In our newest episode of The Wine Enthusiast Podcast, we talk to Deborah Brenner, founder of women’s empowerment group Women of the Vine & Spirits, and Wine Enthusiast Tasting Director Lauren Buzzeo about the current state of gender equality in the beverage business, how gender affects what’s on the wine and spirits shelf, and what influencers can do to level the playing field.
Read the full transcript of “Is the Wine World Still an Old Boys Club?”:
Susan Kostrzewa: Hi, I’m Susan Kostrzewa. I’m the executive editor of Wine Enthusiast. In this episode, we’ll talk with Women of the Vine & Spirits founder, Deborah Brenner, and Wine Enthusiast tasting director, Lauren Buzzeo, about what it means to be a woman in the wine and spirits industry, and how gender differences affect what’s in your glass.
So we’ve all been in the industry for a while now. I’ve been in the wine and spirits industry on the journalistic side for about 15 years. Lauren, I think, how long have you been involved in wine and beer and spirits?
Lauren Buzzeo: Let’s just go with over a decade. We don’t have to get specific here.
SK: Deborah, I know also you’ve been in this for a while. I would love some of your perspective. Actually, we’ve talked before about your, sort of the path that got you to where you are now. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that and then also tell me what you think. Do you think things have improved for women in our industry?
Deborah Brenner: It’s been really interesting to champion women in this industry because I started over 10 years ago. At that time, nobody was talking and certainly didn’t want to listen to me, about talking about women pioneering and trailblazing, and what we could do for diversity initiatives in this business. So, has it changed for women today? Yes and no. I mean, that’s the only way I can answer that, to be honest, because some things have but others … We have a long way to go.
LB: It’s interesting that your background includes coming from the tech sector and industries that are probably seeing a little bit of a parallel in terms of the promotion of women within those industries, as well. So, I think it’s just an overall conversation that, thankfully across many different industries, that we’re having as just a nation, in terms of the importance and the prominence of women in the workplace. Certainly as it pertains to us, we want to talk about the wine industry. I think you hit the nail on the head. Ten years ago, there were certainly plenty of women. We were all around. But, it wasn’t really a national conversation. It wasn’t really a vocal conversation that a lot of people were having. So to be able to have this group and this network of support, where everybody feels comfortable coming together and sharing their stories and experiences, and really working for a change, has just been probably very illuminating and enthralling for so many people.
SK: I would like to talk a little bit about how women as consumers and how women as producers, or women in the wise wine business, are impacting our industry, and also what the consumer is drinking. Because I think that … Look at the numbers, I mean, women are purchasing something like 80% of the wines being bought in the U.S. for the household. And that’s another one that, it’s not like that’s a new thing. That’s been going on for some time. It just maybe wasn’t being talked about in the open. What do you guys think? How do you think that impacts what products are out on the shelves, and how does it impact how wine is made? Do you think there is a difference in how women approach a product, how men approach a product … What is your perspective on that?
DB: Well, I mean you’re absolutely right. The numbers reflected the fact that women were dominating the purchasing power of wine in America, and also consumption in restaurants and what we call on premise. That’s been going on for a long time. How it can influence … I think it just goes to show what what we’re doing at Women of the Vine & Spirits with advocating diversity initiatives and leadership roles. You know, when you have a diverse team making impactful decisions on the industry, how could you exclude women when the women are the largest consumer? And we certainly don’t want to exclude men, it’s a collective effort, we have to do it together. But I think, looking at those numbers, even demonstrates a stronger need for having women in those decision-making roles because they do know what women want. It’s not that they want something pink, we’re not going to pink our wine, we’re not going to low-alcohol our wine. We’re certainly not going to –
SK: No I do love a good rose, I will say.
DB: Well, I do. I do, I have to say when I say pink I mean in the labeling and the marketing.
SK: I understand.
DB: And I love my rose and my rose [inaudible 00:05:15]. But, I think, that’s because that’s what they thought, right? So there was a trend a while ago when they first, the marketers were waking up to the women consumer, and they were doing things that were, like I said, lower alcohol and affecting the way they were making … And that, I think it backfired because it’s not what women want. So, what do they want? Well, you really do have to ask women.
SK: You have to ask women. I had a conversation with our spirits editor, Kara Newman, about this a while ago. It was really great because I said, “You know, what are the stats revealing as far as what women and men are drinking?” And she said, “Well, I mean brown spirits are huge for women right now, more so than gin and vodka. That’s a big growing sector for women, to appreciate these traditionally male spirits.”
I’ve acknowledged, just in my own life, the men I know drinking more of, again that stereotypical … Champagne, sparkling wine, white wine, rose … So, you have to be very careful. I think you’re right, there was a time where the marketing of these wines for women, it was really hard to sort of stomach. On one hand, I was excited to see that these companies were acknowledging, “Look it’s not a one-sided thing.” It’s not just men sitting in their cellars collecting super high-end wines. There’s a very broad, sort of spectrum of people drinking wine. But I just sort of thought, who’s decided that this is what women want? It felt like it came out of a marketing, sort of room full of guys.
LB: Sue, you know you always look for those wines with the big fancy high-heeled shoe on the label.
I think, actually, a lot of this goes along with really what we try to do here at Wine Enthusiast, which is almost the democratization and the better education of just wine and wine consumption, right? I think, traditionally, you’re talking about perceptions that the men were the ones who were leading in terms of consumers, or in producers’ minds. The men were the one that they needed to pay attention to because they were the ones who were perceived to be really doing a lot of the purchasing and doing the collecting. It was a lot of trophy bottles and … Let’s say, there’s another phrase out there that might pertain to what I’m speaking of, but I’m not going to say here. It has to go with swinging back-and-forth.
For women though, we’re really looking at understanding that they’re the ones that are actually leading consumption and purchasing, and are looking beyond those, albeit in most cases fantastic, but beyond those traditional producers or regions and really just open to learning more, drinking better, and experiencing different things. That’s what I think is the most exciting thing about recognizing the importance of women and our purchasing power in the market today.
DB: Absolutely, and I just want to … We touched on it before, about women have been in the industry, they just worked talked about. When you see some of the family winemakers and the traditional, which is just the best wines in the world, they were family. That means there were women at the helm, they just didn’t talk about it. So those women were working in the business, raising the children, keeping the household, and they were remarkable. It wasn’t something now because women consumption is the highest, and the way that we relate to products … We relate to products through stories, through people. That’s how women do purchase. I tell all the women that are involved in Women of the Wine & Spirits, this is your time to boast, to shine. Tell your stories because that’s how those women consumers are going to connect with you. I’m going to drink your wine, not a private label that was marketed to me.
SK: Right. For women who are producing wine and are consuming wine, but also just the newer consumer, they want context for the wine. When should I drink this? What’s the situation? What am I eating? Its scores are still important, people still obviously follow them. In addition to that, they want to know how do I use this wine? How do I interact with this wine? I think that it really opens things up for everybody to be able to tell stories in that way.
LB: And I think that that’s something that generally also speaks to maybe something fundamental differences between genders as well, in terms of how much you want to think about something, and how many other areas your brain actually goes into when considering a wine verses, as Sue was saying, just thinking about a score, or provenance, or reputation. Really actually diving into well what am I eating, who am I going to be with, where is this wine from? Do I know it, do I not know it? If I don’t know it, why don’t I know it? What can I learn about it? I think women generally tend to be just a little bit more thirsty for that discovery and that search of knowledge than perhaps some traditional collectors might be.
SK: One of the things that I really … I take away every year when I attend the conference, but also in the discussions that extend beyond the conferences … How do you take all this good information and implement it into real life support in the workplace? I would love to know, from your perspective, some of the programs or some of the approaches that you think, as you’ve talked to people over the years, because I think anyone who’s listening to this works in a company probably has thought about “How can I address diversity or gender roles a little bit better?” Do you have any advice or good practices, just off the top of your head, that you’ve heard that you would like to talk about a little bit?
DB: Yeah, and I think you bring up a good point. I mean, anybody listening could be in any industry, you know? I think the obstacles in some of the gender stereotypes and things and diversity that we face, it’s not just in the alcohol/beverage industry. It’s across all industries. So it’s very applicable. Obviously, for us we’re paring it down to specifically a industry focus, but I think the first thing is having these conversations. I think that is important. I think the other thing is to … Engagement in the conversation. You’d be amazed, and I’m sure you both have experienced it, how many men are extremely supportive. When you start really engaging them, that’s when change is going to happen. We’re going to do it together.
SK: Yeah, and I think they’re supportive but they don’t always know exactly how to help. I mean other than just being supportive every day in the workplace. I think these kind of discussions are very helpful for them, as well. Like how do I implement something, how do I help implement something in the workplace that’s supportive?
DB: Absolutely. I think you pointed out very well, you know I like to say to people that diversity initiatives are happening in discussions in HR departments. First of all, especially in our industry, there are millions of companies that don’t have HR departments. We still are family run and operated in so many aspects of this industry, so that may only be applicable to some of the larger corporations. Really, diversity doesn’t happen at the hiring process, it happens at the top because it’s not that we can’t be diverse of having people enter the business, it’s how to get them to the leadership and decision-making.
Really for me, I focus more on the executive level because that’s where I think diversity for us and the next generation of women has to start. So I think you need to have the conversations at the top, and I also think what tools and what things are we doing … The conference, I thought, may be a one-off event. It became clear not only did we need to do it annually, but we needed to keep the conversation going all year. I don’t think you can really create a movement and make change in anything if you’re only talking about it once a year. So, creating the year-round alliance and programs, educational webinars, job postings and boards, those are really, really important to keep the conversation and networking. I’m really a big, big proponent of talking to our members and partners at Women of the Vine & Spirits. Network during your day. If it is work, it’s work. You owe the gift to yourself to take 10 minutes out and talk to some people, and reach out.
LB: I think that that’s such great advice and honestly your comment about really starting at the top and going to the executives, and having the conversation from there … These are the people that can really, as Sue was saying, what can we do to support, these are the people that can really support those efforts to do those items, to do networking, to make those connections during your workday because you are right, there are a lot of other obligations that exist outside of our professional lives. Especially, admittedly for myself as well, as women, as a mother of household, there’s a lot of other things going on that need my attention.
Just having that awareness from everybody within the business, certainly male executives, leading by example that “Hey, this is work. This is something that is important for you to do. I’d like to make sure that you have the time, the resources, to be able to do it appropriately to be successful in your position.” I think that Sue and I, and likely you DB, can likely speak to a range of men that we’ve worked with throughout our professional lives that were incredibly supportive and who helped and mentored us along the way. It’s because of that recognition and that support of us personally, and of other areas in our lives, that we’ve been able to come so far and get where we are.
SK: It’s so funny because, or maybe not funny, but really one of the big insights from this last conference that I attended, we talked a lot about … You know, obviously we hope that as a society we have evolved to a level of gender really not, we want to be at a point, where gender does not play in. Where it’s not to be a concern. But beyond anything else, it’s just smart. It’s just good business to recognize how women can impact the bottom line, how they can impact an organization. I thought that was brought up because we wanted to be beyond that. We would love for this sort of gender bias to be gone completely. But in the meantime, I think that anybody who is running a business can look at what happens when you put women into executive positions. That’s happening more and more. There’s real growth, I mean obviously. It just makes sense. It’s just interesting to look at it from that perspective as well. It’s almost like a hard numbers type of thing, in some cases.
LB: And I think more and more you can easily identify the companies that are making efforts, and that are being proactive and supporting women in those more executive roles. Because they are being more successful, they are more modern, they are moving with the times. So, absolutely. It affects the industry as a whole.
DB: And I have to say that I’ve … I’m witnessing that every day with what I’m doing because when I started this, right? It was a complete leap of faith starting as an entrepreneur to put this together. The alliance, and the conference, and all the work that we’re doing is funded through individual membership and corporate partnerships. What’s been remarkable is to see the companies and the corporate partners that have stepped up and supported this organization and what we are doing and supporting our mission. I have to say, most of the people that were in that decision-making position to write those checks and support our organization were men because they are in the leadership position. So I’m just thrilled, and I’m so proud of our partners and our members for stepping up and showing that, together, we can work and it will be good for the whole industry as a whole.
SK: I think that we’ve had a lot of conversation or discussion about, obviously women, but also about the men. So, I want to question, as women, as women working together, as women in an industry together, how can we be more supportive of one another? Historically, maybe in certain areas, it’s been a little bit tough or competitive. I think that times might be changing, and there might be a new call for a more cohesive, if you will, female unit. So what can we do-
SK: Collaborative female unit, exactly. So what can we do to be more collaborative within our industry? Have you seen that mentality sort of shift a little bit throughout the few years?
DB: Now, having a forum and you can see if you engage in any of our regional events, or our webinars, or come to our annual conference, the energy is just unbelievable. It is collective energy of collaboration. What’s so exciting is to see all of these companies that are competitors, taking off their competitive hat for the greater good of the cause, which is to advance women in their careers. I think what it really comes down to is the individual level because that’s where it still is a problem for people. Not so much in the larger group segment, but the individuals against other individuals.
That stems from a lot of other things, like you say, it stems from insecurities, it stems from a lack of confidence, and things. I think that now having a forum what you need to do is seek out those women that do support you. Now we can ignore a little bit of those other ones that may not because you have somewhere else to turn. I have to say that I have all the same insecurities and doubts as any human being would. When I feel that way, I am so grateful for now having a network of the most incredible women in this industry in all walks of the industry. That’s where I say, I force myself because we’re all so busy, and we’re working in such a fast-paced environment, and sometimes just taking two minutes to email or pick up a phone. I can feel the energy get back into my blood and I feel I can go on the rest of the day. Just that little word of encouragement, or feeling like I’m not alone. It’s really powerful. Especially, because we’re facing challenges all the time.
SK: Yeah, and I think that in the past, just as you were talking I was thinking, I think what use to happen for women in the workplace is there weren’t a lot of other women to turn to. There was a different approach to problem solving, which I think has changed. I feel there was a real gender delineation for many years and workplaces to how you approached, you know, if you didn’t know something, was it okay to say, “Hey, I actually don’t have an answer to this. What do you think we should do?”
That has not typically been a male way of handling yourself if you want to be respected in business. Usually it’s, “Actually I’ll either not admit that I don’t know it, or I’ll just say something and hope that it sounds good.” I mean, and again, I don’t think most men wanted to approach things that way either, but I think there used to be that delineation. I feel like people’s behaviors in the workplace in general have changed, male and female. And it is more collaborative. It is okay to be smart and turn to the smart people in your group and say, “I’m not sure what to do here, let’s talk about it and work it out.” It’s nice to see, finally, all of that evolving. I’m hoping that will also help women not to feel sort of isolated in their approach and how they want to handle it.
I actually want to take this down another road, and it’s just for fun, a little bit for fun. So, I’d love to hear from you guys. As strong women and I have to assume, since you were children, strong personalities, who your heroes were as young women? You know, either as children or young women, obviously we can take it a couple different directions. One is, who inspired you? Were there women who inspired you in your life, maybe we start with that. Strong women, or could be a family member, could be a famous person. I’m springing this on them, they didn’t know I was going to ask that. So don’t think too much.
DB: Go ahead.
LB: Thanks, Sue.
Well, I know this might be a little bit of a shortcut, but I’m going to say who inspired me the most, honestly, was my mom and my dad for very different reasons. I’m going to start with my dad because he inspired me to be a passionate, live in the moment, appreciate everything that’s going on around you in every sense possible, in the moment that you’re in it, kind of person. He’s the one that introduced me to wine. We did a ton of tastings, we would always go out and enjoy fine dining and fine bottles over many, many hours. So he really was my entry into the world of wine from an inappropriately young age, so I have to give credit where credit is due there–
LB: Yeah, Italian. You know. So he absolutely changed my life in that regard, but I have to also say my mom for a completely different reason. When things sort of went south between them, and she was left to pick up the pieces, she was the toughest, scrappiest, most amazing, and simultaneously elegant woman that I’ve ever known to exist. So it’s definitely for very different reasons, but they both showed me what it really could be to be an amazing human, regardless of gender.
SK: Deb. That’s a tough act to follow.
DB: It is a very tough act to follow, and I have to say it’s a very hard question. Our life path takes us and introduces us to people at all different stages, and we go through different stages of our life. So, I think my heroes have changed as my stages have changed. I have to say as a child, it was definitely my family because I am the youngest of three girls. There were no boys, so in my household, I have to say I kind of grew up in a little bit of a plastic bubble because I didn’t have firsthand gender differences because I didn’t have brothers. I kind of didn’t experience it until I went out in the real world as I got older, and I was like, “Whoa, what is this?” Somebody had to mow the lawn, and there was no one else to mow the lawn, so I’m going to mow the lawn. I’m going to rake the leaves.
So, I think it brings up an interesting thing when we talk about the unbiased, the unspoken biases, because even in our own families we tend to stereotype who’s going to mow the lawn and who is going to do the dishes, it just is. So, I didn’t have that, so for me my heroes came about in my workforce. Once I got out of my home, that’s when I encountered that I was being treated differently. I have to say that I didn’t have role models in my workplace because there were no women in those leadership roles. They were all in entry level or secretarial type roles. I did find role models with news anchors. When you see the first woman doing that and I was like, “Wow, look at that.”
Women getting promoted into positions, and I think that’s always been where I’ve been fascinated to know their story and how they got there. I think, honestly, that’s what led me to write the book, Women of the Vine, because I was so intrigued by these leaders, and I wanted to know, how did they do it as women, as wives, mothers, daughters … And now their CEOs, scientists, and still all of that. So, I guess I didn’t answer with a specific hero, but my heroes are everywhere. They’re all out there, they’re all you.
LB: Thanks for beating me.
DB: No, no. I mean, I just have to say. Well you go to the conference, right? I want to say, “That’s my hero.” Then I meet somebody in a whole different industry, and I’m like, “Oh my God.” I find it.
SK: No, it is a hard question to answer.
DB: It’s a hard question.
SK: And actually what I was going to say is I remember my first Halloween costume as a kid being Princess Leia. Again, not to say that she was completely feminist, but I can remember as a young girl just who I connected with, and who I wanted to be in general. They were always sort of more ass kicking women, and a lot of, you know, and men as well–
DB: Well I guess one was Catwoman because I’m older than you. So I watched Batman and when they had her I was like, “Oh man.” Yeah, I’m older, so I’m really showing. But if you’re bringing that up, I have to say that was badass for me.
SK: Yeah will you look at–
LB: But let’s just clarify that we’re talking Leia Organa, not slave Leia, right?
SK: Yeah, not slave Leia. Yeah, yeah. Not slave Leia. And I was just thinking when you were talking, I mean, I think for me too it was my parents. I mean my father has always been … There are three girls and one boy in my family, I was the youngest, am the youngest. There really wasn’t much discussion as to whether we were going to achieve things in our life, my brother or the girls. My mother, I always joke and say my mom, you know, she’s German. She’s tough. And I can remember, it was always like, get up, scrape off the dirt … Are you bleeding or not? Are you alive? Okay, move on.
You know, always taught us to really be tough, and to try not to actually not to lean too much on being a woman. That was something, for her, that was very important. She said, I want you to … You know, she was my mom, she said, “I think you’re all beautiful and wonderful, but that can go away. So you need to build everything else. And not focus on that, even if others want to focus on that.”
DB: I have to say that my father said a similar thing to me. I owe so much to my parents. I’ll never forget when I was thinking about college, it wasn’t a choice. It was kind of like, “You’re going to go to college.” My father said to me, and I think it’s important for the listeners to hear because it’s just so remarkable, and he says, “I don’t care if you decide to be a stay-at-home mom the rest of your life, but you’re going to be an educated one.” So, going to college was just like the next step. He never said I had to be a career woman, and I think that was … I just, like I-
SK: Because it’s supposed to be about choice.
SK: That’s something, that often, when you talk about women’s empowerment, you talk about feminism, there is sometimes a bias among women who connect with those movements about what women do. I think what’s so important is it doesn’t matter what you decide to do, it’s that you chose to do it, and that you were educated and you had enough information to make that choice in a way that was yours.
SK: And I love that you brought that up. That’s come up in my life from time to time. I’ve had to think about it. Just because maybe something wouldn’t have been my choice, actually doesn’t mean that that was a bad choice for her to make. All I care about is if she’s educated and in a place where she felt like she could make that choice, you know, in the right way. So it’s interesting.
DB: I think what’s also interesting is all three of us have talked about our fathers. I really just want to say that, when we said how do we start the conversation with the executives, how do we get it going, and I know this came up in the conference as well … You know, there are men in all of our industries, in all of these executive positions, with daughters. The conversation can start and open there. What does your daughter do for a living? What does your daughter do? Is she in college, is she in high school, is she a CEO of something?
SK: How would you like her experience to be if she worked in your company? Because sometimes I think it does have to become, you know, again it’s changing, but become personal in a way. Oh, I didn’t think about that. How would you like for when she goes into the workplace, or if she’s in the workplace, for her to be treated? You know how smart, intelligent, how interesting she is … How would you like for her to be treated? And I think that is one way of looking at it.
DB: I also think it would be interesting to say to a man who may have sons and daughters, and say, do you think there is a gender pay gap? I mean, it would be interesting if you had two kids that are are out in the workforce, how would you feel about your daughter making $.70 to the dollar? You know, maybe he thinks his daughter is smarter and more successful. But I think these are really interesting ways to open up some dialogue that could break the ice and get some conversations going. That I think can really bring the point home to them, literally home, because all three of us had dads who really encouraged us to break all barriers.
SK: Well, Deb, I want to thank you so much for coming. Wine Enthusiast is a media partner with Women of the Vine & Spirits. We are obviously big fans. We’re very supportive of everything that you’re doing, excited for where things are going. Where should people go to learn more about Women of the Vine & Spirits?
DB: You could go to our website, to www.womenofthevine.com. You’ll be able to see all of our programs, our events, our members, as well as our advisory board, and information. We’d love for listeners to join our mailing list, or join our alliance, participate, or reach out to me directly. All the information’s on www.womenofthevine.com.
SK: Okay, well thank you so much. And thanks Lauren, too.
LB: Thank you, Sue.
DB: Thank you.
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Last Updated: June 5, 2023