In recent years, a surge of women have organized for equity in the beverage industry and beyond—but some fear this fervor is fading. “Feminism is in fraught shape,” speculates journalist Michelle Goldberg, whose reporting on workplace sexual harrassment won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018. Whether due to a swinging of the proverbial pendulum, or backlash to the #MeToo movement, popular attention has been shifting elsewhere. Through it all, entrepreneur and communications expert Senay Ozdemir has remained steadfast in her commitment to uplifting women in wine.
As the founder and director of the international Women in Wine Expo, Ozdemir has worked to advocate for women in countries where they face the greatest struggle. An organizer and event producer, Ozdemir aims to bridge wine professionals in lesser-known wine regions with those working in more established regions. In particular, her work shines a light on places where women’s advancement might be thwarted by politics, oppression, violence, or conflict.
“One of the main issues in these less-traveled regions is often [that they involve] unstable political situations,” Ozdemir says. “Investors tend to avoid such unstable regions. So it’s hard for wine-producing countries in these areas to find long-term funds.” Without such funds, she adds, promising careers are stunted and the industry falters.
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Even as attention toward the problem of gender disparity may wane, the problem itself has worsened, according to the World Economic Forum. Globally, 2.4 billion women of working age are not afforded equal economic opportunity, reports the World Bank. In 95 countries—several of them home to wine-making regions—women are not guaranteed equal pay for equal work.
While the beverage industry has not fully analyzed the impact of the pandemic on women in its workforce—COVID-19 pushed an estimated 47 million additional women and girls into extreme poverty and widened the gender poverty gap, according to UN Women—it seems likely that women in wine, like women in so many other fields, have lost footing in the quest for equality. This makes Ozdemir’s work all the more critical.
Identifying the Need for Representation and Unity
A native of Turkey now living in the Netherlands, Ozdemir first found her passion for wine halfway around the world, in Texas. Amid a thriving journalism career, she had been asked by the University of Texas at Austin to work as a visiting professor and decided to host friends for dinner.
“I wanted to prepare a Mediterranean meal for my Texan friends,” recalls Ozdemir, “and give them a delicious Turkish wine tasting.” When her search for Turkish wines in Austin left her empty-handed, she drove the long four hours to Houston. “On my way home, I did a lot of thinking about why wines from Turkey are not known worldwide.”
With both her frustration and curiosity sparked, Ozdemir set her mind on traveling back to Turkey to talk with winemakers and find ways to share their work. “All of the countries in the birthplace of wine need more attention,” she says.
Soon, she was immersed in a story without borders—the centuries-old story of women in wine worldwide. Over the next six years, Ozdemir interviewed countless women winemakers and wine professionals around the globe. Common threads emerged as women detailed stories of lack of advancement, unequal pay, abuse, and harassment. Most of all, though, they expressed a desire to connect with other women in their field.
“The women that I met were curious about each other. They wanted to know, ‘How do [other women] in Spain, Turkey, Belgium, or South Africa succeed’? They needed to meet each other and share experiences and best practices.” she says.
In 2018, Ozdemir served as moderator for the inaugural Wonder Women of Wine Conference (later rebranded as Lift Collective). By that time, she had decided to launch a conference of her own—one that focused on winemakers from lesser-known regions.
Weaving a Rich Community
Ozdemir began in 2019 with a small-scale event that took place in Rotterdam and Brussels. After using this first event to build her network and shape the format, she set her sights on a new venue in the Kakheti wine region of Georgia.
Alas, the event was canceled in the face of the pandemic. Yet over the next two years, Ozdemir continued to plan the conference amid a wildly uncertain era that included global travel bans. In 2021, when war ignited in Ukraine, new complications arose. Despite considerable odds, the Women in Wine Expo finally convened in May 2022. While the event was small compared with some industry gatherings, feedback from participants suggests that it was a meaningful gathering with a promising future and room for growth.
With an audience of 75 attendees from 16 nations, the event, held at the Lopota Lake Resort at the foot of the Great Caucasus Mountains, included such keynote speakers as Maryna Revkova, The Best Sommelier of Ukraine 2020; Zaruhi Muradyan, the leader of the Wine and Vine Foundation of Armenia; Sharrol Mukendi-Klaas, a participating sommelier in the Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa Women in Wine Initiative; and Erin Kirschenmann, the U.S.-based editor of Wine Business Monthly.
Ivett Vancsik, the editor-in-chief of the Hungarian wine magazine VinCe, was in attendance. While noting that there has been great progress in the Hungarian wine industry in recent decades, she acknowledges that daunting challenges remain. In particular, she says “If we are talking about top sommeliers—well, women are definitely underrepresented.”
The World Economic Forum ranks Hungary 99th in the gender equity index, indicating that women in its workforce, including in the wine industry, may face social and economic barriers that are less common in some other nations.
“We have many talented and well-appreciated women winemakers and the quality of their wines speaks louder than a thousand words,” says Vancsik, “but they really had to prove their merits twice as hard.” Crucially, she adds, “Women still earn less than men.”
According to Ozdemir, Hungary is one of the most underrated wine-producing countries in the world. “For a small country with more than 18 specific wine regions, including the world’s very first classified wine region, Tokaj, it has so much to tell,” says Ozdemir.
Vancsik left the event with perspective and gratitude. “The biggest takeaway for me,” she says, “was that often we fail to realize how lucky and privileged we are in our own cultures, taking for granted things that others are missing, such as peace or equal opportunities.”
Andrea Lemieux, an American wine professional living in Istanbul and author of The Essential Guide to Turkish Wine, relished the chance to forge new connections.
“I’ve never had the opportunity before to spend time with and connect with such a large and diverse group of women in the wine industry,” says Lemieux. “I especially appreciated the chance to get to know some of the women from Armenia. I feel that Turkish and Armenian wine have similar issues getting recognized by not only wine drinkers but the larger international wine community.”
The Work Continues
Even in seemingly more stable regions, Ozdemir notes, the challenges of pursuing work as a female entrepreneur—in the wine business or any industry—can be daunting.
“It’s hard for me to believe,” she says, “that even in a rich and modern emancipated country such as the Netherlands, women in agriculture do not typically own property—not on paper. Women help their husbands, brothers, fathers, but they often don’t officially own anything. That is something we really have to address.”
Connecting women through events like Women in Wine Expo, she says, is a key part of the solution. She is already lining up the next conference: 2023 Women in Wine Expo is scheduled for May 10-12 in London, with a focus on sparkling wines.
Meanwhile, Ozdemir encourages the trade to support female wine producers in emerging wine regions. “Support these women, make them visible everywhere you can. Try the wine!”
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Amy Bess Cook is the founder of Woman-Owned Wineries, a site intended to identify and elevate female-identifying wine entrepreneurs. Her efforts to spur positive change in the drinks business have been featured in Forbes and Imbibe, and she has published her work in a range of beverage and literary publications. Follow her here.