Is the wine industry a bastion of “white men”?

Food, wine & hospitality

publication date 21/01/2021

The French wine world is reeling after the publication of a caricature disparaging women in the trade magazine En Magnum (Dec. 2020 – Jan.-Feb. 2021, no. 17).

Now people are opening up and speaking out about the discrimination and various forms of harassment experienced by women in the wine industry, including insults, disparagement, overt threats and questioning their credentials.

The wine industry remains a bastion of white men, with women and people of colour being in the minority. Florine Livat explains the inner workings of this world in four points.

A patriarchal and patrilineal sector (still)

When it’s time to hand over the business, it’s often – naturally and implicitly – the boys who take the reins.

Passing on wine-making expertise within families in the wine world is also almost exclusively geared to boys, whereas studies have shown that learning outside the family circle – as girls more frequently do – enables them to acquire new academic, social and cultural skills, which are useful for innovating and dealing with the vicissitudes of the business.

However, women still do advance to leadership roles slightly more in the wine industry than in other industries.

Since the early 2000s, women represent over 40% of those who have attained the prestigious title Master of Wine. Yet, while 50% of oenology students are women (up to 60% in some wine-making courses), they are significantly underrepresented in the industry, and attitudes and behaviours towards them are changing only slowly.

Female success stories – but with adverse consequences

Some women have broken the glass ceiling in the wine industry, heralding the onset of cultural and structural change. Women have even become a strong marketing asset.

There are already countless biographies and other publications about women in the wine business, whether as owners of Champagne houses, oenologists or sommeliers.

Yet these success stories may suggest that women are much more prominent in the wine industry – especially in positions of power – than they actually are.

This glamorous image of women oenologists or sommelières also masks the virtual absence of women from boards of directors or positions of power in the various industry governing bodies.

Moreover, sociologists have clearly shown that, in the wine business, prestige and reputation tilt frequently towards a strong male identity

Women shaping the wine business

Historically, the existence of wine associations or “Bacchanalian fraternities” has excluded women from the governing bodies in the wine industry.

So women have created their own official networks, such as in the Femmes de Vins or Women Do Wine organisations, as well as informal ones, in which they often identify as both partners and competitors, in a spirit of “coopetition”.

Although some might see these networks as a challenge to traditional professional organisations, such a view overlooks the fact that, by improving the reputation of their wines, these women are also contributing to the collective reputation of a region or designation.

Other forms of discrimination

In France, the wine business remains a world of white men. Elsewhere, the situation is starting to change.

In the United States, for example, the wine media has reported on the work of Black wine-makers and merchants. Yet, as with women, they often have to prove their mettle far more than white people do in this industry.

Elsewhere in the world, the wine industry is also grappling with issues of diversity and inclusion. In France, too, it is time to put these issues on the table.