You would be forgiven for thinking that we are living in a marvelous time for women in the wine industry. With headlines like “The Rise of the Female Sommeliers” and “Sex and the Sommelier: Make Way for Women,” women are showing up everywhere. From “13 Badass Female Winemakers” to “New York City’s Pioneering Female Sommeliers,” women seem to be making big strides in wine making and tasting.
As a female wine writer, I should be delighted by this celebration of “female” sommeliers and winemakers. Surely this explosion of coverage of women in wine is cause for excitement. But I’m not excited. In fact, I hate it.
How could that be? you might ask. How could I stand apart from my female colleagues? Shouldn’t there be some sense of camaraderie, a support system, the mythological “sisterhood,” if you will, among us women in this male-dominated industry?
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In fact, some of my closest female friends work in top restaurants, directing beverage programs and providing customers with the highest quality wine advice. They serve prestigious bottles to an array of clientele. They manage a team of wait staff, oversee entire cocktail lists and beverage programs, and bear some of the most respected titles in the industry. On the other side of the bottle, some of the best wines I’ve ever tasted have been crafted at the hands of female winemakers, making imperative decisions behind the scenes, putting their intricate expertise into the essential decisions behind the product.
And yet, the coverage these “female somms” and “female winemakers” receive infuriates me. Why, in the 21st century, do we still feel the need to emphasize the fact that these professional industry workers doing their jobs — and doing them very well, at that — are female?
For decades now, we haven’t called female college students “coeds.” I’ve never heard anyone say they’re going to get a cavity filled by their female dentist. I’ve never heard someone tell of a physical exam they underwent at the hands of their female doctor. No one has ever told me they got advice from their female lawyer. There is no explosion of articles in highly regarded newspapers about how female professors are taking over academia. We don’t emphasize the gender of any of these professionals; the simple title of what they do is enough. So why, in the year 2016, are we still talking about female sommeliers and female winemakers?
The answer is no doubt because the wine industry is so male-dominated. We call attention to the gender of these women because they are such a rarity. It’s intended as a compliment, praise for women who have broken a glass ceiling.
And yet, despite how it’s intended, calling these accomplished women “females” is a direct insult to the work they’ve put into building their striking careers. Becoming a sommelier takes grueling hours of studying, tens of thousands of flashcards, early mornings and late nights, memorizing and reciting, blind-tasting and study sessions. The same can be said for the work it takes to become a producer of wine. To be a winemaker, gender aside, requires you to be half scientist and half artist; part agriculturalist, and 100 percent perfectionist. You must understand the science behind pHs and acids, molecule formations and plant biology, while still having an intricate palate and discernment for taste. These jobs are not easy — and their titles stand alone in reflecting the immense amount of work and knowledge behind the bottle.
Placing “female” before these prestigious job titles shifts the emphasis from the role – and the immense and impressive work it entails – to the gender of the person performing that role. We’re no longer focusing on the fact that this skilled individual is an educated sommelier or talented winemaker; instead, we’re highlighting her gender over her craft. “Female” becomes the focus over winemaker or sommelier, and gender takes precedence over skill or prestige.
And though it’s meant to be celebratory, calling a woman a “female” anything is actually rather belittling. Oh, you’re a woman and you can make wine? You’re a female and also a sommelier? Despite its pretentions to flattering said “female,” it’s a demeaning appellation, suggesting that women aren’t fully capable of executing these career roles, and if they do somehow manage and even flourish, they should be set apart through gender recognition.
That’s not to say that it’s easy for women to make it in this heavily male-dominated industry. “Rising to power in an industry that used to be completely male-dominated is certainly empowering,” Victoria James, an accomplished sommelier and wine director at Michelin-starred restaurant Piora, told me. At the same time, James believes that the terms “female somms” or “female winemakers,” although meant in a positive way, are outdated. “We should celebrate the accomplishments of women without belittling how far we’ve come,” she says. “Yes, we can make wine. Yes, we can serve wine. We are also allowed to drive and vote now, too.”
Of course, not everyone agrees. Viviana Navarrete, a winemaker at Leyda Winery in western Chile, feels that people talking about female winemakers makes her feel “proud and strong.” When she started out in the wine industry in Chile 15 years ago, there were very few women making wine. Now, she says, she believes women “add something special” to the wine business. “Women are more detailed and responsible,” Navarrete says. “And in wines, everything is about details.” It means there is a special place for women in this industry, where they can excel beyond their male counterparts. “We are leaders in some valleys,” Navarrete says. “We make really interesting wines, maybe a little bit more delicate and elegant.”
Along with the strides women have made in the industry, Navarrete says she’s happy to accept the recognition that comes with being called a “female winemaker.” “I do not take it as an offense,” she explained. “The wording implies that we have won a space in the winemaking scene, working with excellence and passion.”
But most of the women I spoke to were less enthusiastic about being identified by their gender, like Pascaline Lepeltier, one of the most talented sommeliers in the world. She is one of only 23 women and 146 men certified through the American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers. Lepeltier explained that the issue isn’t just that we’re using the terms “female sommelier” and “female winemaker;” it’s much larger than that, in fact. The issue is what those terms represent — and they represent a problem that goes way beyond the wine industry or the semantics of how you talk about women. Put simply, as a society, we just can’t handle a woman in a position of power.
Oh, we can handle the inclusion of women. Sure, go ahead, become a sommelier, make wine, or, on a governmental level, work that role in Congress, claim that Secretary of State position. But what happens when those women seek to take a step further — when that winemaker desires to claim ownership of that winery, when that sommelier dreams of opening and owning her own restaurant, or, hell, when that Secretary of State decides to take the plunge and try to claim that presidential role? We, as a society, freak out. When it comes to ultimate power, we still don’t want women to get their hands on it.
And it turns out that in the world of winemaking and wine tasting – just like for that ultimate role, Leader of the Free World – there is still a glass ceiling. Rather than admit women into the ranks of winemakers and sommeliers as full-fledged professionals, we call them “female sommeliers” and “female winemakers.” That celebratory gendered adjective is proof not of women’s advances in the wine industry, but quite the opposite. It’s a marker of how far they still have to go to be treated equally by the industry and the papers that write about it.
The semantic issue is not the cause of women’s struggle in the wine industry; it’s rather a symptom of a larger problem of women in leadership roles. Tackling those larger issues starts with breaking down the barriers that are helping prop them up, and speaking of “female” sommeliers or winemakers is one of them. The irony in the wine industry is that breaking that glass ceiling starts with taking the “female” out of these headlines, and finding ways to actually support women making it to the top echelons. That would be a revolution I’m on board with.