In a high end restaurant, a table of men waiting for their expensive bottle of white Burgundy wine becomes taken aback by a young woman, a sommelier at the restaurant, approaching the table to taste them on their selected bottle of choice. She is quickly accused of wearing perfume, a great sin in the fine wine world as it ruins the experience of smelling the wine, and one of the men precedes to humiliate the young lady by demeaning her with the term ‘Wine Girl’ and rejecting the perfectly fine bottle of Burgundy despite her not wearing any fragrance.
This story kicked off the 9th Annual Women in Wine Leadership Symposium (WWLS), made possible by the national fine wine and spirits importer and distributor Winebow and part of the keynote conversation led by Dorothy J. Gaiter, senior editor of Grape Collective. Dorothy, or as she likes to be called Dottie, has had an impressive writing career with 47 years in journalism, and together with her husband John Brecher, conceived and wrote the Wall Street Journal “Tastings” column for 12 years, authored four wine books and created the annual global celebration of wine and friendship ‘Open That Bottle Night’. Dottie has also been nominated twice for a Pulitzer Prize for her writing about race in the Wall Street Journal. She moderated a compelling conversation that covered sexism, racism and ageism that included two women with different journeys in the wine world who both become wine directors at highly-acclaimed restaurants yet their struggles with constantly being challenged for simply how they look is a struggle that they both deeply share.
One of the two women who joined Dottie in this discussion was Victoria James – she was the young lady that was humiliated at that table with the term ‘Wine Girl’. She wrote a recently released, award-winning book called Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumphs of America’s Youngest Sommelier. The books lays out her journey to becoming the youngest sommelier at a Michelin-starred restaurant in the U.S. and with her just being shy of 30 years old, she has racked up acclaim for her wine list at Cote, a Michelin-starred Korean steakhouse in New York City, and she has been placed on several lists as notable people in the wine business. And so one would think her story would have been one of a charmed life that was filled with glamour and ease but nothing further could be found from the truth.
Wine Girl is filled with a tremendous amount of pain of childhood trauma that led her to work at a greasy spoon diner as a waitress starting at the age of 13 years old but that initial work experience unlocked her love for hospitality that would have her pursuing wine certifications and working the long, intense hours that is required by the fine wine world. Unfortunately, her love for wine and the restaurant business would be fraught with sexual harassment and assault that she thought as a young woman was just part of the business as well as having no voice in trying to stop predators from preying on her.
It is remarkable to know Victoria’s story and realize that not only did she survive but she has become one of the most well-known beverage directors as well as being a partner at Cote and she is now part of creating real change to stop the toxic work environment that plagues so many women who enter the restaurant business. At her current restaurant, the owner, Simon Kim, supports a healthy environment which is carefully overseen by the general manager Amy Zhou, a woman who came to restaurant life at a young age as well. There is a “color coded system” that allows any employee to raise a concern with dealing with a customer by telling a manager “code blue” and that person is immediately taken out of that situation with the manager taking over and assessing the situation. Then a manager will make the call whether a customer is just getting sloppy by over-consuming and hence that manager will stop serving alcohol, bring water or call a cab or if it is an extreme case of someone physically or verbally harassing an employee the manager will go to the table, ask the guest to leave and inform them that they cannot come back. The latter very rarely happens but the employees are happier and perform better if they feel they are in a safe environment.
Victoria explained, “These guests that are problematic, who are not common, are like weeds.” And she stated that their restaurant Cote means “flower” in Korean and that they are all about “growing and flourishing” of a garden without weeds.
Victoria is also co-founder of Wine Empowered a non-profit educational organization that provides tuition-free wine classes to women and minorities in the hospitality industry.
Tonya Pitts, wine director at One Market Restaurant in San Francisco and who has been in the business for over 30 years, was the other sommelier and wine director part of this conversation. She felt two big barriers to becoming a sommelier – as a Black woman as she had never seen anyone who looked like her at the upper echelon of the industry.
‘There Wasn’t Anyone Who Looked Like Me’
Since the pandemic, racism has really come to the forefront as a major issue across industries as well as when it comes to social justice that would get some notice in the past but no real action. The wine industry has taken this issue to heart in recent times and people have stepped up to promote Black voices, producers and to establish organizations to assist the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) community such as Wine Unify which Tonya Pitts sits as an advisory board member as well as mentor and ambassador.
Thinking of Tonya now, it is difficult to imagine that she ever doubted her place in the hospitality business as she is wine director of one of the cornerstone places of the financial district of San Francisco with an award-winning wine list. She is featured as an expert in her field in various media outlets as well as offers wine consulting services and blending sessions with wine brands. For the first decade of her professional life, she fought the idea of becoming a sommelier and wine director as when she first started she didn’t know of anyone in such a position of importance in the wine industry that was a woman, let alone a Black woman or even a woman of color. And still, in recent times, she is still questioned by some customers for being a female as the customer will ask to see the man in charge of the wine list, not initially understanding that Tonya is the person in charge of list despite her name being on it.
Tonya has always been a believer in mentoring, especially people of color, as despite her having great female mentors when she was starting, who saw something in her that she herself didn’t see, that it was “isolating” to be the only person of color in the fine wine restaurant scene. She has always believed in mentoring herself but has taken a stronger role as she knows that it is not just a matter of mentoring those who come into the sommelier world but that people of color need to see themselves in these roles before they even consider pursuing them. “I remember an incident with a young Black man that came to work in my restaurant,” Tonya noted “and he wanted nothing to do with me and the wine program and he only gravitated to chef and the cooking and it wasn’t because he was enthralled with cooking” and she continued that he couldn’t see himself working with wines and being a sommelier as it wasn’t part of his world of possibilities.
And now in this stage of her career, where Tonya has amassed an incredible level of experience, she is finding a third layer of discrimination – ageism. Dorothy ‘Dottie’ J. Gaiter, who is 69 years old and grew up in the segregated South, is someone who certainly knows the three layers of discrimination. “Age means experience and if we are still standing we have wisdom and talent and that just doesn’t seem really wise to discount,” expressed Dottie.
But Tonya said that despite being a “young 53 year old,” as most people never guess her age and she has no problems keeping up with the physical aspect of being on the floor, people question whether she can still do the job of a sommelier. She has found that it is not an issue for men to be sommeliers past her age as there is no question that they can handle it. Although she proves over and over that she can balance everything a sommelier and wine director can do with 30 years of knowledge, refined skills and a grounding that only comes with age, she is still questioned and so she thinks ageism, especially among women, needs to be addressed.
Dottie then turned the question of ageism to Victoria by stating that she probably faced a lot of prejudice as a young woman and it probably worked against her. Yet Victoria, with the grace of someone beyond her years, said that any time she hears younger women say unkind things about older people she brings to their attention, “This is going to be you in a few years. You are not setting yourself up for success.” And she continued by noting that “women can be the biggest barriers to other women which is very disheartening” as she stated that she would love to be guided by a panel of women elders. “For me I didn’t have a lot of mentors and I wish I knew Tonya sooner as I felt like I was a lamb thrown into this den of wolves.”
And with that it became clear that yes women need male allies but first and foremost women need each other as allies, as mentors, protectors and role models that do not feel threatened by the presence of the young or demeaned by those who have come before them. Women have been placed in superficial boxes for too long and it is time to stop competing and start empowering, the age of women being abused and held back will never end if other women who enable it and sometimes encourage it don’t stop their dysfunctional behavior and join in the bold movement of togetherness.
Every time a woman belittles another female colleague based on her appearance, that has nothing to do with her work performance, that woman becomes part of the dehumanization of a gender, or race, or age group that finds themselves in horrific situations because they are not seen as being completely human. If women want more fairness in the world they have to first give it to each other.
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