The Status of Women and Wine
Is the wine industry as open to women advancing up the ranks as it is to men? This was the question that eventually occurred to myself and my beautiful wife, Kathy, a bit over a week ago when I was bugging her with tales of The Masters golf championship, its history and the news surrounding it. She's terribly sweet to indulge me when I talk to her about Golf.
Yet the story that got both our attentions during the Masters Week was the tale of the CEO of IBM. Virginia Rommety. IBM is one of three main sponsors of the Masters Golf Tournament and has been for many years. So connected to the tournament has IBM been, that the exclusive club hosting the tournament, Augusta National, has offered the very difficult to procure membership at Augusta to the past four IBM CEOs. Yet, by all accounts, Ms. Rometty was not offered a membership. Apparently, by the standards of the members of Augusta National, Ms. Rometty does not possess the appropriate genitals to qualify her for the same membership that was offered to her male predecessors.
I've experienced absolutely zero discrimination in my life. I was born white and male. I did not profess a faith that stirred particular hatred. I like women. And I grew up in an extraordinarily liberal and progressive area in liberal and progressive California. So, when I read these stories about a woman being denied what a man has simply because she is a woman, I'm fascinated by it in the same way I'm fascinated by the person who can contort their body into weird and seemingly inhuman shapes: it's just not in my set of experiences and seems foreign.
My Kathy has experienced certain forms of discrimination in her life, but nothing too revolting. Still, each morning during Masters Week we read together the ongoing tale of the CEO with the wrong genitals.
We both work in the wine industry and we both started to think about the state of women in the wine industry. Is there significant discrimination? Is it more difficult for women to break into any sector of the wine industry, let alone its C-Suite of CEOs, CFOs, CIOs?
I asked around among those who might have direct experience with it.
Michaela Rodeno, a long-time CEO of St. Supery Winery in Napa Valley and a role model for many, tells a story of being lucky; lucky that upon getting into the wine business in the early 1970s she found herself connected with bosses that didn't take gender into account:
"I was lucky and got my first real wine job with a man whose management style was so hands-off, bottom-up, and free-wheeling in the startup of Domaine Chandon that I did get a chance to do just about anything/everything, learning as I went. Such fun! When it was my turn to be the boss (at St. Supery), I was grateful for the open-ended opportunities I'd had and carried on by hiring smart people who didn't necessarily already know how to do the job I had in mind for them."
Today, Ms. Rodeno is given some pause when considering the plight of women in wine:
"With the increasing consolidation taking place now at the producer level, I fear that wine industry opportunities, especially for women, are shrinking. Large corporations tend to (a) have male-dominated leadership, (b) stratified organizations that make advancement challenging and even formulaic, and (d) prefer to hire proven executives. All of these make it harder for women to rise to the top — though some do."
One of the remarkable things about the wine industry is that many of its most prominent faces are in fact women. Jancis Robinson, Andrea Immer Robinson, Karen MacNiel and Natalie Maclean are among the world's most prominent wine writers.
In and around the wine industry, some of the most prominent and well-known winemakers are also women: Cathy Corison, Helen Turley, Carole Shelton, Heidi Peterson Barrett, Mia Klein, Merry Edwards, Zelma Long, and Milla Handley are just a few.
It's interesting to note that a 2000 article in Fortune Magazine explained that in the early 1970s, no more than 5% of the enrollees at U.C. Davis, the most prominent oenology school in America, were women. Yet, by the early 1990s that figure had risen to 50%
In the executive suites fewer women are prominent. Rodena set the standard. Today, when we think of women running things in the wine industry, we look to Delia Viader, Amelia Ceja, Joy Sterling, Barbara Benke, Janet Trefethen and think of Eileen Crane, Ann Colgin and Mireille Guiliano of Clicquot. This is not by any means a full list of leading female executives in the wine industry.
Yet, Rodeno makes an important point. She is want to point to a study that shows that between 2008 and 2010, those companies that had greater diversity among its leadership also experienced more success and were more profitable. This perspective speaks to the idea that the organization with a broader array of experiences among its leaders are likely to be more successful in understanding people and markets. It makes sense.
Amelia Ceja has a different perspective.
"As president and marketing director of Ceja Vineyards, I travel throughout the United States, and I'm asked frequently "What do you do at Ceja Vineyards?" No one ever thinks I own Ceja Vineyards because I'm a Latina woman! There's still so much to be done! There are more women working as viticulturists, winemakers, wine marketing directors, and presidents of wineries than before! Opportunities are opening up in these fields! There are no barriers to the advancement of women in the wine industry today as long as you're white! If you're a Latina vintner, you have to work twice as hard!"
Ms. Ceja makes a good point. I don't know why more minorities have not been drawn to the wine industry. And I don't know why more minorities have not risen higher and further. But it is a fact that the wine industry has a very modest number of minorities, let alone minority women, in prominent positions.
My own experience isn't representative, but it is mine. On the one hand, the most important influencers in my career have been women, from my first boss Gracelyn Guyol to clients such as Milla Handley and Sandra MacIver. Yet I can say without question that my encounters with women in prominent executive positions, particularly at medium and large wineries, has been minimal. I have been most likely to encounter women working with me in the marketing end of the business, in human relations and in the hospitality end of the business.
Women for WineSense has been the organization most responsible for and most active in promoting the role of women in the wine industry. Founded in 1990, the organization remains vital today with chapters in a number of cities and states. Is the organization still necessary if its mission is to promote the success of women in the wine industry?
Marcia Macomber, a Napa-area marketer and member of the Board of Directors of the Founding Wine Country Chapter of Women for WineSense says its members believe the organization, and its mission, remains vital:
"As the decades have passed in Women for WineSense, from time to time some of the more senior members have suggested dropping the “Women for” in the title of the organization, as they feel more comfortable in their hard-earned positions of rank. However, at the mere whiff of this idea the greater majority of members object vociferously, reminding everyone that they continue to feel quite challenged in this male-dominated industry. And that WWS provides a safe haven for testing new ideas, strategies and gaining support that they would not otherwise have in this industry."
Macomber herself agrees:
"Just as women found opportunities in the male-dominated workforce initially as typists long ago (which then became secretaries and administrative assistants), women have found employment opportunities in the wine industry mostly in the lower ranks. Women are rarely found as viticulturists and winemakers, and even less frequently found in the C-suite of wine conglomerates. More often women are seen in hospitality, human resources and marketing positions. Advancement is difficult, at best."
Macomber sees three primary reasons for women still finding themselves at a disadvantage in the wine industry as well as in most industries: The Womb, The Home, Men. She points out that while women often take maternity leaves in preparation for childbirth and after the birth of their child, men normally stay at work without interruption to their careers. She points out that women are still the primary gender responsible for home care. Men are more likely out indulging in after-hours networking, while women are more likely home tending to things. Finally, Macomber sees continued bias against women by men that can often thwart a career:
"I have heard numerous stories from women in the industry of being overlooked for advancement, ignored in business discussions and even (on rare occasion) being practically sabotaged in their efforts to perform their duties to the best of their abilities. I can only advise the men in this industry to watch out. We women are rather a ferocious lot in protecting ourselves, our legacies and most importantly, one another."
There is no word if IBM CEO Virginia Rometty has been given a membership at Augusta National Golf Club or if its members have decided that having a woman as a member remains too traumatic an event. Nor is there any word if IBM, in the face of their CEO being blatantly discriminated against, will continue to hypocritically support the Masters.
This was the point that my Kathy kept coming back too. She was less concerned with an all-male club of retrogrades excluding women, than a multi-national corporation continuing to support an all-male club of retrogrades that thought its CEO was not worthy be virtue of not possessing a Y Chromosome.
There is, in general, however, evidence that the presence of women in the wine industry continues to grow. Recalling Michaela Rodeno's point about the value of diversity in leadership, this is a very good thing. It's also a very good thing because the last thing the wine industry wants to look like is Augusta National Golf Club.
Women for WineSense will hold its "Grand Event" May 4-6. The grand event is a three day celebration of wine and people that includes receptions, dinners, winery tours, tastings, auctions and seminars. The Grand Event is sponsored by a number of prominent wine industry companies and looks to be a remarkable event. The cost to attend ranges from $70 to $310, making it an amazingly affordable affair also. Most important, it is an opportunity to support Women for WineSense. I'd all my readers to support and/or attend this event.