A look at Women of the Vine & Spirits

Deborah Brenner, founder and CEO, Women of the Vine & Spirits
Deborah Brenner, founder and CEO, Women of the Vine & Spirits

Women of the Vine & Spirits, founded by Deborah Brenner in the USA in 2015, is an organization dedicated to “supporting, advancing and connecting women employed and operating in the industry; our members also enjoy interaction and networking opportunities with buyers, sellers and others active in the industry.” Each year it has an annual symposium, held in California. The organization is now expanding internationally, and will hold its first international summit in London next month; keynote speakers include Margareth Henriquez, president of LVMH Estates & Wine, and Jancis Robinson MW. Deborah Brenner spoke with Felicity Carter.

Tell me how you came to be interested in the topic of 'women in wine'.
I worked in television and film on the technology side for 20 plus years, so I started my career in a very male dominated industry right out of university. I was successful; I was the first female director in my company and I was working in high definition television in 1992 when nobody had heard about it before. But I was very disenchanted and frustrated in my corporate life, being mostly the only female. I always had a passion for food and wine and decided to see if I could make a career change. That was in 2004 and when I started looking at going into the wine industry I was surprised at how male dominated it was. This was right before there were statistics in terms of women and consumption; 67% of on-premise consumption is women, according to the Wine Market Council. Women weren’t being talked about, much less featured on the covers of magazines. 

In 2006, you brought out your book Women of the Vine: Inside the World of Women who Make, Taste, and Enjoy Wine.
It was selected by Wine Spectator as a critical read in 2007. The book was the catalyst for everything that happened afterwards and it was why the name ‘Women of the Vine’ stayed with me. It’s a storytelling book to tell the story of these women who championed and pioneered in the wine industry.
   In 2007, I founded Women of the Vine Cellars, releasing wine from seven artisan women winemakers. We had a good run for seven years, but with the three-tier system and the economy, and there being no direct-to-consumer at the time, I needed to shut down the wine brand. But a year later I kept getting emails from women around the world, saying “My mom is a woman of the vine” or “I’ve just got my WSET, and how can I be part of your organization”, but there wasn’t an organization. I realized this is where I could champion change and advocate for women. I held the inaugural symposium in March 2015 and figured I would hold a one-off conference and hoped people would buy a ticket. We got an overwhelming response. I hoped for 250 and we sold out in 500. Here we are three years later.

How did it become Women of the Vine and Spirits?
The first year was Women of the Vine and we had some people come from the spirits world. They approached me afterwards and said they were facing the same challenges, so we did the name change in 2016. We also embrace our women of beer and cider and non-alcohol.

What do you see as the big issues for women working in the alcohol sector?
We share a lot of the same issues with women in Silicon Valley or the automotive industry, but what makes us unique is this is a highly regulated industry, which other industries are not. So we have a lot of challenges, especially with the three-tier system, and progress has been very slow because of the historic roots of the industry.

How does being highly regulated impact on women?
When you’re dealing with a lot of legal issues, it tends to make progress slower, because it’s mostly been men that were put into leadership roles. You don’t see a lot of women in leadership roles in legal – it’s been slow overall – so what we are looking to do is accelerate by coming together as a trade organization. We are talking about best practices and diversity. People are looking internally at their own companies, especially in the UK, where they have to publish and publicise what they are doing to close the gender gap.
  We’re giving women the opportunity to network and make those connections and share knowledge, looking at career paths and role models. 

Obviously, the situation is very different in the US compared to Europe, particularly around issues like working conditions. What do you hope to achieve on this side of the pond?
Last year some of our US-based corporate members that have either headquarters or large offices in Europe and the UK started asking me about whether we would do something outside the US. I said ‘yes’, but culturally the challenges are different. In order for me to address them, we announced the formation of the European Advisory Board at our Symposium in Napa in 2017. 
   A lot of the European wineries and even distilleries have come down through heritage and inheritance, and it wasn’t guaranteed that a woman could take the helm, unless there was nobody else in line. When we decided on the topics and challenges, one of the big ones we are going to discuss is the critical importance of women empowering other women. One of the things we’re going to be talking about is how they can take action to support one another and be mentors, as well as asking men to be mentors. 
   We feel the mentorship role is really critical, because we think people don’t necessarily see the opportunities open to them. What we find statistically – and this isn’t from our industry, but in general – is that men have the confidence to apply for jobs they are only 60% qualified for, and they have the confidence they can learn it on the job. Women only apply if they think they are 100% qualified. Our goal is to get them to take the initiative. 
   The other very big topic is unconscious bias. It’s inherent in every human being and unconscious bias training heightens your awareness to be careful of your own biases. We’re going to have Jan Jones Blackhurst from Caesars Entertainment speaking, and she’s the person spearheading Caesar’s global commitment to gender parity.

I was going to ask you about putting gambling on stage with the wine industry, which tends to think of itself in quite different terms.
We have Caesars and MGM on board and I’m very honoured to have them, because they’re not just about the gambling side. In America, the casinos have become major food and beverage entertainment, with celebrity chefs in all these casinos. So we are looking at it from a hospitality perspective. These are women on the front line; according to US labour statistics, 60% of bar tenders are female and we want to embrace those women.

You’ve also got McKinsey & Company speaking about gender diversity.
We’ve invited McKinsey because we feel it’s very important for them to talk about why gender diversity is good for business. Statistically, over and over, they have determined that diverse executive teams are more likely to deliver profitability. There is a correlation between gender diversity and profit margins. When you look at alcohol, particularly wine, women are the dominant buyers; that doesn’t just mean women who are white women, that’s also lesbian women, minority women and women overall. If our leadership teams do not have a diverse group, how are they making decision to sell more product? The leadership team needs to reflect the consumer. That’s the business case. To get the corporate members on board, we had to demonstrate that this wasn’t just a good thing to do and a righteous thing. Nobody wants to be a token.

What about small businesses? Most wine – and even distillery – businesses in Europe are small to medium sized enterprises. Are discussions of corporate governance of any benefit to them?
Even the estates that are born in the vineyard still have to understand the consumer. We don’t want to make them go after the market, but even small wineries have to craft their message.

Apart from the upcoming conference, what does your organisation offer women working in alcohol?
Beyond the conference, it is 365 days-a year trade organisation. There are two parts: advocating for diversity, and the personal development part; understanding the things that can be learned. We do webinar on assessing your own style, understanding your own strengths, understanding how you learn and delegate. You’ll have more job satisfaction.

You don’t have to be a senior executive to participate. It’s about women meeting other women and sharing information.

Interview by Felicity Carter

The International Summit will be held on 28 June 2018 at the QEII Centre, London. For more information, visit the website.


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