On Women in Wine

In May last year, Christy Canterbury MW wrote an article on Tim Atkin MW’s blog entitled ‘Where next for women in wine?’ I loved its upbeat tone and optimism. In an era when some women seem more concerned with bashing men indiscriminately and stoking the fires of a sex war than being proactive in advancing their own cause, Christy focussed on the positive.

She pointed out the increase in ‘the number of women taking over the family cellars and vineyards as well as expanding their families’ presence on the world wine scene’ and the fact that, ‘34% of the Masters of Wine are women, and our ranks are quickly growing.’

A point Robert Joseph made in a recent tweet i.e. ‘How many European female wine bosses aren’t related to the founder?’ tempers slightly Christy’s optimistic statement but I still agree with her that decades ago, most of those girls and women would have been unable to take over their family’s business.

Christy extolled the importance of a positive attitude. One of her recommendations was to ‘know your allies. Or, find some.’ I couldn’t agree more. No man – or woman – is an island and building a network of people you can rely on is essential in any profession. Good words from former colleagues and clients have played a crucial part in helping me move to bigger and better jobs.

Her comment also resonated with me as I have been known to virtually adopt ‘work daughters’ i.e. younger colleagues I liked and still do my best to support.

She also said, ‘I don’t feel I’ve been discriminated against as a woman in the wine business,’ a refreshing message of hope for the next generation.  

Things have undoubtedly got better in the last thirty years.

Back in the day, I remember Robin Kinahan MW telling me, ‘Pay attention to Dorothée.’ She was the export secretary of a large French wine company. ‘She’s the one running the department,’ he said, ‘but women of her generation didn’t have the opportunities you’ve had.’

This is probably why I developed a bit of a hero worship for the impressive Claude Vialade when she was promoted to export director for Val d’Orbieu. If she could do it, I figured, there was hope for the likes of me.

Christy qualified her statement with, ‘I’ve been lucky. Maybe I’ve been barrelling ahead so hard that I haven’t seen it. Maybe it’s because I live in New York City. Maybe it’s because of the industry segments that I have worked in (largely retail buying and strategy development, restaurant buying and management, and journalism and public speaking.)’ I nodded in agreement.

‘Maybe it’s because I don’t have kids,’ she concluded. I winced.

Like Christy, I never felt discriminated against as a young woman. Yes there was some sexism, running the full gamut from mild paternalism to virtual or not so virtual sexual assault.

‘You remind me so much of my daughter,’ my first boss used to say. That annoyed me. I didn’t want an alternative father.

When I started receiving pornographic cuttings at my home address with my place of work’s postmark, the same man stopped me from going to the police and refused to conduct an official investigation. He explained that some of the men on the bottling line were simple creatures bound to be excited by my good looks.

I wasn’t happy but he must have acted somehow as the letters stopped. I was uncomfortable taking visitors to the bottling hall and staying late in the office for the rest of my stint with that company.

Oz Clarke once saved me from a buyer’s marauding hand in a bar in Bordeaux during Vinexpo. He skilfully deflected the situation and stopped me from punching an important client. 

Those were the days and these incidents annoyed me more than they traumatised me.

I believed, like Christy, that you make your own luck and you barrel ahead.

Unlike Christy, I got pregnant and my professional world came crashing down. My boss at the time told me I had changed priority. I went from pet to pain in the neck in a split second. I remember crying in the loo after a particularly bruising meeting and a female colleague banging on the door, saying, ‘Think of your baby.’

I tried to make my own luck. I applied for jobs left right and centre, some I was hopelessly unqualified for and some I could have done hanging upside down and with my hands tied behind my back. After asking me how soon we could meet, one potential employer went quiet and stopped returning my calls when I said I was pregnant.

One of my wine heroes at the time, gave me an interview for an exciting role. I was chuffed. After twenty minutes, he asked how much I wanted. I told him I was five months pregnant. He withdrew his offer explaining he needed someone quickly and that, as it was my first baby, there were too many imponderables for him to take a chance on me. He kindly added we’d meet again and there would be other opportunities. I managed not to burst into tears in his office but I bawled all the way home.

Robin Kinahan MW, again, tried to help and put me in touch with a renowned wine trade recruiter. We arranged a phone call and I explained my situation. I was heavily pregnant by then. ‘My dear girl,’ he said, ‘nobody will touch you with a barge pole right now. Have your baby, wait a few months and we’ll talk again.’ I cried again. His honesty was commendable but I felt helpless.

My boss closed the office I was running at the time and made me redundant. The agency that took over the business hired me as ‘memory of the brand’ at a salary 33% lower than my previous one . The most boring six months of my career ensued until I jumped ship and joined Waverley Vintners.

I wanted another child. Waverley bought IWS and my job was on the line. I tried again to make my own luck and suggested to my boss I become the intermediary between our expanded team and one of our French agencies. My idea was well received by all parties.  The export director of the French company, a man my own age, came over to meet me. We had a lovely lunch, wine trade style, and he asked, ‘You’re not pregnant by any chance?’

I don’t lie so I said I was but it was early days. I never heard from him again. No email, no letter, no call, until a former colleague who worked for that company called me.

‘I am bloody furious,’ she said. ‘He hasn’t got the balls to call you but he won’t hire you because you’re pregnant. I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news but I couldn’t bear to think of you waiting for a call that will never come.’

I miscarried a week later.

When I found out I was pregnant again, I had just started working for Vinival, a medium-sized Loire company. Once I had passed the three month-mark in my pregnancy I picked up the phone to my boss to share my news, fully expecting to be let go as I was still on probation.

‘Congratulations,’ he said. ‘When’s the baby due?’

I told him and waited for what I thought by then was inevitable.

‘Anything else?’ he asked after a long silence.

Jean Yves Langlais, I nicknamed you Cher Chef – dear chief, for the linguistically challenged – from then on and vowed I’d work harder for you than I’d ever worked before. You are a credit to the human race.

Incidentally, my eldest daughter is a bit of a stress ball whereas the second one is cool as a cucumber. Is it DNA or the consequences of my very different pregnancies? I’ve always wondered.

I’ll spare you the chapter about childcare and how tricky it can be to manage unless you’re made of money. Let’s just say that I had to be creative at times.

Years later a few wine women and I gathered for an informal Christmas do. We kept on bumping into each other at tastings and other industry related occasions and thought it would be nice to have dinner together. I left with one of them as we were both headed to Waterloo. She said she’d found the amount of talent around the table a tad overwhelming, from successful entrepreneurs to Masters of Wine and skilled winemakers. I pointed out that out of twelve women, she was the only one in fulltime employment, married and with children. I was separated by then and had learned the hard way that having it all isn’t easy.

So yes, having kids makes a massive difference or at least, it did for me. Christy’s other point about which jobs – buyer, journalist – may be more women friendly than others is equally valid. It’s much easier for large structures such as supermarkets to accommodate their buyers’ pregnancies than it is for the typically smaller and leaner operations on the selling side.

Or as a buyer once said to me, ‘You wouldn’t have gone through all that if you’d been stacking shelves in one of our stores.’ I admittedly had my daughters at the relatively late ages of 34 and 40, by which time I’d done reasonably well for myself. He meant well which made his comment even more shocking.

When I told her about this blogpost, a friend asked me, ‘Why do you need to rake all that up? It’s such a long time ago.’

It is, but the good fight is far from over. When one of my younger colleagues got pregnant not so long ago and decided to take a year off, I was told by the then HR director – a woman – that she could kiss her career goodbye. When I objected I was told I was putting myself on a collision course with management.

Another point: I have been meaning to buy and read Helen Lewis’ book, ‘Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights’. How is it that successful women are often described as ‘difficult’? Would they have succeeded if they’d been less ‘difficult’?

A leading industry figure used to live in my neighbourhood and we often bumped into each other in the street.

‘I was asked about you recently,’ he once said to me.

‘I hope you praised me to the skies,’ I said.

‘I said you were good but gobby.’

That hurt. It’s not nice to be called gobby, especially to your face. I may be gobby but is it nature or nurture? I don’t think I’d still be around if I had been meek and mild.

The other day, I joined a Twitter chat about a young and pretty female influencer Robert Joseph was praising for attracting a new audience to wine. I objected on the grounds that she relied more on titillation than quality of content. I added that caressing suggestively a bottle of wine, showing a vast expanse of a perfectly shaped thigh when opening said bottle and concluding with a flourish that she’d ‘fuck that wine’ struck me as a betrayal of the hard work my generation had to do to gain kudos in the world of wine.

A well-meaning male feminist commented, ‘The 90’s called and want their way of thinking back.’

When I asked what he meant, he wrote, ‘What do you call then(sic) when you’re judging a woman by the way she dresses?’

That stung because I genuinely don’t care what other women wear. Maybe if he reads this piece he’ll understand better where I am coming from.

My daughters are appalled when I tell them how it was for women in the 90’s. I would like to think we’ve made the world a better place for them. But I’d be mortified if they chose to use their looks rather than their brain to succeed professionally. 

I told Tim Atkin MW I would pen an answer to Christy’s article at the IWC dinner last July, almost a year ago. I started and stopped writing this piece many times since. I wasn’t and I am still not sure about the wisdom of sharing so much.

This is for you, Claire and Alice, and for my work-daughters too.

Christy Canterbury MW’s article can be found here https://timatkin.com/where-next-for-women-in-wine/

The picture illustrating this article was taken in 1991 at an event organised by Waverley Vinters.

7 thoughts on “On Women in Wine

    1. I always wanted to be a marketeer and I ended up as a saleswoman. I really want to be a fiction writer but this piece has had more hit that the rest of the novel put together. Story of my life 😉

      Like

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