The wine industry has a big problem.

Over the past few years we have seen accusations of sexual harassment and unsafe workplaces published by the likes of Victoria James (Ecco Press), Ann Hui (Globe and Mail) Julia Moskin’s multiple articles (New York Times), and Amber Gardner (The Buyer). The list could go on and is seemingly endless. This is not solely a restaurant problem or a Court of Master Sommeliers problem. It is a problem for the whole wine industry from wine producers to distribution networks to retailers and restaurants to consumers and critics.

The people who have come forward in these articles, exposing assaults by men in positions of influence and power, have the kind of courage we all must emulate. These actions take place in front of every one of us. The comments, glances, promises of advancement, illusion of preferential treatment, and so much worse.

Friends of the wine industry, I implore you to reflect on how you support your peers of all gender identities and backgrounds. We need to stand up for one another when aggressions happen and hold each other accountable. Asking yourself: “what am I doing at all times to understand and respect the people I work with and the community I am a part of?”

When articles are published exposing egregious actions it is not simply a sad day for the wine industry – but rather a disgusting and problematic culture revealed. It is now time to rebuild and re-evaluate our relationships with wine and the people involved.

This isn’t just about bad apples.

If we have learnt anything since the #metoo movement began, this is part of a larger issue. If we approach this type of misogyny and harassment as a spectrum – not isolated extreme acts – it is a helpful indicator for how we can help our peers and colleagues. The acts depicted in these articles are explicit and clearly unacceptable. But this is rarely how it starts.

It often starts with small actions and words, perhaps even microaggressions, that can grow into full blown harassment and assault. The men depicted in these articles didn’t necessarily start out with grossly inappropriate behaviour. Like a grapevine given sunshine, nutrients, and water, this behaviour was given – or at least not denied – what it needed to grow. It was enabled: by the men themselves, by their institution, and by their friends and colleagues. Slowly it grows.

In the past month, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my experiences coming up through the restaurant and wine industry over the last 15 years. I am deeply saddened by what I tolerated when I was younger because it was ‘just how it works.’ I remember a gay coworker being mocked and harassed by coworkers to the point of resigning. I remember female coworkers being drugged at staff parties and not remembering what happened the next day. I remember being groped, grabbed, my integrity and knowledge questioned on a regular basis to the point where it just seemed acceptable.

The slighting comments I have received as a woman are all too common. It’s the standard for women in the wine industry. The What would you know about wine anyways? attitude is the exact dismissive attitude that women and individuals from all marginalized groups are treated with in the wine industry.

In 2015, I was in the middle of completing my WSET Diploma, the highest certification given by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. I was working in a high-end restaurant in downtown Calgary, serving a customer that had questions about the wine list. As I began to walk him through the difference between some of the Oregon Pinot Noirs, the customer, a white male older than myself, stopped me and asked, “Can we have the French [male] server? He probably knows more about wine than you do; you are too young, what would you know?”

It’s this ‘less than’ attitude that allows women to be treated as a novelty in this industry, rather than equitable players. Standing up to slights, leers, and jabs when they happen is the only way to change these attitudes. But it shouldn’t be up to  the victim to do that.

Although this situation stands out in my memory, it is not unique. This happens day-in and day-out because of how the wine community has enabled men who position themselves as gatekeepers. There needs to be an acknowledgement of the power and status that they have. When you are surrounded by a uniform demographic your perception of the world is never challenged. 

What can we do to move forward in a positive direction? To start, let’s consciously seek to respect each other more deeply, more thoroughly and more thoughtfully.

Let’s support each other, help each other grow and flourish in a safe, positive, and equitable space. A few quick suggestions: when a friend or colleague makes a comment that disparages another person or calls their ability or commitment into question, don’t turn the other cheek. You can also choose to take your business elsewhere in the case of those ‘open secrets’ that seem to permeate the industry before they make the news. Innocent until proven guilty is not the same as being entitled to your money.  At a time when the restaurant industry and sommeliers everywhere are struggling, losing work and hours due to the pandemic – we need to rebuild focusing on inclusion, respect and dignity.

We all need to pitch in and do the work. 

The latest articles