It was a Monday morning, but in the East Village of Manhattan, the mood was more 5 o’clock on a Thursday. A group of women swirled the red wine in their glasses, inhaled its scent, took careful sips and — in not-quite-happy-hour fashion — spat the liquid out into containers. Then they took notes.
The objective was to identify the wine by assessing the way it clung to the glass and how opaque its color was, as well as how it smelled and tasted. But in a broader sense, the meeting was meant to foster open discussion in an environment where these experts felt they would be heard.
“Do we have a merlot that has this tart of a fruit flavor?” said Imane Hanine, the former assistant general manager at Corkbuzz Wine Studio. She was asking the four women sitting near her, holding mystery wine No. 3.
The women consulted the lists of potential wines laid out in front of them, all of which were divided by country or region, as well as by subregion or style. Someone compared the smell of the wine to cow dung. Another noted a raisin flavor.
“That means lots of sunlight hours, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was hot,” said Tara Hammond, a wine representative for an importing company who is studying for a diploma with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that offers courses and exams.
The women continued debating which style of wine they were tasting, checking in with each other and engaging in Socratic lines of questioning.
“What does your gut say?” Ms. Hammond said, eventually. “That’s what we have to practice.”
Alexis Percival, one of the beverage directors and a partner at Ruffian Wine Bar, created this women-only wine tasting group in March, after years of frustration with the outright and subtle examples of sexism in her industry.
“When I was talking to women who I was intimidated by — total rock stars — and they were telling me, ‘I’m so afraid to speak up in a tasting group. I’ve gotten talked over, I’m not listened to, I’m usually right when I look at my notes when the wine is revealed but I’m too afraid to say anything,’ that’s when I was like, ‘If you’re scared, everyone’s going to be scared,’” Ms. Percival said.
For wine professionals, tastings are more than a pastime. They are opportunities to prepare for tests administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers and the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, organizations that confer certifications and diplomas. Those designations communicate knowledge of wine and spirits to employers.
Out of the 158 people who have earned the title of Master Sommelier in the Americas chapter since the 1980s, 25 have been women. In California, women are the lead winemakers in about 10 percent of the state’s more than 3,700 wineries.
As in many other industries, there is a gender pay gap. “When you look at the numbers, women still make less,” Ms. Percival said. According to an annual survey by GuildSomm, a nonprofit organization for sommeliers and wine professionals, women in wine make $7,000 less on average than men.
“Even though there are more women in wine now, a lot of aspects of the culture are really male dominated,” said Athena Bochanis, the founder of Palinkerie, a company that imports Hungarian wines. “It’s somms, bros, getting super-drunk.”
Ms. Hammond said, “It’s like a sport to them.”
What many have called the “toxic masculinity” of the food and beverage industry has become a rallying cry in the wake of #MeToo. Last year, four major restaurant groups, in New Orleans, New York and Oakland, Calif., were caught in sexual harassment scandals.
“There’s more than sexism,” Ms. Hammond said. “There’s misogyny. If you look at some of the restaurants that are under scrutiny lately, that’s what we have to deal with all the time. I’ve had producers from around the world grab my butt or say, ‘You’re sitting here next to me.’”
Other women shared instances of being mistaken for junior employees.
“When I started my business, I would go into a bar or a shop and I would say, ‘This is my business, I’m importing Hungarian wine. Are you interested in tasting?’ And they would be like, ‘Sorry, who do you work for again?’” Ms. Bochanis said. “They couldn’t get it through their mind that it’s my business.”
Ms. Percival, a sommelier, said: “I definitely get, ‘Can I speak to the somm?’ all the time.”
Those frequent underestimations have led some women to present themselves to clients in ways that are less conventionally feminine. “When I first was given a position of power in this industry, I had fake glasses,” Ms. Hammond said. “I would wear things like this instead of a dress,” she said, pointing to her blue button-down shirt. “I would wear my hair back.”
Visual cues can be effective at communicating authority, but they often fall short in the face of certain hurdles — so-called mansplainers in particular.
“My favorite story is a guy trying to tell me that orange wine is made from oranges,” said Missy Neill, the head sommelier at the restaurant Blanca, referring to wines that can take on a spectrum of orange hues because they are made by fermenting white grapes with the skin intact. “He would not relent. I was like, ‘Sir, with all due respect, I am the wine professional here, and I’m telling you, there are no oranges involved in this wine.’”
The women let out a collective groan of empathy.
“A week doesn’t pass when a random guy — it’s always a guy — who doesn’t know anything about what I do and my business, hears that it’s my company and I own it, and starts to give me unsolicited business advice,” Ms. Bochanis said.
In the company of female peers, many of the women said, those concerns fall away.
“There is a different attitude when it’s just women, a more supportive attitude,” said Leah Rinaldi, who works for an importing company. “Here, people who know a lot will take a wine and deconstruct it, but if you want to say, ‘Well, what about this?’ there’s not a resentment.”
Ms. Percival said, “This group is about openness. We’re here to learn.”
Credit: The Proof Is in Their Palates
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