Mad props to Queen Bey for such a killer girl power anthem. I swear, everything Beyonce touches turns to gold. Her and T-Swift. It would be so annoying if their music weren’t so freakin’ awesome, and yes, I love T-Swift and I am almost 38 years old and I OWN THAT LOVE.
Back to wine though. If you couldn’t tell, this post is dedicated to all the ladies in the place with style and grace (RIP Biggie), and by “place” I mean “wine industry” and by “style and grace” I mean every single woman out there. Women all over the place are absolutely slaying, and the wine industry is no exception. So let’s talk about it.
It probably won’t come as a surprise when I tell you that women have never had it easy in the wine industry, and wine is a seriously old industry. According to the internet, the oldest known winery is something like 6,100 years old, located in a cave in Armenia. And yet, women only really started to become visible in the wine industry in the second half of the 20th century.* Being invisible for 6,050 years starts to feel a little personal, amirite?
*In starting my research for this blog post, I came across an invaluable book called “Women of Wine: The Rise of Women in the Global Wine Industry” by Ann B. Matasar, Professor of Business Emerita at Roosevelt University. Most of the historical context for this post comes from Professor Matasar’s exhaustive research, and I highly recommend the book if you’re interested in the subject.
So, why have women struggled for recognition and acceptance in the wine industry?
- Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, take your pick: All these old and powerful cultures were full of men who thought women shouldn’t even drink alcohol because, basically, they couldn’t handle it. Apparently, women were prone to “excess,” “inebriation,” “indiscriminate sexuality,” “promiscuity,” and well, we can’t have any of THAT. Of course, men were free to party.
- Unfortunately for women, socializing with booze was also how men networked, conducted business, made political connections, etc. Ladies who can’t handle their liquor (which, according to these guys, was all of them) therefore were excluded from all of these opportunities for advancement. I love how Professor Matasar sums up this point: “Fraternization in a single-sex environment intended for drinking remains a major hindrance to the advancement of women in all professions to this day.” Truth.
- Eventually wine normalized enough that women were allowed to drink it, but they still weren’t allowed into any of the hangout spots. This exclusion naturally also extended to the wine growers’ associations, and that persisted for a depressingly long time. In fact, the oldest and most elite of the Bordeaux “brotherhoods,” the Jurade of Saint-Emilion, didn’t admit its first female members until 2000. Not quite as shameful as Augusta National, but come on, only by 12 years.
- Don’t even get me started on all kinds of other wacky theories about women and wine, including the notion that at a certain, ahem, time of the month, a woman’s presence could turn wine into vinegar. Thanks for that nugget of wisdom, Pliny the Elder.
I could go on, of course, but you get the idea. When it comes to wine, women are fighting against some REALLY OLD, really ingrained (and pretty weird) prejudices that have shaped the entire industry. And yet, they have fought, they continue to fight… and they’re starting to win. And by extension, we’re all winning, because they’re making some really good wine.
Amazing, you exclaim! Who are these women, and how can I find their wine?
And that, my friends, is where Sip Wines comes in. Now that we’re officially up and running, we hope you’ve had a chance to browse the site, and perhaps you’ve noticed our handy tag system. The goal of Sip Wines, other than to bring you wines from small wineries you might otherwise never discover, is to help you shop according to your values. On our site, you can easily find all our women-led winery partners--and trust me, you want to find these wineries.
In fact, let’s begin the introductions right now.
Meet Alice Warnecke Sutro, founder of the SUTRO Wine label. Alice is a first-generation founder who comes from a family of grape growers in Alexander Valley, Sonoma County, California. I’ll be honest, when I got on the phone with Alice, I quickly realized that I still didn’t understand the different components of wine production. Fortunately, I started my interviews with the right person--Alice graciously educated me and even offered to review my draft for accuracy. My wine journey has progressed!
First, the deets: SUTRO produces 750 cases of Bordeaux Varietal wines annually (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc) from grapes grown at the Warnecke Family Ranch. Yep, Alice literally grew up surrounded by the grapes that now go into her label’s delicious wine. In fact, the land has been in her family for over 100 years, and Warnecke grapes are sold to several award-winning wineries. It’s also where Alice got her start, working for her aunt as an assistant vineyard manager before striking out on her own.
Why start a wine label?
I would say that was my first question, but I can’t take that much credit--I was too clueless for that level of precision, and yet Alice answered it beautifully. She said:
“Wine is the public facing voice of grape growing.”
Coming from a family of grape growers, she continued, she felt it was time to “tell their story through wine.” It was an amazing beginning to our conversation because of how simply and powerfully it reinforced my growing understanding that wine is personal. Deeply personal, in a way that most of us will never understand except maybe through our own children. Alice grew up among and with the grapevines, has added her sweat and tears to that of generations of her family… of course her wine feels more like an extension of self than a simple beverage.
A small winery with a big mission
With Alice’s permission, I’m including the SUTRO mission statement here in its entirety:
“We deeply believe in the strength that diversity brings to soils, wines and humanity. To that end, we are dedicated to being one of the few wineries committed to maintaining a 100% all-womxn staff in order to equalize the historic lack of opportunities in the wine industry for womxn, especially for moms, and for those identifying as BIPOC and LGBTQ+.”
As a mission statement, it’s both beautifully written and deeply inspiring, but I think I can also vouch for its authenticity. True, I barely know Alice, but the first thing she said about the mission statement was everything: “I am conscious of our mission statement not being lip service.” In one short sentence, she reached the heart of what most diversity and inclusion initiatives ultimately fail to grasp: doing means so much more than saying. Alice does.
Take her business practices: Alice makes a point to hire female employees and chooses women-led contract businesses for outsourced work such as design whenever possible. She dedicates part of marketing budget to showcasing voices of other women in wine, and somehow finds time to produce a weekly IGTV series in which she interviews another woman in wine.
As a working mother, this writer was particularly struck by the deliberate inclusion of “moms” in the mission statement. Alice started her label when her children were very young and experienced firsthand the challenges of being an entrepreneur and a mother, including confronting both societal and her own expectations of being the primary caregiver. Seeking support through role models, she discovered that motherhood is a deeply hidden identity label in the wine world (as in so many other professions); including motherhood as part of her mission statement is one of her calls to other working moms, that they are not alone.
Calling the wine industry to action: Find your voice and speak up
When you think of the wine industry, “social activism” probably isn’t the first concept that comes to mind, but when I asked Alice for one way in which the wine industry could do better, it’s the first thing she said. It’s a recent evolution in the business world that Alice credits to the Black Lives Matter movement: until fairly recently, the first commandment of marketing was to play it safe. Don’t scare away customers by having controversial views. Alice is throwing out that tired playbook and hopes other wineries will follow. She’s not afraid of being opinionated and perceived as “radical,” because she’d rather lose customers scared off by those opinions than be quiet about issues that matter.
Maybe it’s because she’s also an artist, and the art world is a space of “immense freedom for opinions and personal identities.” Maybe it’s because she’s a woman, and female voices have been louder on these issues (although we really hope to be proven wrong on that one!). But she’s hoping that a new wave is building in wine, one that creates a similar freedom and support for identity and social justice… and maybe she and others can ride that wave all the way to the top, and convince the major wine associations and publications to contribute their voices as well.
For now at least, Alice isn’t afraid to speak up, and Sip Wines is thrilled to support her voice--and her wine.