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Women in Wine: Shattering The (Wine) Glass Ceiling

After being kept out of bars and vineyards for centuries, women are now claiming front-row seats in the drinks industry. We celebrate three remarkable trailblazers who have overturned the rules and taken this historically male-run world by storm. 

June 28, 2021

The clock strikes six on a Friday. Inevitably, someone utters that age-old phrase “let’s grab a drink” as my girlfriends and I, along with millions of women the world over, slither to our favourite bar for a martini or three to cap off the week. It’s a long-standing ritual, a beloved (and often taken-for-granted) respite in our routines that offers up treasured moments to connect, bond, and celebrate female camaraderie. 

It’s hard to believe, then, that such a scene would have never happened just a few decades ago – and still doesn’t in parts of the world today, such as Sri Lanka. The long-standing view was that women had no place in a bar. In fact, until 1982, women in England weren’t legally allowed to spend their own money in pubs, while barmaids in Australia and America were barred from serving customers up until sometime in the 1960s and ’70s. In contrast to men’s much documented partaking in wine-drinking, tracing back to the ancient Romans and Greeks in taverns and saloons (a period in which a female found drinking could be put to death), there’s no question that women’s relationship with alcohol, whether drinking it or creating it, has been fraught with deep-rooted challenges and prejudices. 

THE PATH LESS TRODDEN 

“It’s true that in parts of the world, it’s so unusual to find a female winemaker,” says Debra Meiburg, the highly revered wine expert who is Asia’s first Master of Wine (male or female) as well as the founding director of wine marketing agency Meiburg Wine Media and the MWM Wine School. The Sonoma County, California-born wine authority is also an ardent champion of women succeeding in the drinks industry. In 2017, she founded the Women of Wine Festival, which is a celebration of female winemakers, wine enthusiasts, and business leaders. “For example, in many Italian families, winemaking is a traditional business,” she adds. “You hear the same thing over and over: ‘My son makes my wine, while my daughter handles the public relations.’ Just once, I’d like to see it reversed!” 

Meiburg, as affable and gracious as she is knowledgeable when we speak one spring afternoon, fresh off her meeting with The Women Entrepreneurs Network, a Hong Kong-based platform that supports female business owners. She’s at the fore of a group of gifted female mavericks who, on the shoulders of trailblazing feminists through the decades who have ripped up the rule book, have encouragingly found their way to centre stage of the drinks industry, shining in numerous roles such as bartenders, distillers, cellar masters, and judges.  

It took a while, but glass ceilings are certainly being shattered. Three other women from Hong Kong who have also earned the prestigious Master of Wine accreditation include Jeannie Cho Lee (awarded in 2008, the same year as Meiburg), Jennifer Docherty, and Sarah Heller (who previously worked under Meiburg). Mixologists such as Victoria Chow and Beckaly Franks have made their mark with award-winning ventures including The Woods and The Pontiac.  

Just last year, Séverine Frerson was named the eighth (and first female) cellar master in champagne house Perrier-Jouët’s 200-year-history. Frerson spent 20 years working for Piper-Heidsieck before joining the house under her predecessor, Hervé Deschamps. “I am obviously very proud and honoured,” says the Champagne-born Frerson, who describes her new role as “a guardian” of the house’s Chardonnay-forward wines and their uniquely floral and intricate characters, all the while infusing her own personal sensitivity into them. “Rose-Adélaïde Jouët, who founded the maison with her husband, Pierre-Nicolas Perrier, in 1811, is a great source of inspiration for me,” she adds. “I hope that becoming the cellar master of one of the most prestigious champagne houses will unlock some vocations or show young women that this is also a job for them.”  

The daughter of two doctors, Frerson developed her love for wine while working at a family friend’s vineyard (“in the cellars and out in the vines”) for six years. When it came time to choose a career path, she followed her heart. “The world of wine is rather masculine,” admits Frerson. “But it is, above all, a profession of passion. The men and women who work in this industry do so out of passion, out of authenticity, and out of a love for wine.” 

AGAINST ALL ODDS 

It was that same deeply felt affection for the trade that lulled the award-winning Hong Kong-born bartender Shelley Tai to dive head-first some 10 years ago into an unorthodox career path – perhaps especially so for a young woman from a traditional Asian family. “My parents were mad when they first found out that that I became a bartender,” recalls Tai. “They were expecting something more traditional or more respected. But now they’re happy with my decision, because they can see that I’m serious about it.” 

It’s easy to see how Tai has won them over. A serious force on Asia’s bar circuit, Tai was crowned the esteemed Diageo World Class Hong Kong & Macau Bartender of the Year in 2019, and currently helms the bar at Singapore’s Nutmeg & Clove after stints at renowned establishments such as Quinary (where she learned the tricks of the trade alongside founder and trailblazing mixologist Antonio Lai), Finds, and Drop.  

After working in both Hong Kong and Singapore, Tai observes that gender equality in the hospitality world in Asia has “improved a lot”, and that the biggest obstacle she now faces as a woman behind the bar pertains to the intense physicality of a job that involves long hours and “demanding tasks that can be taxing on the body”. At the outset of her career, however, Tai noticed that she had fewer expectations placed on her compared to her male counterparts. For her, this was ultimately a blessing in disguise. “I didn’t have the stress of competing with anyone, so I could just focus on soaking up new knowledge and studying my craft,” she recalls. “It took me a longer time to get here, but it worked.” 

As a woman, when it comes to being underestimated in her abilities, Tai isn’t alone in her experience. Meiburg was ranked the seventh most powerful woman in wine by The Drinks Business magazine and named the entrepreneur of the year by the South China Morning Post and the American Chamber of Commerce (“It was the first time I felt recognised for my business work and that people understood how hard I worked”), and counts these moments among her proudest career milestones. But she echoes Tai’s sentiment, drawing similarities to a certain wine. “The white Burgundy, made with Chardonnay grapes, is ubiquitous and not always taken seriously. I’m often seen as kind of lightweight, fun, and casual – and I have this blonde hair that doesn’t help matters,” she says with a laugh. “And yet, the Chardonnay has a really strong core to it.” 

PAVING IT FORWARD 

Armed with a flair for numbers (“It’s a skillset that gives any entrepreneur confidence, when they understand how business is flowing and whether there’s long-term viability”) gleaned from her days as a PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant, coupled with the advice bestowed by her father to “get a job in a man’s world”, Meiburg marched her way to success in the wine industry with confidence, and an entrepreneurial spirit – all of which she is eager to pass on to other women.  

“I believe so sincerely in helping women, and I’m dedicated and devoted to it,” she says. “At one point, we had 22 team members in my company that were all women. For me, especially at this stage of my career in the industry, I want the best for everyone and I want them to be successful.” Meiburg also emphasises the importance of agility when it comes to navigating the trials and tribulations of entrepreneurship. “I hear people say that with COVID, one needs to pivot; it’s the big buzzword. I feel like I’ve been pivoting my business for 12 years.” 

It was during one of those pivots – on a quest to fill a shift in market demand for direct customer engagement – that Meiburg conceived the Women of Wine Festival. “Women make up such a high proportion of the wine-buying market, yet I never saw women out with wine importers. Women consumers weren’t being reached. So I thought, ‘How can I start that conversation?’ The idea was: let’s promote wine made by women and wine importers who are women, and let’s open the conversation women-to-women and try to build some special relationships.”  

Since 2017, the annual event has shone the spotlight on female-produced wines from more than a dozen regions, from Italy and Napa Valley to lesser-known regions such as Georgia and Austria. The event has also counted the likes of English actress and winery owner Trudie Styler; the former CEO of Standard Chartered Bank Hong Kong, May Tan; and champion amateur MMA fighter Tricia Yap among its illustrious guest speakers. “It was so striking and exciting to be with women who had broken the mould in all of their industries,” enthuses an impassioned Meiburg. “In those moments, I felt so proud to be a woman – to even know these ladies and be able to present their stories.” 

Indeed, there looks to be no stopping the world’s burgeoning force of women in drinks. In China alone, female wine drinkers have steadily climbed five percent year-on-year, composed largely of millennials. As the once-restrictive industry continues to open up and pave the way for greater diversification, it’s fascinating to watch where it’s headed next. Tai, who calls Singapore’s bar scene “extremely hospitable – it makes me feel like home”, is focusing on honing her craft and fuelling her passion. “What I love the most about bartending is being with friends late at night, and meeting great people in and out of the industry. Plus, there’s nothing like seeing the customer in a good mood when they’ve been served a drink they like. To me, it seldomly feels like work.” 

Alongside her fervent work in wine education and mentorship, an “important step forward” Meiburg hopes to see is an increased representation of female sommeliers across Hong Kong, particularly in high-end and Michelin-starred restaurants. “This will help set the tone for other restaurants,” she says. “Sommeliers are a really valuable piece of the business for restaurants and we have extremely talented women, but proportionately, they’re not the ones to get the job.” Meiburg also has words for women on unabashedly owning their space. “I suppose my advice to any woman is just to be oblivious. Don’t worry about it and just ignore the noise. Focus on what you want to achieve and you’ll get there.”  

Similarly, representation is key for Frerson as she strives to preserve the maison’s top-quality cuvées and to team up with chefs around the world to imagine the perfect pairings, following on the heels of a collaboration with Eric Räty of Hong Kong’s The Arbor last October. For her own team, comprising both men and women, she doesn’t place too much emphasis on gender, instead prioritising talent and individual sensibility. “For me, there are no male winemakers and female winemakers – just winemakers,” she says. “What makes the difference is how one manages to bring passion and transform wine into emotions.” Frerson poignantly sums it up, “Hopefully, when a new generation of women arrive at the heads of the houses, this topic about gender won’t even be a question they will be asked.”

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