Sexism in the Wine Industry

I used to have a litmus test for the women I dated. They needed to know who Che Guevera was. I relaxed that over time but am thinking about instating a new test for anyone I plan on associating with, personally or professionally. You have to know who Gloria Steinem is.

She’s been making the rounds on NPR, etc.., promoting her latest book, My Life on the Road. As I’ve been listening to this brilliant, 81-year-old feminist icon, I am reminded of conversations I’ve been having with younger men and some women who seem pretty clueless about sexism.

Women have made strides, no question about that. More than half of university students in the United States are female and there are other stats you can pull up to show that we are not as unequal as years past yet we still earn less pay and stare at glass ceilings. This is quantifiable. What bothers me just much though are the ways in which women are spoken TO, spoken OF, treated IN conversation and professionally EXCLUDED.

I know that women in many fields have had similar experiences but it is always easier to write what you know. Here are a few situations I’ve seen happen in the wine industry time and time again.

Let’s start with simple conversations. A woman comes across a group of men at a tasting. She walks over but is not acknowledged. She might try to add to the discussion but still, no one even turns his head in her direction so she raises her voice to be heard. She is ignored or glared at, letting her know that her utterance is most unwelcome. Beyond ignoring or talking over women, men are much more likely to interrupt and take over a professional conversation a woman is having with a customer or colleague than they would with a man, basically saying, “I know better.” It often starts with physical gestures, literally entering the woman’s physical space and talking in a louder and more authoritative voice. This happens all the time and while it may not be as obvious as saying something offensive, it is just as disrespectful.

OK, let’s move on to how female wine sales people (reps) are often treated. Granted, being a wine rep is not an easy job, for anyone. However, it is tougher for women than men. If I only had could get miles on Virgin for every time I’ve seen a male buyer be dismissive towards a female sales rep – sometimes women who are older than them, have been in the business way longer and know more – I’d fly around the world several times. You might be thinking that this is just part of the power trip and admittedly, both male and female buyers can be on them (I should know, I was one for 20 years). However, since the beginning of my career until recently I’ve heard male buyers make justifications for treating women differently, starting with this one, “she comes in here dressed like that so what do you expect.”

On the flip side, male sales reps can be just as rude toward female buyers. I’ve had first-hand experience here. If Virgin would give me miles for all the guys who have TRIED talking down to me over the years I’d fly first class.

Then there are the men who think women’s mouths are located on their breasts. Of course, we are going to come across people in our professional lives that we find attractive but that is not what I’m talking about. How would men feel if women stared at their crotches while they tasted wine or answered a question? Does anyone really think that a woman would be sexually interested in someone who is that creepy, let alone give him professional respect?

Along these lines, a couple of years ago, a salesman who works for a big distributor told me, at his company’s wine tasting, he thinks about me in the shower. I mean, really? Hitting on lesbians is not just a form of sexism, it is homophobic and stupid. Unless of course you are convinced that “lesbians love you,” as one male buyer I know has told me, on more than one occasion. Yes, that’s how you get into my good graces. 

And this leads to the one issue people actually do talk about and admit exist: sexual harassment. I know a number of women in the wine industry who have been harassed in one form or another. And, let’s not forget about the elephant in the room, rape. It happens. When a night of drinking is involved it can become dicey but no means “NO” and men should not take advantage of women who are inebriated. Some women have spoken out and good for them. Yet for all who have raised their voices I fear more haven’t. 

You might be thinking that younger men are not as sexist. Wrong. It troubles me that Millennials seem to have even less of a consciousness about it than their older male peers. Perhaps the baby boomers and Gen Xers were better schooled in equality because women’s lib and ERA were in the news more during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

Believing that someone is your equal starts with the eyes and ears. Listening to and acknowledging their existence is a prerequisite. This is true of human interaction in general. In my own life, I’ve learned that communication is as much about hearing what others say as it is about voicing your own thoughts and feelings. And I wish that now, in 2016, more of us would just shut up sometimes and let others speak.

I’m not ready to give up. One bad character trait does not define a person and I don’t put condescension in the same category as rape. What I do wish is that there is greater self-awareness. Some men might be lost causes but I’d like to think that most who exhibit sexist behavior just need to be called out. I do see women of all ages who speak up. Yet still, we don’t as much as we should and I think this is especially true, again of Millennials. Maybe this generation doesn’t feel the need to take their male colleagues to task as much because they’ve had more opportunities. To this I say, don’t forget about the people who fought so you could have these chances and rights, and honor what they’ve done by continuing to fight for equality and respect.

So, getting back to Ms. Steinem, if you don’t know who she is, what she’s done and what she stands for, you need to do some reading. This goes for both sexes. Her lifetime of dedication and the tireless work of other women – and many men – to equality have made a huge impact on our society. However, in spite of the gains we’ve made there is still a very long way to go.



  • Jacqueline Malenda
    Posted at 14:37h, 08 January

    This article is so poignant and extremely well written. It amazes me that there’s the degree of inequality on a regular basis in our industry. From having a male employer who usually turned his back toward me in favor of speaking to my buyers without my input when I was a sales rep, to men at tastings I poured over the years who liked to “take liberties” when speaking with me, it was annoying and frustrating. But the real eye-opener began to occur when I decided to open my own wine bar (opening this month!) here in New York, and I attended a lot of industry tastings. My longtime boyfriend has been in the wine industry since around the time I was born. Most of the time, at tastings and wine dinners, all comments and questions were directed toward him. Some companies and reps even called my cell phone and asked to speak with him. Apparently they find it impossible to believe that a 32 year old female is the sole owner and decision maker at this new restaurant. Ridiculous. Sure, I haven’t been in the industry as long as some others, but that should be of no consequence. I’m generally a rather traditional sort of person, but as a young woman on her second career (I was formerly an attorney), who works as hard as I do and is comfortable taking as many risks as I do, I think it’s utterly preposterous for so many others to believe that it cannot possibly be me behind this project, and it’s caused me to become much more conscious of the reality of the situation in terms of inequality. But for every person doing the wrong thing, there are so many who treat me, and other women in the industry, very well. My dear friend and mentor in the industry is a man and he’s the one who saw so much potential in me, and has encouraged me so well over the years. Nearly all of my coworkers in the industry have been men and many of them made me feel like I and my work are worthwhile. Sure, there’s been some discrimination and some harassment, but to date it’s been no match for my ambition and my self-image. And that’s a good starting point for anyone, male or female. Thanks for a great article and for shining some light on an important existing issue.

  • Deborah Parker Wong
    Posted at 17:15h, 08 January

    To your point about Millennials, my college-age daughter informs me that social media apps now facilitate “hook ups” between students that go something like this. Male student parks himself on a barstool, nurses a drink and uses an app to arrange a date/s with a female student/s who meet him to have sex in the restroom. The rationale being that “you wouldn’t bring a stranger to your house.” Money is not changing hands here, it’s like pro bono prostitution. What self-respecting young woman would do this? Those that do are perpatrating sexism, they’re feeding the appetites and desires of men who no longer have to make any effort to prove themselves worthy of the most intimate of human behaviors. Maybe my views are outdated and empowered young women want anonymous recreational sex just as much as young men do but when men are doing the bidding, it points to a lack of self esteem and self respect on the part of those who come running.

  • Marlene Rossman
    Posted at 23:32h, 12 January

    I had hoped that things were improving for women. But this article saddens me.
    When I first became interested in wine in 1978, I joined New York’s Les Amis du Vin. All the members were men. I was systematically ignored and shunned by all members. Being a tough character, I paid no attention and learned what I needed to. When I got married in 1980, I sent a check to the group for a tasting.
    My name was above my husband’s on the check and we have different last names. When I got to the tasting, I was told that I had not paid and was refused entry. When I looked at the name tags, sure enough there was one for my husband. I corrected them and they grudgingly allowed me into the tasting.

    Unfortunately some things never change.However, I persevered and ultimately beacame a sommelier, university-level wine educator and wine columnist.

  • John Logan
    Posted at 16:01h, 04 June

    On behalf of men, I apologize for our bad behavior. Due to physiology, we often talk with our other head. Even the enlighted amongst us. Women deserve better.

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