For Rania Zayyat and Cara Bertone, the beginning of 2020 looked bright. The Wonder Women of Wine conference was set for its second year in March, looking to build on a 2019 debut that featured prominent female sommeliers, winemakers, and industry professionals and explorations of the many ways in which sexism and misogyny permeated the wine industry.
Then, the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, forcing the cancellation of the 2020 conference that was deeply painful for everyone involved. That shutdown, followed by the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matters protests of the summer, marked the start of a period of upheaval that has come to define 2020. In the beverage industry, issues spanning a sexual assault scandal in the Court of Master Sommeliers, to appropriation of Black culture in craft beer, signaled to Zayyat and Bertone that their organization’s mission needed to change.
The result is Lift Collective, a platform designed to bring access and equality to the wine industry for marginalized peoples of all types, by offering discussion, mentorship, and scholarship opportunities to those who have traditionally not been represented by or within the wine industry. It’s Wonder Women of Wine, with a wider lens and a greater ambition.
Zayyat and Bertone each bring a wealth of experience to the table: Zayyat, currently the wine director for Bufalina in Austin, Tex., has nearly two decades’ experience working in the hospitality industry, starting as a restaurant host in high school and eventually diving more deeply into the world of wine. Bertone’s tenure in the restaurant and wine industry includes restaurants, as well as wine production, distribution, and importation, leading to her current role as national accounts sales manager for Folio Fine Wine Partners. Together, they bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the proverbial table — and their aim is to see more people around it.
“I have seen what happens when people get passed over in this industry: they leave it,” Bertone says. “We are about trying to find a way to make a safe space for marginalized people in this industry.”
VinePair spoke with the Lift Collective co-founders about the origins of the organization, how the unique challenges of 2020 shaped and refocused their efforts, and what new challenges and opportunities they’re tackling in 2021.
1. How was Lift Collective born?
Zayyat: I felt compelled to start an organization in late 2018. The #MeToo movement was prominent, and I was inspired to see women come together. I wanted to create a safe space for women to find mentorship, guidance, and community.
We launched our first two-day conference in March 2019. It was amazing, inspiring, and everything I could have asked for and more. Since that time a lot has come to light in the wine industry in terms of abuse, violence, labor rights, and more, so we decided to shift and expand the demographics we worked with to expand our reach.
2. Obviously, the decision had a lot of different motivations. Can you point to anything specific that really made the need to widen the focus clear?
Bertone: A lot of things that happened with respect to the George Floyd protests. We created a virtual job fair that happened in December, but the conversation around it started in August. We wanted to shift from the Wonder Women of Wine to more of a panel, a way to get our voice out without being together in person. We realized that we can’t be myopic, we can’t just be about one group being discriminated against.
3. As the Covid-19 pandemic worsened in March 2020, what was your approach to your planned in-person conference for late March?
Bertone: It was a very measured approach at the beginning, which involved listening to every major person in the Austin region. When we started to see certain large events in Austin being shut down, like when SXSW (South by Southwest) shut down, that was shocking. We saw other events that were similar in scope pivoting to online, but we had to ask if we were willing to fit this all into one day. As the months went on, we were able to see that we could move some of the panels online.
The Be the Change Job Fair came out of that, and what we realized during that time was that the access for people to attend virtually was way higher than we anticipated, which gave us a much bigger scope of people to bring our message to. Wonder Women of Wine was a national conference that had some global support, but virtual made it easier to get our message out there.
4. How did you make the decision to cancel?
Zayyat: As we saw so many other organizations pivot to a virtual space, we were in a way mourning the loss of not being able to hold the conference in person. It would have been our second year; we were really just building on the excitement and enthusiasm and applying what we learned from the first year. We basically canceled about two weeks before the event, and all the work our team had been doing for multiple months before came to a screeching halt.
However, that gave us the opportunity last year to be quiet, listen, and learn about what was happening in the wine industry; we didn’t want to have a knee-jerk reaction and jump into something unprepared. We knew virtual was a different beast than an in-person event and it took a few months to process what that would involve; and that included mourning the loss of all of our hard work and figuring out the best way to apply those lessons.
5. What are some of the components of these issues that Lift Collective is working to address and illuminate that might not be quite as top-of-mind for readers?
Zayyat: We often hear this word “diversity” used so heavily, not just in the wine industry. The idea is that we have to bring other people into the conversation, diversify who we work with, who we engage with. The second component of that is inclusion, and that’s a big piece that has been missing. It’s not just about having equal access to spaces, but how you are treated in those spaces. Are the people that you’re working with undergoing training to be respectful, to help you feel valued? We’re putting more emphasis on engaging with companies and potential employers to focus on the inclusivity piece so that all people feel not just welcome, but seen, respected, and heard; so we are amplifying their skill sets and not just amplifying their trauma.
Bertone: One of the most powerful things Lia [Jones, co-founder of Be The Change and a member of Lift Collective’s planning committee] said during our roundtable is, employers are doing a lot of things to try to be diverse, but that can be seen as just “ticking boxes.” Even if they’re doing great things, like implicit bias surveys for managers, that can’t just be held at upper levels of management. There needs to be an understanding of bias that goes all the way down to all employees.
6. What’s an example of bias that might not involve employment or promotion?
Zayyat: Even outside of the work space, another issue is the double standards that happen in these spaces we’re all familiar with. When [VinePair contributing editor] Julia Coney started speaking out early last year, she did an IG Live talking about going on these wine trips where you get hosted by an organization, you go overseas with a group, and in lots of the circumstances and scenarios, behavior that’s allowed to a white straight man isn’t allowed to her. If she was the person that was late on the bus the next day because they were out all night drinking, she wouldn’t be invited back. A conversation has to be had about access to spaces; there [may] be lots of scholarships, but what happens when you get into that space and it’s not inviting, there’s a feeling of not being welcomed? That drives a lot of people away. It’s about shifting the culture around how we are measuring professionalism. That’s tricky because we are in the alcohol industry, but we need to start holding people more accountable for their actions.
7. What has happened in the time since your last conference that has given you some optimism and hope that change is in fact happening?
Zayyat: We just had our #MeToo movement in the wine industry in the past year: There were several articles and stories regarding powerful figures in the wine industry who abused their power to control women. That’s a barrier we’ve broken down, but it also means we can potentially walk away from those kinds of spaces to create a more meaningful kind of community.
There are also new organizations arriving that are doing similar work [to us]; it may be in a more niche way, but that’s inspiring, and gives us more opportunities to collaborate with like-minded organizations and individuals to create the change we’re hoping to see.