Women in wine: 5 moments that reshaped wine in 2020

Updated: Mar 8

The last live event that Vignette Wine hosted in 2020, before the pandemic hit, was an #International Women's Day celebration of women and wine with a Bacchanalian feasting theme: We channeled Paculla Annia, (the original Bacchanalian priestess of Rome) with a multi-sensory tasting menu, a bath full of grapes to crush and the electric energy that you only get when a group of high-vibe women unite for a cause over a few glasses of wine.


A year has passed and the pandemic has reshaped the world with an alacrity and scope that we could hardly have imaged when we gathered there that night.


For women in wine, 8th March 2021 is a very different place to the 8th March 2020. In this post I'm reflecting on 5 moments that have contributed to that, in a year of seismic change.


1. #BLM and the problematic language of "Masters".


It probably won't surprise you that wine has a diversity problem. The Court of Master Sommeliers, (the living embodiment of the wine industry's old-fashioned, white male-flavoured and painfully hierarchical core), was already beleaguered by a frankly jaw-dropping exam cheating scandal, when the industry's diversity problem came under the spotlight. As a key industry body and gatekeeper, their silence on the matter soon become deafening.


They finally released a statement, (two weeks after the widespread social media blackout) in which they pledged support and the desire to do better. They celebrated the scholarship they had provided to Wine Empowered, (a not-for-profit seeing to diversify the wine industry) and pledging support for The Hue Society, a community promoting black wine professionals, founded by black sommelier Tahiirah Habibi. The problem was, no one in the antiquated court had discussed this with Habibi. In fact, Tahiirah had made a conscious decision to distance herself from the CMS after a negative experience as a young sommelier taking her Certified Sommelier exams. In order to be allowed permission to speak, you are required to address the examiners as "Master". (If that sounds more like some uncomfortable ego-tripping antebellum fantasy, than a professional certification, you'd be right. More on the toxic culture within the court later). Despite having previously aspired to become the first black female Master Sommelier, this tone deaf experience led Tahiirah to walk away from an organisation that failed to see the language as problematic. 'I just couldn't imagine having to pour a glass of wine for someone while calling them 'master'.' Her instagram video in which she talked of this experience, calm but exhausted, was widely shared:


"Something died that day and something was reborn as well. It's not something that I went on a crusade about, I didn't go to deter people from going through the system but I knew that I needed to remove myself from this particular education organisation because they just did not align with my values or my humanity, for that matter.


I found that to be incredibly egregious and tone deaf. [...] Nobody in that room thought, 'Hey, maybe this is not ok". And so from that point on I never dealt with the Court of Master Sommeliers again. I have kept my peace, but I chose another path which was community. I went on and I was determined for myself to make a great career without having that validation. [...]


This full circle moment that happened last week when I was getting texts and people congratulating me on being with the Court of Somms - [...] was a complete shock to me, because no-one reached out to me and asked me if it was OK, or if I was in alignment with what they were putting out . People [were] saying 'We've been waiting to see what they were going to say, and were so happy that you're doing this with them, it makes us feel better', and I feel like that gave them a sense of comfort to know that a black organisation was in alignment with them. But I did not have anything to do with those statements. [...].


I would have told them that, institutionally, they have some work to do in order for this black organisation to be in alignment with them. [...] A big misconception about racism is that it's all anger and hate, but racism is many things. It manifests itself in economics. It manifests itself through access. It manifests itself through ignorance and privilege. As a structure, they have a lot of work to do [...]. I created Hue Society as as result of those things that happened to me and other racial things that have happened to me thoughout my career, from being sent home because I had braids in my hair, and all kinds of things. [...]

"If were saying that the Court of Masters is the pinnacle and the peak of aspiration for this industry than you guys will need to challenge each other to make this industry and this institution accessible for everybody. I mean, enough. Enough. We shouldn't be retroactively used as tokens in 'safe' stances."

Her video was shared by prominent figures in the industry and viewed widely.


The Court has now abandoned this antiquated practice and will 'move to officially end any use of 'Master + Last name' only'. Any references to 'Master Sommelier' must use the full term now.





2. CAMERON DIAZ LAUNCHES A 'CLEAN WINE' BRAND


Cue righteous outrage from the industry. How dare she insinuate that all other wine is somehow 'unclean'? Critics lamented the Goop-ification of wine - who are these silly, unqualified women and their embarrassing California clean-living ways? Traditionalists mocked the scant but lifestyle-driven label info; "Pairs well with: The warmth of the sun and company of your best friend", while hardcore Naturalistas mocked the conventional winemaking credentials.. Sulphites? Ha! Fining?! Ha! Commercial yeasts? Come on!


But the wine industry has left itself wide open to this. While the wine world continues to dig more and more rabbit holes to fall down, (biodynamic, natural, organic, orange...) consumers are left on the outside, slightly bewildered, just wanting a nice glass of wine, and still wondering whether there might be traces of fish guts or glyphosate in their wine.


The lack of a requirement to list ingredients on the label as well as the general mystery surrounding winemaking makes it a shoo-in for a health & wellness authority with deep pockets like Diaz to come along, cry foul on the industry and launch a product that takes advantage of exactly that disconnect.


As I explored in a previous post if it's lucky naiveté or Machiavellian genius is beside the point; whether it's with a girly giggle or a maniacal laugh, Diaz will be laughing all the way to the bank.


And laughing she has been, as she's now launched a 3rd and 4th wine to her range, a smooth red and traditional method sparkling. The marketing is a masterclass in light, bright, insta-worthy visuals and a lifestyle-led tone of voice that feels accessible and contemporary.


It is not concerned with soils, terroir, grapes. Instead it focuses on mood, moment, taste profile and permissibility.





'It's light, delicious and so French' Diaz says of the rosé. Of the white: 'I drink it as a spritzer; the White over ice cubes, topped off with sparkling water. A true refreshment'. This is wine for your self-care rituals, another for your girly catch ups, and one for your Netflix binge. 'Pairs well with 'Potato chips & The Crown', declares a timely Instagram post.


Love it or hate it, this lifestyle-led shift is irreversible. That Diaz has been able to do this, is, after all, a product of our failure to reach what the industry arrogantly calls 'lower-involvement' consumers - that is, most normal drinkers then.


Far from laughing at Diaz, the wine industry needs to seriously take note.





3. WHO IS #WINEBITCH?


A mysterious author. A serialised, forensic excoriation of the previous weeks' happenings in the wine world, secretly shared amongst wine's inner circles. Virtuosic vitriol, disguised as humour. The cruelty was directed not solely, but overwhelmingly at younger, female, newer voices in the wine social media bubble. He described influencers ("breast owners" apparently) as "asinine, trustafarian parasites feeding off the wheezing, limping host of a stumbling wine industry".


The venom was a concoction of familiar sexist tropes: these women were unqualified, precocious, dumb, spoilt, only able to do what they do because of rich husbands or fathers.


Wine bitch was the personification of every woman's worst inner fear when they think about putting themselves "out there''. That inner critic that says - the boys will secretly laugh behind your back. They'll mock your looks, your ideas, your aspirations or your qualifications.


But who is wine bitch? The author was shrouded in secrecy for a long time, as he continued to send out his diatribes and inner circles continued to laugh at his victims' unknowing expense. Turns out, it was a senior and high profile industry figure, star of a Netflix show ('The Wine Show'), recently let go from Berry Bros. It was the dark inner monologue of an outwardly affable, avuncular figure of authority in the industry.

We spend so much time fighting against these inner voices, we call it 'Imposter Syndrome', and tell ourselves these fears are irrational, we're inventing some sort of 'bogey man' that is just in our heads.

So to then discover that actually yes, they are, literally laughing at you, not in whispers but in enthusiastically written diatribes, secretly shared in the inner circles of the proverbial old boy's club. We'd never have known his identity but for his own hubris that led to his unmasking: he couldn't resist tweeting a few of the finer examples of his poison pen. The parallels were too obvious to miss. And so the scandal broke. His identity was revealed and the episode amplified by some brave social media commentators, (who received cease & desist letters), where others would have preferred to brush it away.


How to separate satire from mere cruelty? The revelation of who is was, was key. For a senior male and influential figure to be 'punching down' to younger, aspiring members of the industry, and so personally, was repellent.


The good part is that the proverbial Bogey Man has been unmasked, metaphorically and literally. He existed, and not just in our heads, and now he's been called out. That's the first step to drawing a line under it and moving on from it into a new phase where there's room for all voices .



4. WINE'S #METOO MOMENT: THE FALL OF THE COURT


On October 29th the New York Times published an article: The Wine World’s Most Elite Circle Has a Sexual Harassment Problem




The exposé detailed a culture of toxic masculinity, abuse of power and privilege, and an ingrained culture of sexism and sexual misconduct. From the low-level sexism of inappropriate comments and behaviour (that probably every women who's ever worked in a bar or restaurant will recognise), to promises of advancement in return for sexual favours and outright sexual assault and rape.


The culture has existed for years, putting many women off seeking higher levels of certification (only 27 out of 158 Master Sommeliers are female) and leaving those that did, feeling like it was the price of advancement.


The "Somm" Netflix documentaries have certainly done their bit to deify the achievement of 'Master Sommelier'. MS's like Fred Dame, one time President of the court, acquired a god-like quality of being untouchable.


"Grading of the final test is cloaked in secrecy, determined by examiners drawn from the senior ranks of master sommeliers. Letters of recommendation, access to expensive wines for tasting practice and educational trips to wine regions are also needed to pass — and are all in the hands of these senior masters, who are, overwhelmingly, older white men.

This dynamic has turned a system that should provide mentorship and equal opportunity to women into a bastion of sexual harassment and coercion.

“Among certain men, there’s no attempt to hide it and no shame in it,” said Jonathan Ross, 37, who has been a master sommelier since 2017. “It’s like something from another era.”


3 years after Hollywood had its #Me Too moment, the wine world has followed suit. After the article, many more women came out with similar stories. Eleven male Master Sommeliers were suspended in total on allegations from at least 21 different women.


'Sommelier' has gone from being a coveted accolade to something such more problematic. At least 4 female Master Sommeliers renounced their hard-earned titles in solidarity. (including Alpana Singh of Terra & Vine in Illinois, Corkbuzz founder Laura Fiorvanti and Racines partner Pascaline Lepeltier). Elizabeth Schneider, author and Podcaster of Wine for Normal People no longer refers to herself as a Certified Sommelier for similar reasons.


An entirely new and much more diverse board was announced in December, to remake the Court of Master Sommeliers from the bottom up. What's next for The Court remains to be seen. What's definite is that their monopoly as the pinnacle of achievement, swathed in grandeur and ceremony now feels pretty hollow and pompous.


Vive la Revolution.


5. HERE COME THE VINFLUENCERS


What is it about #influencers that gets people so fired up? "Rent seekers feeding on the wheezing body of a convulsing wine trade" according to Wine Bitch. In January Winesearcher ran an article on "The Incurable Plague of Wine Influencers'. La Revue du Vin de France ran an article showcasing some of the key names, remarking how previously unknown names were gaining traction with 'impeccably rendered photos and carefully designed staging'. The Telegraph profiled 'The rise of the vinfluencers challenging the wine world'.


As Sarah Abbott MW deftly summarised; "everyone has a hot take, whether it's the vitriolic, the quaintly baffled to the celebratory".


What's the common denominator between these people? Yes you guessed it, they are, mostly, young women.


Influencer is such a loaded term these days, with a perception of narcissistic freeloaders that add no real value to the brands they promote. But this is simply not the case.


The virtue and vice of social media is that anyone can build a platform. As in anything democratic, there will be those that rise to the top, those that strike a cord, and those that do not. But for those that do it well, the power of this micro to medium-level engagement of peer to peer marketing is unstoppable. Sophia Longhi of Skin & Pulp blog offered an excellent riposte here on Wine-Searcher.





What these influencers are particularly excelling at is making wine more visual, (which is no easy feat) and bringing it to life with a mood and lifestyle orientated approach. They are creating an entirely new language and creating new paradigms around how wine is discussed.


No wonder not everyone is welcoming the change. The resistance seems much like the typical gatekeeping behaviour from an industry that has thrived on dogma, hierarchy and often inscrutability. While this may have served the industry in the past, the sense of elitism is unlikely to serve it in future. This is wine's Reformation moment, where the naysayers would rather the sacred texts remained in impenetrable Latin, while the Vinfluencers have mastered the vernacular.


I know which side I'd rather be on.