Cultivating Diversity and Innovation in the Beverage Workplace

Four experts in their fields give tips on how to get ahead, and raise others up

Women in Wine Leadership panel
(Left to right) Madeline Triffon, MS, Jennifer Thrope-Moscon, Dorothy Gaiter, Maria Garcia, and Cheron Cowan. Photo by Inaki Vinaixa.

In a seminar at the 2017 Women in Wine Leadership Symposium, female experts in the beverage industry convened for a panel to discuss diversity in the beverage workplace and to share recommendations on cultivating diversity and innovation at work. The panel was moderated by Madeline Triffon, MS, master sommelier for Plum Market, and featured former Wall Street Journal writer Dorothy Gaiter, now senior editor of The Grape Collective; sommelier Maria Garcia; Cheron Cowan, general manager and wine director for Harold’s Meat + Three; and Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon, Ph.D., research director and panel manager for research firm Catalyst.

Each of the women spoke about her own experiences in the industry and offered recommendations on how to increase diversity and innovation.

Gaiter, who was nominated twice for a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on race (and once for her “Tastings” column) said that throughout her career she used her platform as a journalist writing about wine to help eliminate what was long felt to be a kind of exclusiveness.

“In writing the Wall Street Journal wine column [“Tastings”] my husband and I sought to make the tent bigger,” said Gaiter. The pair’s annual “Open That Bottle Night” event and their propensity for offering plain, accessible information to readers were some of the ways they did that. “People were hungry for someone who could talk to them. It was no longer something only white males could understand.” People took notice, she said, which is likely what led to her nomination for a Pulitzer Prize for “Tastings,” although she conceded that sometimes they would still be dismissed. “Some of the tastemakers in wine weren’t pleased because they still wanted it to be a snooty thing.”

For advice on how the industry could make better use of the diverse talent already in its ranks, Gaiter suggested taking advantage of the unique talents at hand. “Tap into your own culture to find talent with interests you may not know about. You work with people who have so many different interests you may only be seeing a small part of.” That, after all, is how Gaiter got her start at the Journal. When the Journal was looking for more female readers, the management considered that a wine column might be a way to attract them, and plucked Gaiter from the ranks for the column.

Maria Garcia explained to the panel and audience that she’s often referred to as “that Latina girl of wine.” She taught high school in South L.A. before moving to the culinary side of things. After attending culinary school, she landed at Spago, and then served as the wine director for L.A.’s République earlier this year.

Garcia pointed out that it’s important for individuals to train and be the best they can be, but she also emphasized the value of having advocates—people who can help you get in the door.

Additionally, Garcia encouraged carving out safe spaces where you’re surrounded by like-minded peers. In her case, she launched a tasting group for women only. The group is diverse—there are women from all sides of the industry and they’re studying for everything from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust to the Court of Master Sommeliers exams—and it’s also leaderless. While she and others in the group are happy to participate in a mixed-gender group, too, the woman-only group is critical. “This is a place where we can talk about other issues,” Garcia said. “It’s a safe place.”  

Decked out in a power suit, Cheron Cowan, the general manager and wine director for Harold’s Meat + Three, reminded the crowd that there’s power in perception. Dress for the part you want, not necessarily the one you hold, might well have been the message. While Cowan admitted that she has naturally gravitated toward inclusive environments—such as restaurants that will take anyone willing to put in the hard work—she said she recognizes that she has also missed important career opportunities.

Her advice to others: Don’t turn down an opportunity you might consider yourself underqualified for. Someone less qualified will take the opportunity and likely squander it. “When you see opportunities, take them,” said Cowan. “Run with them.” And if you don’t succeed, brush yourself off and move on. “I’m really good at failing,” she said, “but I’m exceptionally good at getting up.”

As a manager, Cowan suggested one way to promote inclusiveness and diversity is to be both authentic and intentional when dealing with colleagues and subordinates, even if that seems painful or hard. When terminating an employee, she said she’s adamant about being specific, honest, and authentic. Rather than use the toss-away line “we’re going in a different direction,” she always explains how the employee’s actions or behaviors, or how external circumstances, led to the dismissal. “Authenticity creates respect,” she said, and seemingly that holds true for both the employer and the employee.

Thorpe-Moscon, whose work for Catalyst focuses on gender, race, and ethnicity research, talked about overall strategies for promoting diversity in the workplace. She explained that Catalyst’s research shows that inclusion is comprised of two components: a sense of belonging—inclusion on a team—and a sense of uniqueness in which individuals are valued for the unique perspective they bring to the table that is not represented by others on that team.

She offered a range of tips for businesses hoping to create environments where diversity can flourish.

First of all, she said, recognize that language matters. Language has the power to communicate belonging and value, or to ostracize. She also encouraged companies to hold people accountable for what they can control, not what they can’t, which helps convey trust.

Thorpe-Moscon advised those already on the inside track to show courage, especially if they’re members of a privileged class—such as being white or male. Being willing to take risks and stand up for colleagues, whether that’s defending them from disparagement or advocating for their good ideas, promotes inclusion and advancement. She also advocated for sponsorship over mentorship. Mentors are important but not sufficient, especially for women, she said. Rather, a woman needs a sponsor—someone who will talk about her to the people who can help her move forward. Those who are doing well in their careers should take the initiative to sponsor others.

“It is not the job of the oppressed to fix the oppressor,” she reminded the audience. Research, she said, shows that even when women do all of the right things, they are still held back, and that the “fix the woman” approach doesn’t work. Even when they work harder, longer, and more—and even when they actively ask for equal compensation—they don’t get the raises. She stressed the need the privileged class to stand up for the minorities and women, whose great ideas, incredible work, and simple acts of courage are too often being dismissed or going unnoticed. “The more dimensions of power or privilege you have,” said Thorpe-Moscon, “the more responsibility you have to [help] make the change.”


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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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