A few weeks ago, a hashtag went viral on Instagram: Women supporting women. Not being a huge fan of IG “challenges” and avoiding the trend of the moment, this time I felt it was necessary to post. The hashtag originally started as a way to bring awareness to femicide in Turkey, but it was picked up by women all over the world. Within hours, my feed was full of photos posted in black and white, with women tagging their friends to join in. The hashtag seemed to resonate for women who had no clue of its origin or intention.
As I reflected on my post, the caption I’d write and the women I’d tag, I realized how important the message was: Women supporting women. In my post, I wrote about empowerment, encouragement, solidarity, recognizing our individual and collective power, and striving for equality. And I wrote, “most of all, speaking my truth, speaking up, speaking loud, just speaking.”
As I wrote this, I felt hypocritical. I knew that far too many times I had not spoken up. In fact, quite the opposite; I had kept quiet, let things slide, shrugged off offensive comments, ignored inappropriate behavior, even laughed uncomfortably at insulting jokes. I have not confronted friends, coworkers, teachers, my bosses or even strangers and avoided these uncomfortable conversations because… why make a fuss?
But the truth is I didn’t want to be seen as that woman. The one that makes a big deal out of everything, the one that “can’t take a joke”, the one that is so sensitive. But more, I feared (and still fear) the social and professional (and economic) repercussions for speaking out. Yet, while my silence may have prolonged a few friendships, provided me with money and job security, or just made my life a lot easier, it has also contributed to damaging to the image and position of women.
I work in the wine industry.
A field that is fascinating, beautiful, filled with culture, history, travel, food, amazing people and the list goes on. Yet my field is also predominantly male, conservative and elitist. When I first got the wine bug, I had no idea about the industry or the dynamics. I simply liked wine and wanted to learn as much as I could about it.
It’s been 5 years since I got into this field, having started this adventure in my hometown of Toronto, Canada and now currently residing in La Rioja, Spain. The first few years were the typical journey of a wine nerd: learn as much as possible, drink as much as possible, meet as many people as possible, get certified as something, work a harvest, work another one, travel to as many wine regions as possible, post pictures of bottle, dinners, events and people on social media. Wine has allowed me to follow my dreams, explore, learn and grow. But a few years ago, I started to notice the cracks in this beautiful dream. I saw things that didn’t quite fit with the dream, things that just didn’t seem right.
In the last couple of months there have been many articles that shed light on some of the shady practices in the wine industry. Eric Asimov’s recent article in the New York Times on exploiting migrant workers was one of them. It was something that I had personally observed a few years back as an intern in a winery. In November 2019 there was another New York Times article on sexual assault in wine industry when a top sommelier (voted best sommelier of the year) was accused of sexually assaulting many of his female colleagues. And while these articles have given greater insight into an industry that many see as romantic and idyllic, there are still too many issues that are overlooked and unchecked. The big stories make an impact and get people’s attention. However, the day to day realities and experiences need to be discussed openly and candidly, because it shouldn’t take abuse, violence or exploitation to discuss matters that need addressing.
The wine industry is a male-dominated industry.
While there are women in all areas of the trade, we are a very small minority in a very traditional industry. Women are making headway and are being recognized for their work. There are many women in top positions and have considerable influence in the trade, like Jancis Robinson, the top international wine critic. There are female winemakers, sommeliers, journalists, writers, authors, speakers, Master of Wine. Women are no longer invisible in the trade, but women are definitely underrepresented, and the number of female winery owners, winemakers, sommeliers is just slightly depressing.
Yet, it’s not just a matter of numbers. It’s the culture that surrounds it; a wine culture that in many countries has historically excluded women and currently does little to include us (more on this in Part Two). It is also an industry that does not recognize the sexism that exists even in the most obvious ways.
A few years ago, I was at a wine tasting with some friends. As we tasted and talked about various issues I said to this group of friends and wine professionals, “the wine industry male-dominated and sexist”. I was expecting something like, “yeah, totally!” But instead they looked at me and said no, there are many women in wine. I was still rather new in the industry and so I thought, maybe there are more women, but, where are they? It still bugged me and I tried again to explain what I had seen and experienced. They shook their heads and told me I was wrong (It should be noted that this was a group of male wine friends – clearly the wrong audience). A more recent experience was just a few weeks ago, I was at a wine tasting, this time at an all-female wine tasting group. I opened up about a recent incident that I had had with a male friend, also in the wine industry, and went on to explain further incidents of sexism and machismo in wine. They looked at me, listened, a few of them recognized the situation, but most of them shrugged.
This experience left me thinking, am I crazy? Have I read too much into this? Am I the only one that feels this way? Here I am with a group of women and they don’t seem to think it’s a big deal. It was frustrating and disappointing, but perhaps also a bit alarming. I know my experiences are not unique and I know these incidents are not isolated incidents. In fact, as I look back on the years I’ve been in this industry I see these incidents repeat themselves over and over again, some grave and alarming, and others so embedded into the wine culture that they generally go unnoticed.
I’m not here to police anyone or to claim that I haven’t participated in this sexist culture. Out of my own ignorance on sexism, my desire to be accepted and fit in with my colleagues, I have contributed to a culture that has overt and subtle sexism. And even as I have become increasingly aware of this, I have also remained silent on many occasions, thereby contributing to a culture that does not support women and often degrades us.
WOMEN, WINE AND SEX
The most obvious forms of sexism would be the sexualization of women in wine. At another tasting in Portugal a few years back, I sat in a room full of 50 men and two women, myself and the daughter of a winemaker. I was seated with a group of men that I personally knew and got along well with. The tasting began as tastings always do, the first few flights most people were spitting, quietly discussing the wines, and jotting down notes. With each passing flight (and there were many as this was a vertical tasting of wines from 2000 to 2016), there was less spitting, less writing, and more talking at a slightly higher volume. It was then that the men at my table asked me something about the wine. It was in Portuguese and my level of Portuguese was basic, so I didn’t quite understand the question. I asked them to repeat it. They did but I still didn’t understand. I started to notice that they were smiling and laughing and soon realized it was a joke. I asked them to repeat and at that point a friend finally translated the question. It was a play on words, a sexual joke at my expense. They laughed, and I sat in silence, feeling a sense of powerlessness and humiliation. A silly joke? No. I know that a man would never have been asked if he “tasted penis” in his wine, but these are the types of jokes that women face all the time; the sexual innuendos, puns or cheap remarks that we must either shake off, ignore or speak up about. However, most of the time we are in shock or so angry that the words just don’t come out.
It is obvious that after a few drinks, people lose their inhibitions and their true colors show. But perhaps I was most surprised when, as a university student in a Master’s program, my professor showed us various examples of creative marketing. Among those he showed us this one:
This Australian wine ad was banned in the UK in 2015 because it was offensive and degrading to women. Yet in 2016, my professor presented this as “clever marketing” in wine. No doubt about it, it is clever. It is also degrading, disrespectful and contributes to a culture that treats women as objects of men’s sexual desire, an invitation for men to help themselves to our most intimate parts, to satisfy their desires by taking what is not theirs. And yet, this was taught in an academic setting.
Most recently, I had a professional acquaintance send me this:
To give you some background, he is a talented winemaker and someone I admired because of the quality and uniqueness of his wines. We have a few friends in common but we rarely speak so when he sent me this image at 3:46am in the morning on WhatsApp I was confused and disturbed. I didn’t respond. At 9am the next day he sent one line saying, “It is a new wine”. I have never responded to that message and my respect for him has diminished.
A very interesting article came out a few years ago on sexist labels in the natural wine world, you can read it here. Without a doubt the natural wine world is producing some very exciting wines and pushing the boundaries. This new generation of avant-garde winemakers want to break from tradition, from the stuffy elite and their antiquated views, and they reflect this new stance through all sorts of fun and provocative labels. But their counterculture only goes so far; the historic sexist culture remains and once again, women are not valued as individuals but seen as objects that men own and desire. I’ve looked at the image he sent me various times to try to understand it: She is fully nude but an unidentified man walks into her private parts. Is she a prostitute? Does he own her? Who is she flashing? What kind of wine would require this label? But ultimately, why is this guy sending me this at 3 in the morning?
Images are the easiest form of communication; we absorb more from images than words. Labels and advertisements with naked and sexualized images of women, such as from the French winemaker Jean-François Ganevat, encourage men to look at women as desirable objects that they can pick off the shelf. In the name of art, the female body has been used and abused by men (feel free to google Picasso, Bertolucci or Jodorowsky if you need further convincing). And while wine is just a commodity, some winemakers have achieved stardom because they are considered “artists” or geniuses. Sommelier and winemaker Norman Hardie, from Ontario, Canada, was revered and admired until it came to light that he had sexually harassed many of his female employees.
The problem isn’t sex nor is it about women owning their sexuality but the culture of fast sex, a pornographic culture that normalizes inappropriate sexual behavior towards women, behaviors that could potentially lead to real danger for women in the industry.
A woman in the wine industry (any industry, really) must always be cautious of what she wears. Before leaving the house, she looks in the mirror and asks herself: is this too revealing, too tight, too sexy, too feminine, what impression am I giving, am I showing too much? It is behavior that men in the industry do not even think about when they are getting dressed (except perhaps, am I too underdressed?). Personally, I am a woman who loves to wear heels, dresses, skirts, and bright lipstick. I feel comfortable in my outfits but I am aware that oftentimes some men believe the way I dress is an invitation to flirt or make advances. A hand on my waist, on my lower back, on my knee are all common examples of unwanted sexual advances (particularly in southern Europe where this behavior is often tolerated as “culturally appropriate”).
We know that sexual assault and sexual harassment happens in wine industry. But women and men do not speak about it. It is only behind closed doors that you hear all sorts of stories of some winemakers or consultants or sommeliers taking liberties. The wine industry is traditional and oftentimes there is a need to keep up appearances without discussing the dark side of the industry (including alcoholism). At tastings or events, wine flows freely and abundantly. It is very easy to lose control, particularly if some wines are just too good or too rare to spit out. There are also a lot of big egos and arrogant behavior. A woman going alone to a tasting or event will think very carefully about her appearance, who she meets or who she is with, and the logistics of how she will get home. I often travel alone (I have backpacked alone and have lived abroad since I was 21) and often go to tastings alone instead of in groups. While I have normally felt comfortable and safe, I am becoming much more sensitive and uncomfortable with those “it was no big deal” incidents. One example would be at a company Christmas party when 3 co-workers hit on me; 2 attempted to kiss me – grabbing my face to sneak a quick one on the lips – and another guy would not leave me alone the entire night, continuously trying to persuade me to go home with. This was all the same night and in front of all the winery staff, management and the CEO. No one did anything. Worse, on Monday morning it was part of the party gossip, with my boss saying “I guess the guys took a liking to Vinka”. I wish I could tell you that I spoke out about that incident, that I made it clear to my boss how unacceptable that behavior was, about how uncomfortable I felt, and about how nervous it made me (which actually led me to have a panic attack on the street on the way home from the bar), but I didn’t. I was slightly ashamed, it was my first week at the company and I was afraid of what they would think of me. Above all, I didn’t want to lose my job.
MEN, WINE AND RIGHTEOUS WORK
The examples of using women, our bodies, and the suggestion of sex in wine is pervasive. But there are very few images of naked men, men drinking wine in a provocative manner or holding wine glasses at their groin. On the contrary, most images of men or their body parts in wine advertisement or wine imagery usually transmit strong, tough and righteous characteristics, like calloused hands holding a bunch of grapes, a basket of grapes on a man’s shoulder, a man ploughing with horses on some crazy steep slope, a man in the vineyard with a cute dog, and so on. (Do a search in Getty images for winemaking or winemaker).
Men, it would seem, do the hard, honest work. They are the farmers, the “vignerons” (grape growers) and they have a deep connection to the land, respectful to the environment, strong values when it comes to making wines. I know many male grape growers/winemakers that have very strong convictions when it comes to viticulture and respecting soils, either working organically, biodynamically, low intervention, etc. This is great, but then this same individual sits down at the table – alpha male, head of the table, in the power seat, only gets up to open a bottle of wine. Meanwhile his wife or partner has cooked a 5-course meal to perfection, she hardly sits down during the whole meal, the classic Suzy homemaker of other times – entertaining, cleaning up, working overtime. She attends to all things domestic, but she also has her own job or profession on the side (we live in modern times, remember). And in addition to her job, she’s usually also working in her husband’s winery, completing orders, labelling, bottling, cleaning. In essence, three jobs and perhaps only one is paid. Whatever the power dynamics are within relationship (that’s none of my business), the contradiction between the enlightened or radical vigneron – who is concerned about the worms, bugs, and rocks in their soil – and this man that continues to operate in a traditional system of dominance when it comes to women (and even other minorities) is disappointing and discouraging.
There is no doubt that farming, winemaking, and running your own company is difficult. It is physically demanding, long hours, and often working in extreme conditions, particularly during harvest. But the role of women in wine continues to be a domestic one as the entertainer for visitors, the secretary, or the “easy jobs” in the winery. Yes, men are usually stronger than women, but that does not mean I cannot carry or push a 20kg case of grapes, lift heavy hoses, operate heavy machinery, or climb in, over and under different tanks as required. Still, every time I have worked a harvest I have had to request and/or demand and/or plead that I do the heavy work. I was there to learn, to experience actively. I had no intentions of merely pressing buttons or working the sorting table. But to be taken seriously and to feel like I was actually pulling my weight (quite literally), I had to fight to carry a case of grapes, actually taking it out of my male coworker’s hand. The winemaker would say to me, “You can’t carry it, you’ll hurt yourself, why not let the guys do it.” As chivalrous as it may appear, it does little to empower women and, in fact, can often isolate us, marking a clear distinction between the duties of a regular (male) cellar rat and that of a female one. I’ve also seen the faces of resentment of my male counterparts who are overworked and close to burning out during harvest. I don’t need a free pass from the required tasks because of my gender. I am perfectly capable of carrying, lifting and doing the same things as my male coworkers.
Here’s an interesting anecdote that sums up the above, at a winery where I worked, the way the roles were divided was that the men would work in the winery from 9am to 5pm, with a one-hour lunch break. The women would also work. They were seasonal workers and would pick grapes from 6 or 7am until 1pm, when the temperature reached 40C. They would then be sent home and would have to take care of the kids and do the house chores. Something curious at this particular winery, there was a man known as Mr. Spare Parts. Something of a hustler, he could get his hands on anything, including women. In fact, Mr. Spare Parts was the one who would negotiate the contracts of the local women that would pick grapes. He negotiated their hours and their pay with winery management, and would drive them around in the back of his pickup truck. This was a very poor region, which made Mr. Spare Parts a very popular and powerful man. He was known to take liberties with some of the women from time to time. Or at least he liked to brag about it.
STEREOTYPES – MORE THAN JUST SILLY WORDS
What’s in a joke? Well, quite a lot actually. At a recent visit to a winery in Navarra, the winemaker let loose some classic sexist remarks about women and wine. When a friend and I mentioned that we belonged to a women-only tasting group in La Rioja, he laughed and said smugly, “What do you taste, rose wines?” We ignored the question. And then he followed that comment with this one, “But women just end up fighting with each other anyway, so how does that work?” he mocked, with his ugly fat belly bouncing all over the place. I mustered as diplomatic a response as I could, driving my nails into the arms of my chair to stop myself for slapping him in the face or ripping my hair out. How can this be happening, I asked myself. On the way home I mentioned to the other people in the group how bothered I was by this comment. But the overall response was, well he’s a farmer from Navarra, what does he know and what does it matter? To which I can only say, HE SHOULD KNOW and IT DOES MATTER! The winery he represents receives international clients, which means racist, sexist and demeaning comments will not fly like they do in Spain where there is a higher tolerance (or unawareness) of these remarks. His remarks leave a bad impression on him and the winery he represents – I wasn’t a big fan of the wines and after that comment, not interested. Further, he is not a poor old farmer that doesn’t know any better. He is a winemaker with a university degree, working with a top French winemaking consultant. This is a highly-educated individual so there is no excuse for his sexist remarks.
You may think I’m blowing this out of proportion. What’s one small comment? But that’s the thing about stereotypes, they are repeated over and over again, so often that we do not realize that these are disrespectful and damaging. We hear these stereotypes until we normalize them. Case in point: A few weeks after the visit at the winery in Navarra, a similar comment about women not getting along was repeated by a (male) guest presenter at our women’s tasting group. Having finished his presentation, and sitting in on our tasting, he concluded,
“This will sound very sexist, but this is the first time I’ve been with a group of women that didn’t fight. I’m so impressed”.
Naturally, I became irate. But to my surprise, some of the women accepted this as a compliment, expressing that we were different than most women because we are a group with shared values, we allow each other to speak, we are friends, etc. As true as that is, I spoke out that day, because it was a sexist, macho comment that should have never been said – particularly in a women’s tasting group. (Also, here’s a hint, when you begin a sentence with “This will sound very sexist ….” Stop right there. It is. And you are not encouraging us, you are patronizing us).
What may seem like an innocent observation is in fact a harmful stereotype that perpetuates the notion that women are catty, that we can’t play nice, that we are bitches, mean girls, and cut-throat.
We are not these things. We are a product of our society, a society that is acutely competitive where men outnumber women in almost every industry, where most positions of leadership, power and influence are occupied by men and where women have been raised to seek the attention and approval of men. It is no wonder then, that women will adopt competitive attitudes and behaviors – just like men – so that we can occupy the few spaces that are available to us. And while men are free to have a lively disagreement or debate, women are labeled catty bitches. This is just one example of embedded stereotypes, but there are so many more. These stereotypes persist because of our inability to see the bigger picture – the reality – that women face not just in wine but in our daily lives. The stereotypes that depict women as weak, silly, dumb, bitches, femme fatales, gold diggers and the list goes on. Often, we don’t see them because it can often come in the form of a backhanded compliment, as noted above. Or, as a silly joke, like a man wearing a wig so as to be invited to a women’s tasting group (a true story and one that I will not get into here, but suffice to say that that incident was the catalyst for me writing this essay).
The language we use in wine is also indicative of the stereotypes that keep infiltrating our field; it is not unusual for some wine nerds to describe wines as feminine or masculine. I’m not referring to typical clichés that women only drink white and sweet wines, and men only red wines. No, in wine lingo, we discuss everything from body, tannins, structure, alcohol, and persistence. A wine that is lighter-bodied, bright, with silky tannins, elegant or delicate can be referred to as very feminine. While a wine that is full-bodied, round, muscular and structured, is masculine. Why do we use these useless descriptors? I once asked a social media influencer, an Italian Sommelier, why she used feminine and masculine as a way to describe two wines she was featuring. She responded,
“There is substantial difference in the structure of the feminine and masculine body. I think it’s nice to transpose it to wine.”
To that I would say, what about the body of a female boxer compared to a male horse jockey? Or just comparing two different women, with completely different bodies? One can be short and petite while the other tall and athletic. Yes, men are normally bigger and stronger but all bodies are different. This may seem pedantic, but it’s annoying to hear how a fine, delicate wine is feminine.
Women, like men, participate in overt and subtle sexism.
In our need to feel valued and acknowledged as professionals, we begin to adopt more masculine and competitive ways of communicating; being the loudest at a tasting, showing off about the wines we’ve had or the tastings we have been to, the people we know in the industry, constantly one-upping each other or putting each other down. I have met women who have introduced themselves as the wife-of or girlfriend-of famous winemaker. Their identity and sense of worth completely bound with that of their winemaker partner. I have been told by a female sommelier to smile more (ugh, please) so I would look friendlier and make more friends and acquaintances in the industry. I have also been told by a female academic that I didn’t understand anything about wine tourism because I was too young and inexperienced, thereby invalidating my opinion. These are just a few examples of ways we hurt ourselves and each other, and how we diminish our value in a trade that gives us little to begin with.
WE ARE NOT TELLING OUR STORIES – AND EVERY WOMAN HAS ONE
These are my personal experiences after only 5 years in this industry – I can only imagine the number of stories of women who have been in this industry for decades. I never shared these experiences before because I didn’t think they mattered, because I thought I was the only one who experienced them. The silence behind this issue (and other ones) in the wine industry needs to be broken.
The personal is political. All those stories with friends and colleagues in the industry are valid and worth discussing and examining. And these stories, however small and tiny and insignificant these may seem, are tiring. I’m tired of it. It is not okay for women to feel disrespected. It is not okay to feel uncomfortable and humiliated by another stupid joke. It is not okay to feel angry with an ad. It is just not okay.
We are not telling our stories because we feel they are not worthy of attention, because we think we need to learn to have thick skin; that as a professional, we should not be affected by such trivial little stories. But we need to begin telling our stories. It takes a severe form of violence and abuse to recognize that there is a problem. Yet it is those small, day to day experiences, those almost invisible actions that can cause just as much damage as the violent ones. The “micro-aggressions” that chip away at a woman’s self-esteem and allow damaging behaviors to persist. We need to discuss the way both men and women in the trade have normalized what is unacceptable. We need heaps more women in leadership positions in wine – in all areas of the trade. We – both men and women – must also be outspoken about the inequalities that exist and unlearn our traditional and cultural patterns that perpetuate sexism in our industry.
Women supporting women. I want to be better at that. This is my first step.
More to come in Part Two of this essay.