Frances Bentley
The views expressed in db Reader do not represent the views of the drinks business.

Wine, Women and the idiots around us

Wine has a reputation as a male-dominated, sexist field to work in, but the great myth in the trade is that there aren’t many women working within it.

I’m happy to announce that women have successfully permeated every aspect of the trade, from winemaking and brand representation to sales. Granted, the split is nowhere near 50-50, but it’s certainly opened up a lot in recent years. I’ve found that I can rub my mustard corduroy trousers with the best of them.

The issue is probably less sexism and more elitism. The trade has been based around London since it started and it attracted a certain type. Often they were independently wealthy and liked the lifestyle more than the actual work involved. It had also been a generational issue, but now we have many more young people from varied backgrounds getting involved. As the trade becomes more aware of the need to market, it attracts a more diverse mix of people from all segments of society. Thank God – there are only so many wine dinosaurs we can tolerate.

One well-known Champagne house (and former employer of mine), Duval-Leroy, is female-owned and boasts a 42% female staff these days. The owner has made a point of this, employing women as chief finance officer, head winemaker and head of quality control. She believes that not only do they have the necessary experience and competencies, but that it makes for a very productive working environment where there is impeccable attention to detail.

Some of the best sommeliers in the world these days are women, many highly accoladed and admired. Interestingly, there is even evidence that, due to a higher number of taste buds, women can taste better than men can.

So why do I get this stupid question all the time? Why do people think I’m unfairly treated because of my gender? I guess it makes a pretty good story. If my friends all think I’m the only one, that’s quite nice. “You must meet Frances, a LADY in the WINE TRADE” – like I’m some form of leprechaun.

Maybe it’s because I have encountered sexism on rare occasions and people find that upsetting. I don’t really mind the odd sexist comment because I know it’s their problem and not mine. I know that the people I like and respect in the trade understand that my gender makes no difference to how I do my job. I don’t suddenly find that I can’t complete a sales pitch because I need to go and empty my moon cup. My male colleagues treat me as though I were one of the boys, without me needing to resort to becoming one of the boys.

It’s a sad fact that, in many trades that have a reputation for being male dominated, women think that they have to become aggressive and confrontational in order to get anywhere. Finance and Law are littered with these, often self-proclaimed, “bitches” – women who think they have to become as hard-faced as possible when they feel under threat, or just to avoid discussing gender in their place of work. This isn’t a positive example to other women who might look at these working conditions and be put off.

6 Responses to “Wine, Women and the idiots around us”

  1. I encountered this a lot when I started a business. You really can’t let it get it you otherwise you will never achieve anything or get on with things. Once you start showing that you are good at what you do, implement plans and achieve success, then people will gain respect for you and give you the credit you deserve. Too many women go on and on about sexism – it’s been that way for years in many businesses outside wine, and frankly it won’t change. We just have to get on with what we do, and do it really well and build our lives and businesses in a honest, impactful and successful manner.

  2. Interesting piece, but I regret that the biggest lesson from this was to discover what a moon cup is! BTW, one of my early role models in wine was a woman: Jancis. I have often wondered if wines, like pets, become like their makers – is Hill of Grace a dapper wine because Stephen Henshcke is dapper? I have found that many wines made by women have a degree of finesse that is often lacking with wines made by number-obsessed men. But sin sceal eile!

  3. Going to the roots of the wine trade and in particular wine making, what I have seen when visiting wineries in Italy is that trade is more family-dominated rather than male-dominated. Every member is involved in the team regardless of gender, bringing something different to the table.

  4. Andrew Halliwell says:

    Maybe the London wine trade is/was different from production environments, but during 8 years in winemaking in 5 continents, I’ve never experienced any sexism and have met many female winemakers, cellarhands, viticulturalists, sales and marketers, HR professionals and bosses / owners.

  5. Sarah Abbott MW says:

    Francis, like you I get a lot of comments along the “ooooh, a woman in the wine trade” lines. They surprise me. From chats with other working women, I don’t think the wine trade is any more sexist than any profession with a long history and traditions. We have many talented and several high profile women working in this trade. Wine reflects society. And only 60 years ago women were expected to give up work after marriage. It takes people a while to adjusts to these massive changes. Quite a few men assume that my business is a little hobby- that it doesn’t have to support my family (which it does). But I don’t take offence at that- it’s a reasonable enough assumption if you come come from the generation when father was always, and unquestionably, the sole or major breadwinner. The best defence, I find, against (very rare) deliberate or (ubiquitous) inadvertent sexism is to 1. Pretend you haven’t noticed. 2. Dedicated yourself to being REALLY REALLY EXCELLENT at your job, cheerfully.

    • Frances says:

      Thank you for your comments.
      The thrust of this piece was more to poke fun at the idea that it makes a difference. As we know, it doesn’t and I don’t really come up against it in the trade, much more surprise and interest from those outside of it.

      I’ve come from a background where women have always been encouraged and expected to go to work, do it well and do it without any fuss. This was more for the encouragement of those who haven’t, and get a bit dispirited.


      P.S. I promise I go to work very cheerfully – with the trade we work in, who doesn’t?!

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