education doesn’t translate when it comes to women. Indeed, a significant percentage of educated women simply disappear from the labor market.

In our own industry, women make up 62% of undergraduates in the Viticulture & Enology program at UC Davis, yet women represent just 10% of all the winemakers in California. And only 4% of those women own their own wineries, while 48% of men own theirs.

What is happening? Where are all the talented, educated women in wine going? There’s a black hole here that can’t be explained. And I don’t believe it’s fully explained even when we factor in the reality that some percentage of women opt out to have children.

The fact remains that the wine industry needs more women.

First off, it would be a better, more effective industry. No one has expressed this more succinctly than legendary investor Warren Buffet who, when asked why he’d been so successful, responded that he’d only had to compete with half the population.

Some important social science research about this that has also recently come out. The Atlantic, the New York Times and the Harvard Business Review have all reported on several studies by Anita Woolley of Carneige Mellon, Thomas Malone, Alex Pentland, and Nada Hashmi of MIT and Christopher Chabris of Union College.

Their research looks at why some groups of people are smarter than other groups. It’s tempting of course to think that groups that are made up of smart individuals would be smarter groups.

But when you give groups a battery of problems to solve, it turns out that that the smartest teams are distinguished by only one characteristic. Teams with more women outperform all others.

Women, say the researchers, “mind-read” better than men. And because they are good at reading complex emotional states well, women help the groups they are in function at a high level.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in her book Lean In makes the important point that we know what women are up against externally. But putting these external challenges aside, is it possible that women hold themselves back internally?

I believe we do. In our industry, here are some of the ways:

First, by language. I can’t tell you how many business cards I have from professional women who call themselves Wine Chicks, Wine Goddesses, Wine Witches, Wine Divas, Wine Dolls, and so on. Language can marginalize. To self-inflict this makes no sense.

I also think women hold themselves back by failing to adopt a professional demeanor and appearance. Don’t get me wrong. I think women should dress like women if they want. But I also think it’s next to impossible to negotiate a contract or ask for a higher fee or a higher salary when you’re wearing sandals and spaghetti straps.

Indeed, in some parts of the business—like winemaking—dressing the part can be critical. One of the most famous consulting winemakers who is a woman told me:

If you look at the women who have been in the business for a very long time (Merry Edwards, Cathy Corison, Zelma Long, etc.) you’ll see that, for the most part, we wear minimal make-up, usually work in jeans, boots, and work shirts, hair cut short or pulled back into a simple pony-tail.   Most of us are rather on the tall side, and all are athletic.  I think the slightly androgynous look was a comfortable choice for us, and also helped us blend in well with the existing winemaking teams.  We learned quickly to look like we belonged in the cellar, to (literally) pull our weight in moving heavy equipment or jumping onto a fork lift.

I also think we may sometimes sabotage ourselves by internalizing the old idea that you can only be a great business person or a great mother, but you can’t be both.

Of course you can be both. Thousands of women have. Maybe they aren’t Martha Stewart making homemade Christmas ornaments (with a small army of staff), and maybe having a business project done is sometimes better than having a business project perfect, but being a business person and being a mother are not mutually exclusive ideas.

(My own “wine solution” for this–since I’m a single mother and I own my own business– is Champagne. I drink a glass of sparkling wine or Champagne every night. And I have for 20 years. I consider it indispensable to motherhood, and the source of creative entrepreneurship.)

I also think we all must toughen up a bit when it comes to the idea of likeability. Many studies show that the more successful a woman, the less she is liked.  That hurts, and women especially take it to heart. I recently got an email from a young woman who has just published a very significant and very good book on wine who was crushed by the criticism and often mean behavior of her professional colleagues. When any of us is mean or critical about a woman just because she’s successful, it’s damaging for all of us.

Scoffing at feminism is another “nail in the coffin” of our potential success. Frankly I am stunned by the number of young women in the wine business who say they are “not feminists.” This is a naïve and dangerous viewpoint. I wonder if any of these “not feminists” can imagine being permitted to go to a tasting as long as they “didn’t talk.”

Finally I think we hold ourselves back when we don’t own our successes. Success can make women uncomfortable. And as a result, we are often self-deprecating.

Recently I gave the keynote speech at the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Symposium. During one session on soil and terroir, the moderator asked each of the winemakers if they were important… or if their wine was what it was because of terroir.

All of the male winemakers said, Yeah, I think I’m important. The female winemakers sidestepped a direct answer and said things like “lots of factors matter.”

Indeed, for this speech, I conducted some research myself. I asked 50 very successful women in the wine industry this question:

What traits do you believe you possess that have helped you become a leading women in the wine industry?

A surprising number of the women responded by immediately saying, “I’m not sure I’m a leading woman in the wine industry, but I’ll answer your question anyway.”

That’s a classic example of how we fail to own our success and thereby hold ourselves back, all the while being dutiful.

To end on a positive note and frankly the most important note, I want to share what these 50 women said were the most important traits they possess. And I encourage you to take a moment and think about the three traits you believe have contributed to your own success.

Finally, I believe the wine industry is an industry of great people and surprising generosity. I believe women can excel and move into more leadership positions within the industry.

But I also believe that’s not happening right now. Right now, we’re treading water. Before the wine industry is truly an industry of men and women, there is much work to do. And we’re fooling ourselves if we think someone else is going to do it.

SO, I encourage us all to:

  • Be more serious about business.
  • Be ambitious. Look for ways to demonstrate your potential and distinguish your performance.
  • Execute at a higher level. Do 10% more than is ever required.
  • Give a lot and ask for a lot.
  • Don’t over-explain.
  • Take risks.
  • Don’t second guess yourself.
  • Adopt a professional, business-oriented tone of voice and dress the part.
  • Have a firm handshake.
  • Take control when you can and when it’s appropriate.
  • Be supportive of other women.
  • Keep moving the culture of wine in America forward as a culture of smart dynamic women and men.

When I asked fifty women in the wine industry what three traits they possessed that helped them become a leading woman in the wine industry, here’s what they said:

Be just as tough as me
Have good social graces
Do 10 X more effort than your competition
Don’t give up
Be humble
Ask for 5 times more than you think you are worth
Fearlessly (and at times persistently) ask questions
Tune out the endless nay-saying
Become a compassionate and astute listener
Be extremely competitive
Have nerves of steel
Have persistence
Have tenacity
Give up other aspects of life to focus on your job
Constantly strive to improve
Attention to detail
Belief in yourself
Don’t think about yourself as a woman in the wine business
Thirst for knowledge
Understand what drives your passion
Build relationships
Develop a keen understanding of priorities
Be an intuitive, strategic thinker
Being caring leader
Challenge the status quo
Have a “male mind”
Thick skin
Constant education
Extrovert personality
Networking skills
Have humility
Do not settle for mediocrity
Great mentors
Embrace criticism
Commitment to excellence
Treat co-workers fairly
Advocate for yourself
Take on tasks or people that are well beyond your comfort zone
Always be thinking about how to do it better
Unwavering vision
Solicit the advice of much smarter and more successful people
Pivot around obstacles
Have a strong soul