di Beatrice Fantoni (IT)
Wine has been around for millennia, but it’s only recently that the traditionally male-dominated industry has started to give way to more women, whether as sommeliers, wine makers, grape growers or wine and grape scientists. “There are a lot more women than when I started out in this business,” says Sara D’Amato, a certified sommelier, wine critic and Ontario chapter president of the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers (CAPS) who started in the business in 2003. “It was such a boys’ club.”
As a young graduate whose interests spanned the spectrum from science to management, and with a passion for wine and France, D’Amato says she felt the gender imbalance acutely at the time.
Fifteen years later things are changing, she says, and the playing field is evening out. It’s more common to see women compete alongside men for sommelier titles or enroll in training programs and courses. In fact, last year the CBC reported that more women than men were graduating with degrees from Brock University’s oenology and viticulture program.
While in the realm of sommeliers – especially at the very highest ranks – women remain a minority. D’Amato points out that women have risen rapidly to the top in other segments of the industry and in different parts of the world. In Italy for example, women are taking the reins at some of the most important consorzi (consortia). Olga Bussinello, for one, heads the Consorzio Valpolicella, steering the production of some of Italy’s most prized and refined wines.
D’Amato says the change is dispelling popular myths not just about women and wine, but about men too. Who says men don’t drink rosé? (They do, she says. Just look at Europe.) Do women prefer sweeter wines? (Women and men are pretty much drinking the same wines, she explains).
Even the language used to describe wine in reviews is shedding outdated, gender stereotypical terms, such as “masculine” for bolder (and generally more prized) wines, and “feminine” for delicate wines.
Lisa Leonetti Inacio, a certified sommelier and wine consultant at Anima Trattoria in Toronto, recalls that roughly a third of her classmates were women when she enrolled in the sommelier program at Niagara College in 2016. Her impression is there still tend to be more men in the industry, particularly as master sommeliers, but the scale is tipping. Her hunch is it has to do with women gradually getting more exposure. “It’s refreshing to see that,” Leonetti Inacio says. “The dedication of the women I’m in the presence of in this industry is incredible.”
The sommelier and wine consultant recently worked on a wine list for Anima that showcased some all-female producers, including a few by Donatella Cinelli Colombini. Colombini founded the Casato Prime Donne in Tuscany, where the vintners and winemakers are all women. “We wanted to create a list that showed lesser known wines and smaller producers,” Leonetti Inacio says, adding they also want to offer wines with an interesting story behind them.
D’Amato says she has heard from female winemakers who say the cyclical nature of the grape harvest and wine production cycle and living closer to nature are very conducive to work-family balance – an issue that many women are forced to consider when it comes to choosing their career path. “There is some enticement, too, from women to get into production,” she says.
And there is a lot of room for entrepreneurship in the industry, D’Amato adds, so women can shape their work. There are plenty of networking groups all over the globe, including in Canada, such as the Femmes du Vin launched by Toronto sommelier Emily Pearce-Bibona, and professional development events like the Women in Wine annual leadership symposium.
D’Amato says the industry is also taking a hard look at issues faced by female stage students (the interns of the sommelier world) like workplace harassment (all the more important because there is alcohol involved, she says), contracts for placements and dress code requirements.
While women don’t want to fawn over being “women in wine,” D’Amato says, it’s nonetheless an important shift. “A lot of these prejudices and these layers are being peeled back,” D’Amato says. “This is a great industry for women.”