Recently, a friend posed me the following query:
"What has your experience in wine been? Do you think the culture is acceptable as it is now, and what can we do to make it better?"
My experience in the wine industry has been a rollercoaster, similar to many of my colleagues I would bet.
I started working in wine when I was 24, after a failed stint in oil and gas, a job that was so soulless and heartless it left me wondering if there was more to life than entering numbers into spreadsheets under the glare of fluorescent lights in a shabby grey cubicle.
From there I quickly went through the WSET program, excited at the prospects that awaited me. I worked a series of wine rep jobs, inevitably feeling that creeping discontent that plagued me in every job after the honeymoon period ended.
Perhaps it was disdain for the elite, gatekeeping circles (not always perpetuated by old boys clubs, but in often cases they were the worst), or maybe it was the smugness of pin-wearing sommeliers that irked me, or the plethora of creepy men who seemed to have no problem coming on to me, treating me as though I was in the wrong when I called them out for inappropriate behaviour - all combined made me dislike the industry.
One importer twice my age once volunteered that he wanted to see me draped in lingerie, feed me mango slices and ice cold vodka. He called me drunk one night - a total embarrassment - and I immediately told him that our friendship was no longer appropriate. In my 24 year old brain, I was worried I'd offended him. It was super awkward and uncomfortable any time I'd see him at trade tastings, but he was such a piece of shit, he would pretend he didn't know who I was. There were myriad experiences just like this.
I struggled for a long time, feeling like I never really fit in. I could never really put my finger on what the issue was, until I started to put the pieces together once I removed myself and started my own business, that I could see all the cracks and warts from the outside looking in. When you're in it, you don't see it - you're complicit - if we're fed half truths slowly over time, we begin to believe them, and I think that is particularly true for the wine industry. It's a lot of pay to play - say this, not that, follow the rules, stay quiet, keep things as they are.
I honestly believe this antiquated and archaic mode of thinking is the reason our industry in Canada is more fragmented than ever. It's easier to access international wines than it is to buy wine from neighbouring provinces and there are a small number of people benefitting from the current structures, and they don't want it to change.
I've never been a conformer, and that has certainly come back to bite me - I've had people gather groups in an effort to boycott my business, I've been told my attire is setting back women in wine decades (said by a woman!), have been publicly slandered via ripping apart articles I've written, I've even had someone accuse me of plagiarism. (that was particularly funny - I happened to write an article on sherry around the same time as another woman in the industry, and I chuckle every time I think of her accusations).
Every time something nonsensical like this occurs, I just remember that all external feedback (especially from people who aren't my customers, friends or colleagues) is irrelevant. If I was worried about what others thought, I'd have conformed a long time ago. That's not my journey. If anything, I'm happy to have taken the stance I have because I think we are starved for dissenting voices in the industry. There's a reason people find wine incredibly intimidating and pretentious - it's all by design.
So, do I think the culture is OK as it is? No, but probably not in the way you think (re: slimey men). I think women are just as bad and in many cases, worse, in keeping new, or different voices out. I hear a lot of the same rhetoric from people along the lines of, "success is not a pie, we're all in this together", but their actions show otherwise.
So for now, I'll continue carving out my own niche and surrounding myself with people who support it. So far, it's working.