Given all the deserved attention to sexual harassment in industries across the board, I expected to write a piece echoing much of the same dismal news currently being reported in the media. And even if we dismissed all the inexcusable behavior, the truth is women still represent a minority in top wine industry roles even as they comprise a majority in leading wine business-related educational programs.
But after investigating our local Columbia wine community, I was relieved to discover the women I spoke with feel empowered and valued as leaders within their organizations. These women are, frankly, killing it. We’ve seen them all over town: at tastings, events, and our favorite restaurants. Let’s get to know some of our local women of wine.
Starting her 18-year career in the food and beverage industry working in the kitchen helped Elizabeth Hale develop a thick skin and the necessary grit needed to succeed in a notoriously demanding field. Johnson and Wales-trained, she gained well-rounded, boots-on-the-ground experience that proved critical when she eventually joined family-owned SC distributor Grassroots seven years ago. From lugging cases to hosting educational tastings, Elizabeth understands the wine business in all its forms, which makes her indispensible at Grassroots. Women hold the majority of management roles there but can also be found in the warehouse and driving forklifts. Representing mainly small-production suppliers, Elizabeth loves the opportunity to learn about wines “from the people that make it happen.”
Originally from Connecticut, Danielle Robinson’s wine career in Columbia began as a part-time sales representative at Vino100 in Northeast Columbia. Realizing wine was a full-time passion, she eventually obtained a position at newly-established Carolinas-based Advintage Distributing, where she’s been for the last 9 years. Also a French speaker, she’s akin to an ambassador for the wine portfolio she represents to her accounts. In a company in which the majority of management positions are held by women, Advintage also offers its employees philanthropic opportunities. Ultimately, however, Danielle credits “cooper-tition”--a mixture of gender-blind collegial cooperation and healthy competition as the key to achieving her grape goals.
Breakthru Beverage Sales Representative Berta Khavakh is a recent Columbia transplant whose legacy experience comes from operating a family import business for 11 years in Chicago. She and her mother--both immigrants from Lithuania--founded a certified women-owned, small business based on products from their home country. Relying on their own inherent business acumen and moxie, the pair eventually sold the successful enterprise and moved to the East Coast. In her current role, Berta appreciates the structure and diverse opportunities the national distributor provides, regardless of gender. And as a former entrepreneur, Berta is clearly poised to leverage her wine business savvy within any organization.
Like most industries, the wine business needs more women and there is still much work to do to address harassment, gender bias, and equal opportunity. But thankfully it appears the Columbia wine scene is more progressive and forward-thinking in that regard.
On a lighter note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what our wine pros are drinking now. A self-described “acid head”—as in Old World wine and not the Grateful Dead —Elizabeth is imbibing refreshing rosés of Pinot Noir from Sancerre and Austria. Danielle is also in that acid camp, and who wouldn’t be in this heat? In addition to the pink stuff, she’s also fan of bubbly and Alsatian Rieslings. Finally, Berta’s ventured into some more esoteric territory—heard of the Vranac grape? She’s loving this unique black-skinned varietal indigenous to the Balkans.
Whatever these ladies are drinking, be sure to raise your next glass to them and other women you know who are pursuing their wine industry passion.
Erlinda has just begun the conversation about our local grape goddesses and knows there are many more inspiring stories to be told. Drop me a line so we can talk about them at email@example.com or visit www.thevinicola.com, Instagram (@thevinicola), or Facebook (theViniCola) to join Columbia’s wine community.