If wine has no female representation, customers have no chance
By: Charlie Brown
Sexism in wine can take many forms. In fact, it’s so insidious, it can manifest itself in ways and at times that blindside you, leaving you wondering what the hell just happened. Did that person who you previously liked really just say that?
I have read Amber Gardner’s article in the Buyer about sexism in service, Vinka Danitza’s blog post about her experiences as a woman in wine, Jancis Robinson’s piece on the tipping point for women in wine and the rather disturbing New York Times article about sexual harrassment in the Court of Master Sommeliers.
They resonate. I’ve heard many similar stories from friends with first-hand experience, stories that make me terrified for the future of women in the wine trade.
The selling of my wine business last month has given me some time to reflect on my own experiences in the trade, in particular the sexism I so often encountered from customers.
My path to wine was not a traditional one. Before I opened my store, I did not have a single minute of professional wine trade experience. I did not work up the ranks, my husband and I just had an idea and ran with it.
And I rather naively thought that because I was the boss, I’d be taken seriously. That my authority would shine out like a beacon. That customers would know who to talk to. To believe what I say. That my voice would have weight.
But there was an issue. The elitist, male domination of wine still exists.
So, not only was I a boss when only 36% of small businesses are owned by women, I was the owner of a wine store. In a rather conservative part of the UK.
Although parts of the trade are working hard to better represent women, this has not yet trickled down into the collective UK consciousness, to the very people who keep us in business.
The wine trade’s internal problem with female representation has damaged its external reputation. As one customer once put it to me: “Wine is just for posh blokes in gold button blazers.”
One Saturday afternoon, I was training my new manager on the shop floor when a guy came in. My manager recommended a few bottles to him. The customer then started to tell my manager that he’d been in a few years before, and I had served him. He’d apparently told me some things about wine that were “clearly over her head.”
“Mind you,” he said, “she was married to another bloke back then. You must be her new guy.”
Every time I think about this conversation, it makes me mad and sad in equal measure. Mad because this customer had assumed that a) his (inaccurate, as I recall) wine knowledge would be over my head and b) I would only be able to be a part of my own wine store if I had a man with me at all times.
And sad because it was not my only experience.
Like the time a customer asked within a couple of minutes how many children I had. When I said none, he asked ‘when I was going to get on with it.’ (I think all childless women, not just those in wine, can relate to this.)
Or another time when I had a strange three-way conversation between myself, a male customer and my then-new male manager. The customer would only talk to my manager. My manager didn’t know the answer to the customer’s questions so I would answer the customer but the customer would only speak back to my manager. And round in circles we went.
Or an even more bizarre experience when I greeted a customer from behind my counter, who then proceeded to ask for a recommendation for a bottle from an older couple sitting down having a glass of wine. When they politely told her that they were just customers and she would need to speak to me, she said “oh, sorry, I thought you were just the Saturday girl.”
We have a wider problem here. Not only do the internal workings of the wine trade have an issue with sexism – as pointed out in the aforementioned articles – but the very customers we are serving carry this idea with them too.
The wider problem
The only thing women are really asking for here is to be treated with the same respect as our male counterparts. Unfortunately, some – indeed perhaps many – men, feel that this is already the case, so why do we need to go further? Women have had their way, right? The #metoo movement solved all the problems, did it not?
The female stereotype may have changed from a meek woman doing as she is told, to a nagging wife who puts men in their place but the inference is still the same. Men think they’ve thrown us a bone because they’ve allowed us to ‘find our (nagging) voice’, but it’s still as dangerous as the quiet, servitude stereotype of yesteryear because there is still no mutual respect.
Many men are happy to be painted as downtrodden by the women in his life because it’s a societal trope of their own making. A condescending pat on the head, a ‘yes, you can be the boss if you like, darling.’
When being subject to mild sexism – which can be the hardest to call out – I’ve often remarked that the problem is not that I’ve heard a blatantly sexist remark, rather it’s that I’m constantly reminded that I’m a woman. There’s nothing equal about it because the framework of the conversation is skewed. My opinions are still formed by a woman, not a man.
Even just recently I was thrown into an uncomfortable conversation with a male winemaker who was trying to cajole my husband into admitting that ‘she must wear the trousers in your relationship,’ whilst my husband and I were trying to persuade him – not with much luck – that our relationship is a partnership that doesn’t define itself by stereotypical gender roles.
My husband and I were joint, 50/50 partners in our business but the perception from some customers was often that he was the actual owner, and I ‘just worked a little bit behind the scenes,’ despite our very vocal position that the company was equally made up of me and him.
There was always a look of surprise and suspicion each time my husband or male manager – or indeed older female assistant – said ‘Charlie is the owner!’ I was the last person in that company of four to be thought of as the boss because 28-year-old women do not do things like open wine stores.
Yes, wine is a traditional world
There are reasons behind why wine has become a male-oriented product. We’re talking about something that is made in rural communities throughout conservative Western countries, sold by men, for a male audience, despite the fact that 60% of wine drinkers are women. So it’s little surprise that wine’s worldly reputation is that it’s by men, for men. Because for so long, it was.
I hear excuses from trade and customers alike about why we should maintain this status quo. Or at least not think too much about it. It can ruin the romanticism of the wizened old winemaker in the rural backwaters of France, Spain, Italy.
But as much the world is open to anyone with an internet connection, excuses are becoming harder to swallow. As Vinka said when confronted with a sexist winemaker:
“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.”
So what can we do about it?
Of course, little is going to change if we – both men and women – don’t talk about this. Large societal problems such as sexism and racism are not solved overnight but with strategic,
long-term plans that reverberate down to younger generations where there may be more of a chance for ideas to stick.
I must admit, most of my experiences with sexism did not come from the mouths of younger men and women, it was almost always an older generation. Things are – slowly – changing.
But if we want to change the world’s perception of the wine trade, to stop women not only being subjected to sexist remarks from their colleagues but from the customers they serve too, it has to come from the inner workings of that industry.
We’re asking for a seismic shift in attitude which means placing a greater emphasis on those who are marginalised than those who are not. To see a tilt, we need an over-correction.
So whether you’re in the wine trade or not, seek out women writers, women winemakers, restaurants with female sommeliers, women-owned wine stores. Give them more of a voice. Give them a job. Mentor them. Ask them their opinions and actually listen.
And don’t ever assume that the youngest female in your local wine store is just the Saturday help. Otherwise many years later you might find her writing about you…