Events

7 Tips from Jancis Robinson for Women in Wine

The world-renowned wine critic talks about being a woman in the business and gives advice to the next generation

Laura Catena interviews Jancis Robinson
Jancis Robinson (left) and Laura Catena (right). Photo by Inaki Vinaixa.

At the sixth annual Women in Wine Leadership Symposium, held in New York City on October 2nd, powerhouse women of wine convened to talk about diversity, mentoring, and glass ceilings—and how to shatter them. The day began with Laura Catena, MD, the fourth-generation Argentinian vintner who currently serves as Bodega Catena Zapata’s managing director, interviewing world-renowned wine critic, Jancis Robinson, OBE, MW. Together, the two discussed topics of relevance to women in the wine industry, including overcoming stereotypes, finding work-life balance, and how to get ahead in a business that’s still very much dominated by men.

During their conversation, Catena and Robinson raised the specter of glass ceilings and equal pay for equal work. Robinson added that she has observed over her 42-year career that, in the British wine world, “an awful lot of work was done by women, but there was a feeling they never ascended. In the last few years I think that’s changed some, with some of the top wineries taking on women CEOs.” It’s a change, Catena said, that’s slowly coming to South America, too.

Both women seemed hopeful that change was afoot. SevenFifty Daily has encapsulated Jancis Robinson’s sagacity and tips for women in the wine industry—from learning to say no, to trusting your palate. Here are seven pieces of sage advice gleaned from Robinson.

1. Embrace being a woman—even when you’re Man of the Year.

Catena asked Robinson about being named Decanter’s Man of the Year in 1999, and her experiences with women’s progress in the world of wine.

“It’s barmy that it’s called ‘Man of the Year,’” said Robinson. “I have a magnum decanter at home that’s engraved ‘Man of the Year.’” Perhaps, she suggested, it’s time for that honorific to change. Just that morning, Robinson had fired off a missive to the Decanter editor letting him know that the absurdity of it being called Man of the Year was being featured in her talk at the WWLS. She then asked if he might consider changing the name of the award to something a bit more gender-neutral.

If you’re going to be a woman in a man’s world, you need to embrace and exhibit solidarity among women, too.

2. To protect yourself and your reputation, learn to say no. 

“The easiest thing is to say ‘no’ more than you say ‘yes,’” said Robinson. Practice saying no, she advised. Before committing to something, research how valuable the experience or your contribution is. Knowing what something is worth also makes it easier to say no when needed. Then, stick to your guns. If you have an iron-clad rule, such as Robinson’s “no book blurbs” tenet, cleave to it. For Robinson, this means she has had to say no to her friend Michael Broadbent, among many others.

3. Bolster your knowledge with education.

Robinson reminded WWLS attendees that formal work—not just in wines but also in spirits and things that may not be of primary interest—has value, whether that’s in the form of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, Master of Wine, Court of Master Sommeliers, or another educational program.

4. Build on your education with tasting groups. 

Tasting in groups is more educational than tasting alone, Robinson explained. You learn more from one another. Plus, it distributes the cost of bottles.

5. Master the art of gracious, authentic self-promotion. 

There’s a stereotype of women being self-effacing, of not asking for raises and such. How have you handled self-promotion?” Catena asked Robinson.

It’s hard. In this country, you’re expected to self-promote,” Robinson said. “If I had lived here, I might have hired someone to do that for me.” But not, she suggested, if that meant someone would usurp her unique voice. Authenticity is key. The way you promote yourself must be in line with your authentic self. Otherwise, your audience will never trust you. 

6. Accept promotional opportunities, selectively.

“I think it would be foolish to say you’re so pure you never had friends in the wine business; you never broke a crust together,” said Robinson. Though she does not accept travel or accommodations from a single winery or brand (except for that one time she was avoiding a bushfire), she sees merit in generic invitations.

Establish your own code of conduct and adhere to it—Robinson has her own and its underpinning is transparency. Although she doesn’t accept hospitality, she had this advice for younger wine writers: “Be honest and open,” Robinson said. “If you’re going to accept something, be honest about it.” Admit, for example, when an article or review has resulted from a trip paid for by a winery or organization.

7. Trust your palate.

Robinson had a seminal experience in 1976 at a tasting of Ontario wines. “Hugh Johnson was there; all the great British wine writers were there. Obviously, I was keeping a low profile; I was the new girl,” said Robinson. “What I noticed was that if you listened carefully, everyone had a different opinion, and yet they weren’t arguing. It demonstrated to me that we each taste differently. As long as you’re true to yourself, no one can say you’re wrong.” Say what you think and mean it. Don’t second-guess yourself.

When she’s not writing about beverage, travel, or weird science, Julie H. Case can be found deep in America’s forests, foraging for mushrooms.

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