There’s an old myth that women shouldn’t be allowed to step foot in a wine cellar for fear of tarnishing the fruit. Even today, there is a silent acceptance that women and people of color in the winemaking industry don’t have access to the same opportunities as their white male peers.
Following the social justice movements like #MeToo in 2018, Rania Zayyat began to examine her own experiences as a woman in the wine and hospitality industry. The movement struck a chord with her and other minorities in the industry who had faced hardships based on their identities. This is especially true when it comes to entrepreneurship in winemaking: The Terroir Noir: 2020 Survey of Black Wine Entrepreneurs revealed that less than 1 percent of U.S. wineries are Black-owned, despite the fact that more than 10 percent of American wine drinkers are Black. And when it comes to working in wine organizations, women feel significantly less compensated and as though they have fewer opportunities for growth compared to their male colleagues.
Behind closed doors were hushed conversations around gender and race discrimination, and an ever-present fear of speaking openly about inequality. The strength of women coming together during the #MeToo Movement was the spark that ignited Zayyat’s desire for collective action within her own industry.
“It seemed like the whole world was paying attention,” Zayyat says. “I figured the most impactful way to bring a lot of these hushed conversations to the forefront of the industry and really start to try and reckon with them, and to find solutions to addressing them, was a conference.”
Setting Change in Motion
As an advanced sommelier named a “40 Under 40 Tastemaker” by Wine Enthusiast magazine in 2021, Zayyat was no stranger to the industry and its struggles. However, Zayyat explains that, at the time, she had no non-profit experience, and she wasn’t sure how she was going to fund or organize the event. She began sending out emails to “anyone and everyone” she could think of. But the community rallied, and people showed up to what Zayyat describes as “a really beautiful event.” The show-out inspired Zayyat and her colleagues to establish the Wonder Women of Wine, the original name of the conference from September 2019.
The rise of other social justice movements throughout the course of the pandemic once again inspired the non-profit team to expand their mission beyond just supporting women, to supporting anyone who is underrepresented. Now renamed Lift Collective, the non-profit advocates for BIPOC, LGBTQ, and deaf and disabled professionals in the wine community.
Through grants, entrepreneurship curriculums, mentorships, networking, and conferences, Lift Collective empowers underrepresented wine professionals to start their own projects. According to Zayyat, businesses founded by members of marginalized communities are often more equitable from the start, but there are many obstacles to overcome.
“A lack of access to capital and lack of access to mentorships or valuable relationships with folks who can provide those types of resources are the biggest barriers to entry,” Zayyat says. “There’s also just the emotional labor of being expected to be the voices of change within their companies and organizations.”
For marginalized people in the industry, creating that space to empower one another and share resources is a daunting and exhausting task. However, Lift Collective is now partnering with Assemblage, another non-profit, this one based in Oregon, “aimed at addressing disparities within the global wine industry,” as stated on its website.
Building a Stronger Community, Together
The Assemblage Symposium was founded in January 2019 by Rachel Adams, an Oregon native who has been working in the wine industry for over 10 years with partners like Rex Hill Winery, A to Z Wineworks, and Bethel Heights Vineyard. She also has a background in women’s health and justice non-profits. Assemblage, like Lift, aims to organize high-end professional wine events that are typical of the industry, but “give the microphone” to those who are underrepresented, or, as Adams prefers, “even intentionally ignored.”
The wine industry reveres “tradition,” Adams explains, which makes creating change difficult, whether it’s introducing new winemaking processes, adopting less Euro-centric flavor descriptions, or auditing workplaces for biases.
Adams says of Assemblage’s founding: “We originally focused on amplifying the work of diverse women in wine, but quickly expanded our mission to include all underrepresented wine professionals. As a queer woman in wine myself, I knew intimately the challenges that marginalized folks face in this business. Still, as a cis-gendered white woman, I also knew I was experiencing a fraction of the difficulties my colleagues of color, transgendered folks, and disabled folks were facing in wine.”
Both Lift Collective and Assemblage are represented in the Diversity in Wine Leadership Forum, a resource and forum started by Maryam Ahmed of Maryam + Company that aims to bring together organizations focused on diversity and equity in the wine community. Through the Forum, Zayyat had connected before with Rachel Adams, Assemblage’s founder, so when the idea of holding a conference in 2023 floated around, Zayyat knew she had to reach out again.
“We’ve both struggled with the idea of putting on a conference every year. We’re familiar with the socially sustainable element of how we deplete ourselves when we’re putting on these conferences. It made more sense for us to pool our resources, pool our efforts, and through that, really be able to expand the mission of both of our organizations, which operate very similarly, so we can reach more potential partners,” Zayyat says.
Lift and Assemblage both plan on hosting future conferences by rotating who hosts the conference every year, providing more opportunities for partners and sponsors to connect with different communities through programming and activities.
Lift Collective Conference 2023
For the 2023 conference, there’s a lot to look forward to.
Speakers include Tahiirah Habibi of The Hue Society, Maryam Ahmed, and Denise Silverman from the Wine & Food Foundation, as well as Peter Cook, a deaf wine professional working with Uncorked Access, an organization of accessibility consultants for the wine and hospitality industries. Panel topics cover leadership, mental health and wellness, centralizing social good in business, radical self-acceptance, and more.
Zayyat says: “We also want to have fun at the conference. Obviously, we’re talking about a lot of very heavy subjects, but at the end of the first day we’ll have a great walk-around wine tasting featuring different producers from around the country.”
The conference will also feature the Melanin Minds Reset Lounge that allows attendees to stop and reflect in a quiet, safe space throughout the day. Events like the Lift and Assemblage conference set a powerful example by providing a platform for individuals to share their experiences and access important resources and relationships. As the industry continues to evolve, it’s essential that these voices are valued and heard, and these conferences are an important step in that direction.
The conference is being held from May 22 to May 23 in Austin, Texas. Regular, VIP, and virtual tickets are available on Lift Collective’s conference page. There are also “Community” tickets available, which grant access to both days of the conference as well as the wine-tasting event, available for in-person attendees at a more accessible rate. Virtual-only tickets are now $50 so more people have the opportunity to attend. Tickets for the May 22 wine tasting, Taste the Change: A Pouring Event, are available on the event page.
This article is sponsored by Lift Collective and Assemblage.