A trip to Napa inspired Deborah Brenner to share the untold stories of the women behind the region’s wines in her book, Women of the Vine. She has since founded Women of the Vine & Spirits, aiming to support and unite women in what she found to be a male dominated industry. She tells us how she made the move and the role education plays in raising women to the top.
Following 20 years in the tech industry, what sparked your move into wine and spirits, specifically focusing on supporting women?
To be honest, I was fed up and disenchanted. Most of my career had been spent working in a traditionally male-dominated industry where women had to fight adversity and conquer gender stereotypes without much guidance or support.
I had success and was the first female Director at my company but the ongoing struggle took its toll on me and I was desperately seeking a change. So after many years of giving it much thought, I finally took a huge leap of faith and quit my tech job. Shortly afterwards, I went on a trip to Napa where I discovered how male dominated the wine industry was.
All that time I’d been enjoying all of these wonderful wines with no idea that women were behind the labels…They were mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, partners, volunteers, mentors and mavens whose responsibilities at work, at home and in the community far outsized their pay bracket or job description. This pattern was so familiar, I couldn’t ignore it. Then I started my research. My thirst for knowledge was my driving force. My desire to identify with these women: their struggles with work/life balance, fears, disappointments and triumphs.
From that point on, I felt compelled to tell their stories and after several months of interviews and writing, I wrote my book and got published!
Education levels the playing field since knowledge is power.
When you decided to make the move into wine, how did you gain the knowledge you needed to start your new career?
Upon my return to NY after visiting Napa, my journalism background kicked in and I dove into the world of wine…and the women behind the bottles. I spent my evenings researching and reading everything I could. That is when I decided to write the book since there was nothing like it out there. I learned so much from the women I interviewed; about varietals, viticulture, fermentation, aging, bottling, distribution, sales, and more.
I spent a lot of time reading job descriptions in the wine industry to see if my skills in Marketing and Business Development could apply. I knew I didn’t have the knowledge and needed the experience so I teamed up with several winemakers from the book such as Heidi Barrett, Signe Zoller and Marketta Fourmeaux. I financed the endeavour, they made the wine, I gained the experience and I learned the industry from ground up. I was in charge of the branding, marketing, distribution and sales.
Women of the Vine & Spirits recently formed a strategic alliance with WSET. Why do you think education is so important for your members?
Education is a pillar of Women of the Vine & Spirits for a few different reasons.
First, we know that being a woman in this industry has its challenges, many of our members have shared with us that they believe that they have to work that much harder to prove their place at the table. Education levels the playing field since knowledge is power.
Secondly, a woman who has the backing of a degree, qualification or certification naturally exudes more confidence and having confidence in yourself and your capabilities gives you a voice and the self-assurance to go in and apply for a job, ask for a raise, and speak up for yourself. Education increases our members’ confidence and personal development which helps them thrive in careers and in their lives.
Women of the Vine & Spirits has fast expanded and become a great success, but has it always been plain sailing? How have you managed the highs and lows?
No, it certainly has not been plain sailing. As a social entrepreneur, I can only imagine that any one that sets out in unchartered waters experiences the same highs and lows as I have. I struggled with the decision of taking on an issue that was not previously publicly discussed. At the time, I was freelancing and seeking employment. I was struggling financially and the wise decision would have been to take a full time job.
However, I felt so compelled to not give up on my vision and passion that started back in 2005. I wanted women to have the opportunity to thrive, I wanted to thrive in an industry that is amazing! It was a very scary time and I had to push through my fear and take a huge leap of faith and financial risk to start the initiative.
When I started creating the organisation in 2015, I had no idea if anyone in the industry would support the movement or not. I don’t know if I could have persevered if it wasn’t for all the incredible women and men that I met at that time. Their enthusiasm, encouragement and generosity to offer their expertise and help me make connections fuelled my energy to carry on. I met so many like-minded individuals and there was no shortage of passion.
The creation of Women of the Vine & Spirits now gave us all a global platform to take our collective passion and combine it with our purpose.