Just another wine scandal? It’s time to go deeper and name it what it is

“The wine world loves a scandal”, a wine journalist once told me. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over these past weeks. A scandal shocks, shakes and gives people something to talk about. But it doesn’t necessarily move people into action. What moves people into action are two powerful emotions, emotions that we’re often not allowed to express, especially in the professional realm: anger and frustration. In my post on women in wine, someone commented that it was important not to be angry so as to not create backlash. It was sound advice because I have received backlash from a few individuals, (I also received heaps of support from women and men) but I believe anger and frustration are valid emotions and need to be recognized, acknowledged and reclaimed in this discussion.

A series of stories, posts, and articles have been published in these past few months that have created a sense of urgency to try to tackle what appeared to be a minor issue in the wine trade, one that had been pushed under the rug with each passing ‘scandal’, but reared its ugly head once again: sexism.

The Court Master Sommeliers America scandal revealed the extreme situations that women face in the hospitality sector, which include rape, assault and sexual harassment. The powerful articles by Julia Moskin in the New York Times exposed the many sides of assault and abuse of power within what was a highly respected wine educational organization. More than 21 women came forward and more than seven sommeliers of the CMS-A have been suspended or have stepped down, including the chairman of the organization, for sexual misconduct. The women’s stories revealed an organization that was riddled with corruption, that fostered a learning environment where inappropriate behavior was permitted, where the abusers were not held accountable for their actions and where the victims had to deal with their trauma alone, behind closed doors, or by leaving the industry altogether.

The wine world was shocked and disturbed by what had happened. And rightly so, the stories were appalling and infuriating. But this wasn’t the first time sexism, misogyny and other forms of abuse have come out of the dark wine closet. There have been previous cases of assault and harassment. There have also been previous cases of misogynist satire published by leading wine journalist, and there are countless blogs, posts and articles where women in wine have written about their experiences.

There is a great misconception for many people in the trade that sexism is something that happens elsewhere, across the pond or on the continent, but not on their turf and definitely not on their watch. However, within a short span of time women from the US to the UK, Italy and Spain, were writing about their experiences. The book Wine Girl by Victoria James, the posts and articles by Laura Donadoni, Amber Gardener, myself and surely more, all show that this is not a problem in one country nor is it specific to one sector of the wine industry. Sexism is alive in the wine industry in all its ugly forms: overt sexism, subtle sexism and benevolent sexism. Add to this mix a traditional structure where abuse of power, bullying and intimidation occur, and anger and frustration are not only natural responses but completely appropriate.

Women often fear that by showing anger, frustration or other strong emotions they may be labelled as hysterical, exaggerated or hypersensitive (Side note: “hysterical” was the word that Freud gave his female patients who were unable to articulate the trauma of their childhood abuse. Ref: Solnit, R., & Fernandez, A. T. (2014). Men explain things to me.). However, we can use these emotions as a barometer, to recognize that the stories that are coming out are not about one organization or one individual, they are not about a few angry women or highly sensitive group of younger women in wine. The anger, rage and frustration that women (and men) feel are valid and legitimate responses to mistreatment, unfairness and humiliation that create the scandals in the first place. These emotions should not be shushed away, but recognized as indicators of a serious problem. When we dismiss anger we collude, consciously or unconsciously, with something that is not okay.

Obviously, we can’t linger in anger perpetually. That is not healthy for an individual nor for the wine community. But we can acknowledge the emotions, and their role; how anger and frustration have allowed women to articulate their stories and to denounce bad behavior so as to raise awareness. These powerful emotions are a catalyst for change, for finding solutions or paving the path ahead. I believe that the collective anger and outrage from the latest scandal were the missing elements for some serious introspection by wine leaders, influencers and decision-makers of leading institutions to finally listen, to put pen to paper, to voice their concerns or to start making structural changes.

While there are many organizations and associations that have been set up to tackle some of these issues and empower women, such as the Wonder Women of Wine, the Women of the Vine and Spirits Foundation, Femmes du Vin, and very proud to see the newly formed Asociación de Mujeres del Vino Chile (*There is a longer list at the bottom of this post), there is much work to be done. Thus, every new article, every new initiative, every new conference that focuses on diversity, inclusion and gender equality in the wine industry are inspiring and hopeful. Those who have faced abuse can exhale, they can heal and continue to raise awareness. Those who may have never faced discrimination or have never acknowledged it are stepping up and using their platforms to bring these sticky, uncomfortable and controversial issues to the forefront of conversation, reaching more people in the wine world. And while it is easy to become jaded or cynical about initiatives as just PR campaigns or individuals jumping on the bandwagon of women’s or racial issues, acknowledging the problem is a step in the right direction. The bickering and arguing – particularly on social media – about who said what, why and how, even though they are completely valid reactions, distracts from the real issue. There is a problem. And it is a big one.

The industry is at a crossroad: will decision-makers/influencers revert to old ways of handling these scandals by ignoring them, by not holding those who abuse others accountable and responsible for their actions, or will the initiatives on diversity and inclusion generate changes for a more respectful, safe and fair industry? Will the chats and initiatives create changes that will trickle down to the bottom of the wine food chain? Or will these discussions only involve a small, closed circle? And will these discussions be heard on a global scale and in other languages?

Does the wine world love a scandal? Perhaps. But I’m too green to know if that’s true, and maybe too naïve to believe that after all that has been said, written and disclosed this is just another passing scandal. But if that turns out to be the case, then we have every right to be angry. And let’s stop calling it a scandal and name it what it is, abuse of power.

***

Here is a list of some of the upcoming chats and conferences that will highlight these issues:

Here are some organizations that have been set up to support women in wine and/or raise awareness on gender equality (I’ve tried to include as many as I could find, but I know there are more):

United States

Canada

United Kingdom

Spain

Argentina

Chile

Mexico

France

International

One Comment Add yours

  1. Natalia says:

    It’s never a one time situation as you have write, abuse of power doesn’t go away once the spotlight is turned off. Keep the conversation going.

    Like

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