Being a Woman in Wine

Trigger warning: this piece speaks of sexual assault. Pretty much anyone but (and yes, I am sure there are exceptions to the following) straight, male-presenting, at-least-middle-class, white, cisgender men will run into discrimination in this lifetime. Everywhere. Not just in the wine industry. I am a white person (gender fluid but female presenting and born with the corresponding anatomy), so I know that allows me a certain modicum of access. I wonder if I should be cluttering up the pathways with this article. I am sorry if I am. What gave me the courage to write of my experiences in the wine world came in late October 2020. The "New York Times" published an article detailing the misconduct of Master Sommeliers with their female mentees pursuing a career in wine. Sadly, my first thought was “People are surprised by this news? Men in power using their position to take advantage? Has this not been a recognized social issue for a while? In a post-#metoo world, don’t people know it happens EVERYWHERE?!” Not enough apparently. Before I go further, YES I HAVE SOME GREAT GUY WINE INDUSTRY FRIENDS, but there are enough out there that take sexual license as their right to make this worth writing about, albeit penning this has led to enough nights of spiraling into darkness. I question why I’m doing it. I guess I want things to be better. It’s quite an ask, I know. In the wine industry (probably any industry), a man implying that your appearance has something to do with your value is common. A man questioning a woman’s authority and validity on a subject is standard. A man using his position to intimidate women into more than what they want is far too frequent. And it is scary. Before I even get to sexual assault in the wine industry, lalala, can I just mention that in the mainstream world, SERIOUSLY, women do not get taken seriously when it comes to wine. I’ve encountered men who know nothing wine-related beyond their pet Napa producers, but don’t seem to think my studies, degrees, or experience give me any sort of authority. I have many examples but this is the one at the top of my memory: I was chatting with a man at a bar, as I did (shortly pre-COVID). I don’t remember how the banter started. Most likely my friend, an excellent hype woman, started bragging about me and my wine knowledge. Anyway. This dreamboat of an aging Gen X-er who’d been chatting me up was seemingly respectful before stating, “Sure you took those tests, but I still probably know more about wine than you.” My reply was “Oh really? Seriously? Should we challenge each other?” He shrugged and told me he just doubted I knew as much as him. This man. Who didn’t work in wine. He believed in his superior knowledge in the face of contrary evidence. WHY? Because he had the cash to buy cult wine? Because I am a young woman? What was his reasoning? Perhaps the same reasoning that led a man being sold luxury $$$$$ wine to say to the importer selling it, “for that price there better be some pussy that comes with that wine”. That’s a true story from me working in the office for one of my writing jobs my name doesn’t go on. My boss was on the phone with a real estate mogul who wanted the company to get him, ya know, DRC, Château Margaux, Masseto, cause like that’s what he’s into “these days” and when quoted a price, requested the feline asset. My guess is he assumed only men worked with the company selling wine of that caliber, so he felt free to engage in “locker room talk”. All innocent right? If you can’t grab them by the pussy, just request the pussy come with the baller wine? Gah. But "Napa Bros. and Co." doubting that women have authority is a bit different than the topic I actually want to talk about, which is the rapport between what SHOULD be peers. For the women who spoke in the "New York Times" article and me, and many other women I’m sure, an extra layer stands between us and men who yield power. Particularly when they give us a vibe that what they want of us is to be-cute-not-too-much-or-I’ll-disrespect-you-but-turn-me-on-don’t-you-get-it-with-my-help-you-maybe-could-succeed-so-let-me-touch-you. So they figure it’s at least like whatever to put their hand on your upper thigh. Friends, right? And that is just the tip of the iceberg of what they think is okay. I want to make a “just the tip” joke, but I can’t, I’m already sick to my stomach. What’s worse? Some violation and physical and/or emotional discomfort, OR losing work AND subsequently feeling the physical and/or emotional discomfort of being shut out of work? These are the questions I and other women ask (based on conversations I’ve had with other women in wine who’ve had similar experiences) when an interaction with a man pushes beyond professional boundaries. Another example? I’ve got them in spades: I showed up early for my evening sommelier shift at a big traveling wine tasting event. Held for the general public in many cities, the event recruited outgoing somms-about-town to pour. As I was overly early for my shift (Virgo vibes), I found my somm squad chilling at a restaurant next door to the venue. Some had volunteered for both afternoon and evening shifts, and they were a bit lubricated (but like somm-level tipsy, so still in a way totally sober) by the time I got there. Seeing as the event was a fun and youth-forward event, I was wearing a trademark (to me) short black skirt, cute stockings (layered over tights, I wasn’t even showing any leg), and a gauzy black tank. That is my comfort zone. It’s just how I dress, because it pleases me. One of the somms new to me was funny and banter-y, and while venturing from restaurant to event venue, we exchanged cards (as I do often at every wine event with people male and female). And then, as we were about to report to our stations, he felt comfortable enough to tell me he liked my stockings and “no bra, don’t care” style—all with an approving scan up and down my body. I confess—I laughed it off, and pretended it was okay. I found a graceful exit. Then avoided him all night. Not sexual assault, but believe me: enough of these petite power plays do wear you down. His comments immediately placed me on defense. In terms of age and authority in the Los Angeles wine scene, he outranks me. So I allowed him to reduce me to a sexual object. Later, I relayed the discomfort of the situation to my (now former) boyfriend, who is also a sommelier. He asked if I had the guy’s number. I responded that I had his card but…why? The bf suggested I should text him saying how uncomfortable it made me. ARE. YOU. KIDDING. ME…????????? Experience has shown me confrontation rarely moves a man secure in his position. And…I didn’t want to lose a potentially useful business contact. Hence why I laughed him off in the first place. F*ck. I hate writing this article. But I must. Should that nipple-noticing somm be ‘canceled’ for what he did? I am inclined to say no, that might be the extent of such advances he makes, and maybe he should simply learn not hit on coworkers. However, there are men who start with a forward comment, and it leads to actual physical assault… How could I know which one the team-nipple-somm was? How the f*ck do we navigate this minefield? The thing is, in my experience, women get blackballed long before they get written about in "New York Times" articles. Same in the acting world. If we speak up alone, we are disbelieved or pushed aside. It takes a village of us recounting the wrongs we’ve experienced before we are not discounted as either being willing participants (you looked hot, so clearly you had it coming!) or willing victims (you had a choice!). Or we are told we “had a bad date” like one of the women who felt pressured by comedian Aziz Ansari. As it stands, reading the woman’s allegations, I don’t want Aziz canceled—I love a lot of his work—but I would be happy if other men could learn from her account that they need to remember that society and/or their professional position make it tricky for women to say no to them. For fear. FEAR. I don’t know how to explain this logically, but physical and mental fears are sometimes why we say yes even if we don’t want to. Past experience had shown me that a woman rocking the boat alone often simply gets left to drown. Don’t let the nag back on the boat. She needs enough backup to capsize the f*cker and hang onto while making her way back to shore. BUT! Then I YET AGAIN doubt myself. I wonder if this sexualization of me is actually an advantage. Dammit, maybe having the ”I’m attractive” card gives me an up? I only contemplate this momentarily. Sure, maybe it does short term? But not if then the doors get shut when, despite my prowess and dedication, wanting to just be friends means being discarded. You may be thinking, but Elle, you said your former bf was in the industry so isn’t this stance hypocritical? And yes, I was with a man for over a year that I knew from the somm network. Yes, he asked me out at a Bordeaux wine event that was laden with wine and power vibes. BUT. When we’d first exchanged cards months earlier it was indeed completely professional. Then, after all that time, at said Bordeaux event, he asked for my number and he made it clear he wanted to ask me out. No blurred lines. No bait and switch. Not like meeting a winemaker whose work you are interested in tasting then showing up and they want to have dinner. And in your mind you’re still like, “this can be a friendly thing, right?” I have in fact had fun dinners with winemakers who remain friends, and had somm friends I have met and had drinks and/or dinner with, and maybe we all end up eating French fries at 1am, but it is not sexual. But then there are the times you have dinner, and despite mentioning many times you have a boyfriend, they try to follow you home. To be sure, I’ve had interactions where once I make boundaries clear, they get it. Those men I am still friends with—even if I worry that if I weren’t a woman they might not be so friendly, and pray it is my wit and friendship they value. And then there are the men who pursue you, perilously so. Hoping for something more than you are interested in, and suddenly you QUESTION: your attire (skirt too short?), your tone (was I too flirty? I’m probably always a little flirty, I’m an actor) and (especially distressing to aforementioned Virgo tendencies) your validity as someone who deserves to be working in this industry. Like a winemaker I met a few years ago. I wanted to believe that he wanted to hang out mainly because he respected my journalistic work, and were I a man, he still would have wanted to grab dinner and hang out and talk about wine. And enjoy drinking it. That is what it is there for. Which leads me to another card apologists like to throw down: alcohol. This is an industry about booze. We do drink it, and for some, things unfortunately can get “slippery when wet”. I got that quote while discussing the issue with friend Nathaniel Muñoz (advanced sommelier, Wine Director of Mozza Group and all-around great guy). But he agreed, women shouldn’t “expect” to be harassed. Or blackballed as lady noobs who don’t know anything. To conclude I ask: If we ALL talked back when someone made an inappropriate comment maybe it would stop happening, so my silence heretofore—has it contributed to the problem? Furthermore there is the part of me that asks: Do I have to hide my arms and legs? I wouldn’t have needed to deflect comments on my nipples if I’d worn a different shirt. IT’S JUST THAT I DON’T WANT TO HAVE TO CHANGE MY WAYS TO MANAGE INAPPROPRIATE MEN. I WANT THEM TO BE APPROPRIATE IN THE FIRST PLACE. Oh! And should I refrain from innuendo in my writing and podcasting? I consider myself both a wine writer and a comedian, ergo well-disposed to comment on both vino and the human condition, which sex is certainly a part of. So many questions. I still think I probably don’t have the answers, and my problems as a white woman are just the beginning of what we could discuss when it comes to equality and representation in the whole wide (not just wine) world. In the end, I wonder if there will ever be such a thing as “equal”? To be so do I have to hide who I am? Because if so, that isn’t fair. Or equal. Sometimes it feels like it will never happen. But it won’t keep me from trying. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Want to read more from Ellen? Check out her recent articles: Space Wine More Wine Women Guilty Pleasures All I Want for Valentine’s Day Is Some Skin Contact Bridgerton, Beverage by Beverage Make Your Own Wine You can also listen to Ellen's podcast , The Wine Situation here . Check out her recent transcripts of the Final Five questions: Wine Situation Final Five! With Philippe André Wine Situation Final Five! With Theodora Lee