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How Do Women Connect in a Changing Wine Industry?

Panelists at the Bâtonnage Forum discuss how to create better mentorship models, start a wine brand, and harness the power of community

Clockwise from top left: Maryam Ahmed, Shae Frichette, Meredith Smith, Cheramie Law, Carrie Rau, and Maria Gonzalez. Photos courtesy of Bâtonnage.

For the second year, Bâtonnage, the organization founded by and for women in the wine industry, took its annual forum online, branding itself Bâtonnage://Connect. While last year’s virtual gathering was a pandemic pivot, this year, organizers had time to assemble a series of conversations that reflected a changing industryand women’s place in it. 

“The goal was to dive deeper into topics that were brought up in past forums, have the difficult conversations, allow for more time for conversation and discovery, and to present tangible takeaways to attendees,” said Katie Canfield, a partner at O’Donnell Lane and one of this year’s organizers.

Elaine Chukan Brown and Julia Coney opened the forum with a shared keynote conversation about empathy and inclusion—recurring themes throughout the three-day forum where topics included diversity, financial transparency, mentorship, harassment, and women as business owners. 

While Bâtonnage was founded in the spirit of diversity, O’Donnell said this year represented a commitment to increase representation for BIPOC and LGBTQIA people, with more than 60 percent of the speakers identifying as such. 

Mentorship: The Community Building Block

Priyanka French, winemaker at Napa’s Signorello Estate, introduced the mentorship panel, stressing the urgency, in the wake of last year’s racial reckoning, to do more than “just have a conversation—we need to have action.” In response, this year Bâtonnage launched level three of its mentor programming to focus on practical training and job placements in addition to the legacy platform of pairing mentees and mentors. “We hope to have an ever-evolving program and keep learning as we go,” French said. 

“Mentorship is not about centering yourself but about centering the betterment and the growth of your community. It is a commitment between mentor and mentee to achieve things bigger together that could not be accomplished on one’s own.” – Maryam Ahmed, Diversity in Wine Leadership Forum

The mentorship panel focused on BIPOC diversity and inclusion through organizations founded by the panelists. Moderator Maryam Ahmed, cofounder of the Diversity in Wine Leadership Forum, was joined by Tahiirah Habibi, sommelier and founder of the Hue Society and cofounder of The Roots Fund, Tonya Pitts, sommelier and ambassador for the Wine Unify Foundation, and Carrie Rau, sommelier and founder of VinEquity.

Find the Right Mentor Fit

Ahmed noted that many mentorship programs that have emerged in the past year are opening important doors, yet she cautioned against “creating models of mentorship that comply with an already broken system or that create an imbalance in our communities.” 

Mentors need to think outside themselves, she advised: “Mentorship is not about centering yourself but about centering the betterment and the growth of your community. It is a commitment between mentor and mentee to achieve things bigger together that could not be accomplished on one’s own.”

When pursuing her own career change, Rau recalled joining a networking group for businesswomen. But she found a lot of corporate types and very few BIPOC to identify with; her assigned mentor was a corporate coach in the banking environment. “It was hard for us to connect on some of the things that were important, but it made me understand that I was really looking for a formal mentorship within my industry.”

Tahiirah Habibi. Photo courtesy of Bâtonnage.

Understand Your Community

“I don’t think I ever had a life outside of the ‘mentor ship,’” said Habibi. “I grew up in a community and that’s just how I function.” She stressed that mentorship hinges on genuine investment in community. 

“You have to be in the community and understand what the needs are in order to mentor people,” she said. “If we’re saying that mentorship is the idea of helping somebody become the best version of themselves, then you have to be the best version of yourself in order to offer that. If you are going to ask somebody to challenge their thinking and assumptions, you yourself need to have done that work.”

Create Your Own Comfort Zone

Pitt channeled her first mentor for a lesson that has served her throughout her career. “He was the first who made me realize that I, too, could be in a space where no one else looks like me,” she shared. As she developed as a mentor, Pitt leveraged that early learning: “Mentorship for me is about making people comfortable and having them realize this is for them and they can be here if they have an interest. And we need to nurture and cultivate that.” 

Women Winemakers: The Other 10% 

SevenFifty Daily editor-in-chief Kristen Bieler introduced the panel of women who are making wine in emerging regions: Cheramie Law, cofounder of Salt and Pepper Wine and Cheramie Wine in Texas; Meredith Smith, winemaker at Sawtooth Winery and Ste. Chapelle in Idaho’s Snake River AVA; Shae Frichette, co-owner of Frichette Winery and Sashay in Washington State; and Maria Rivero Gonzalez, CEO of RGNY in Long Island’s North Fork and RGMX in the Parras region of Mexico.

They discussed the opportunitiesand challengesof producing wine in lesser-known wine regions, and shared strategies for growing distribution and building a brand.

Kristen Bieler. Photo courtesy of Kristen Bieler.

Hit the Road

When Law wanted to turn her hobbyist wine interest into something greater, the Texas native and her fiancé hit the road, embarking on an extended road trip to get to know the who’s who of Texas wine. “It was three years of meeting producers, winemakers, and industry leaders and ensuring them of our commitment to join their community.” Had it not been for their listening tour, she said, they “might not have had a seat at many of the tables where we now sit.” Her winery is still small-scale and small production, but, she says, “We are building our brand and showing the world that there is another side to Texas wine.” 

As a Black woman, she said she had the added task of “letting people know who I am and what I’m about and making them see, ‘hey, she is one of us even though she doesn’t look like one of us.’” 

Unite to Elevate a Region’s Reputation

Though Meredith Smith is an Idaho native, she ditched her career in real estate development with an intent to make wine in Washington State. Yet a blind tasting convinced her what Idaho was capable of, and in 2009 she joined Sawtooth Winery in the Snake River AVA, now the state’s largest producer. 

“I could see that this was an industry that was going to take off in a very short time,” she said. Her hunch paid off: In 2002, Idaho had 11 wineries, but a year after the Snake River AVA was established in 2007, the wine industry had a $73-million impact on the state economy. By 2013, that impact was nearly $200 million with more than 60 wineries. “We would be growing faster if we had more fruit—all of our fruit is completely contracted out,” Smith said.

Smith currently makes 125,000 cases, with the addition of Ste. Chapelle Winery, and works with 23 different varieties. Her focus has been on bringing the local wine community together to raise the bar on quality. “People had to take criticism, and listen to out-of-state expertise,” Smith said. “We knew that if bad wines were coming out of Idaho, it would reflect poorly on our entire region, so we all needed to work together and share information and improve quality to lift the entire region up.”

Engage With Your Community 

When Frichette arrived in Washington’s Red Mountain AVA, she was new to both the area and the wine industry. She and her husband, a Washington native, established the small-batch Frichette Winery and several years later in 2020, she launched Sashay, her own label after attending a forum hosted by Urban Connoisseurs, an organization that advocates for Black wine professionals.

Frichette said she based her business model on collaboration and community activism. She is a devoted philanthropist, serves as chair of the board of her Chamber of Commerce and on the board of directors for the Red Mountain AVA Alliance, among other boards. 

“It’s a giving community [that] opened my eyes and reminded me to be more deliberate in connecting and helping to make connections for other people,” she said. And it’s good for business: Frichette and Sashay are locally embraced and sell out every vintage, with few cases of wine ever leaving the state.

The Advantages of Underdog Regions

Having built a successful winery in her native Parras, Coahuila (Mexico), Gonzalez convinced her family to invest in a large vineyard property in Long Island’s North Fork. While her brothers urged her to purchase in Napa Valley, she bought the Martha Clara Vineyard in 2018. “You can have more impact and there is more room to create and be an innovator in an ‘underdog’ region,” she said.

She rebranded the winery as RGNY and migrated its business model from a garden and tasting room to a curated venue focused on private experiences. She called the first year of operation during the pandemic a “disaster but also an opportunity” that allowed her to overhaul the winemaking strategy: Gonzalez focuses on smaller cuvées of high-quality wines and is experimenting with amphorae aging, a pét-nat, and planting new varietiesmostly white. 

While the local community “did not see me coming, this opinionated outsider,” her efforts at outreach have paid off. “We believe in community and saw the potential here. There are lots of progressive young families here doing cool things, and the community has now embraced me,” she described. “That is the advantage of smaller, developing regions: You can adjust to who you become and communicate who you really are.”

Lana Bortolot has written on food and wine for ForbesDow Jones, Wine Enthusiast, Saveur, and other magazines of the wine and spirits trade. She reported on real estate for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and New York Post, and on design for Entrepreneur magazine. She is a candidate for Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s Level 4 Diploma. Having covered most European wine regions and a few in South America, she is always looking to add a new wine-stained stamp to her passport.

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