What should I wear to work? It may sound innocuous, but this loaded question was at the heart of a lively and controversial panel discussion that closed out the Bâtonnage Forum, held May 4 at a private estate in Napa, California.
The panel’s provocative title—Do You Sell Sex?—was inspired by a heated debate that arose at last year’s Bâtonnage Forum about whether or not women should dress to sell sex while selling wine, either in person or on social media. Moderated by Sarah Bray, an independent marketing consultant and Italian wine specialist, and one of the founding members of the Bâtonnage Forum, the panel featured Jennifer Reichardt, the owner and winemaker of Raft Wines in Sonoma County, California; Melissa Sutherland, an author and the senior sales adviser for Panebianco Wines Import in New York City; Monica Samuels, a New York–based sake sommelier and the director of sake and spirits for Vine Connections in Sausalito, California; and Karen Williams, the proprietor of Acme Fine Wines in St. Helena, California.
Bray opened the discussion with a quote from Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, in which the former First Lady recalls how every outfit she wore in the political landscape “required time, thought, and money.” Women, Bray pointed out, take on extra emotional labor every day simply in choosing an outfit—one that’s not too sexy but not too conservative; not too feminine but not too masculine—in an effort not only to succeed in the workplace but to elicit the respect they deserve from their peers for their work experience, knowledge, and skills. This, she added, can be especially difficult in the wine industry, which is inherently transactional. “I mean,” said Bray, “we’re all trying to sell wine here.”
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You Do You
Following a broader conversation about the panelists’ personal experiences of being overlooked in the workplace—Williams was often asked what her husband did at her wine shop; Samuels was frequently mistaken for a translator when working in Japan—the focus shifted more specifically to clothing. All the panelists were in agreement that women should be themselves when dressing for work. The consensus was that women don’t need to lean into their sexuality to sell wine but that it’s also perfectly okay if they want to.
Reichardt, who labeled herself the millennial of the group, has found that being featured in photos on social media leads to better engagement of followers of her business, but that what she’s wearing in those photos is a nonissue. “Just be you,” she said. “I don’t have to be glammed. I’m in work boots, ripped jeans, stained jeans, and it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing or what I’m looking like, but I’m in the photo. It doesn’t matter if you’re dressed sexy, but people want to see you, they want to associate with you.”
Sutherland urged women to stop shaming other women who use their femininity or beauty to make money. “It’s just as valid a way to make money,” she said, “as anything else.”
Who Wears Short Shorts?
The discussion was tame until Bray opened the panel to the audience; attendees were eager to dig deeper. Bâtonnage founder Stevie Stacionis, who is also the owner of the Bay Grape wine shop in Oakland, asked the panel how the industry can go about empowering, but more importantly protecting, younger generations of women without it coming off as shaming. While women should be able to wear whatever they want, decisions on dress may have unwanted consequences that could even put their safety at risk.
“Wearing short shorts at work in some markets I work in,” said Samuels, “is [taken as] a sexual invitation.” She added that if she were advising her little sister, she’d suggest something somewhat more conservative. “I’m not saying it’s tearing apart other women,” Samuels said, “but I just don’t want my little sister to get raped. It sucks that we have to think about that … but we’re still very [liable to] being in an unsafe situation.”
Then Carole Meredith stood up. The proprietor of Lagier Meredith wines in Napa and a former professor in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis, she made the most contentious statement of the afternoon, sending shock waves throughout the audience. “I haven’t really heard what I expected to hear here,” she said, “which is, when I go to wine events, I see women who are overtly selling sex under the pretense of selling wine. I sometimes see women who show up to pour wine wearing very tight clothes, very short skirts, their boobs hanging out. I have to wonder, Do you feel that you have to dress like that because the wine you’re pouring just isn’t very good? Doesn’t that diminish the wine? And if it doesn’t diminish the wine, doesn’t it diminish you?”
Many hands shot up, with attendees anxious to counter—albeit respectfully—Meredith’s statement. Women of varying ages referenced a generational gap on this issue; several of them said there is a changing of the guard underway from an older point of view. Others spoke out passionately on the importance of building each other up, not tearing each other down—that what one wears shouldn’t matter. And as one audience member eloquently put it, “Fuck the patriarchy.”
“The issue with the patriarchy,” said this attendee, Katie, as she referenced a recent New York Times article on the widening pay gap, “is that this is how ideology this robust reproduces itself—by convincing those that function under it that there’s no other way that things could be, that this is natural, and therefore is unassailable. When you’re calling someone a slut [or] a bitch, when you’re saying someone’s a prude—think about how we’re all victims of the patriarchy, how we’ve been taught to think of other women in a way that downgrades them, that completely negates any sort of validity that they have.”
The overall takeaway from this last panel, which capped off a full day of thought-provoking presentations and discussions, was hopeful—and left attendees inspired to forge new pathways that empower women and support them in the workplace.