On a sunny summer day in Napa, our wine production crew gathered poolside to kick off the harvest season with a proper party. Vibes were high, and I was eager to get acquainted with my new coworkers. Then everyone started shotgunning beer; everyone but me.
Only a week before, I’d had a violent grand mal seizure. I still had a grisly gash on my arm from the incident, and lingered in a brain fog that obscured the world around me like a smokescreen. After 35 years of living with epilepsy, I knew that alcohol is a trigger for seizures. Skipping this rite of passage was a logical decision, but an awkward one. My abstinence seemed to mark me as different—even weak.
In the production cellar, weakness can feel like a career ender. Harvest season requires long hours and arduous physical labor. In our male-dominated industry, “bro” culture prevails, and the typical cellar is fast-paced and competitive in a way that can be both highly invigorating and highly toxic. Workers who move slowly or out of sync may signal an unwillingness to shoulder their fair share of the workload.
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Unfortunately, this assumption fails to account for the rising number of people, like me and so many colleagues, who live and work with an invisible disability.
What is an Invisible Disability?
Legally recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and civil rights organizations worldwide, an invisible disability is “a physical, mental, or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities,” according to the Invisible Disabilities Association. They go on to state: “Unfortunately, the very fact that these symptoms are invisible can lead to misunderstandings, false perceptions, and judgments.”
In the United States alone, an estimated 25 percent of people live with a disability and an estimated 20 percent with an invisible disability. The number of workers with disabilities is alarmingly on the rise, partly due to ongoing effects of long COVID. Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, about 900,000 more American workers have reported a disability, according to recent research published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Invisible disabilities range from visual and hearing impairments, to cognitive and learning differences, to others that defy clear categorization. Autism, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, blindness or low vision, and depression are just a few examples. Epilepsy, which caused my grand mal seizure, and which winery worker Joshua Pehle describes below, is also an invisible disability.
Working in the Winery With An Invisible Disability
Over the course of my career, which spans several industries, I’ve never felt the burden of my invisible disability as heavily as in winery settings, where I worked for more than a decade.
As that harvest season ramped up, so did my anxiety. My grand mal seizures subsided, but I was still plagued by nagging psychomotor seizures that tended to strike during my morning cellar shifts. For safety purposes, I disclosed my epilepsy to my managers, and we agreed that I would not climb high ladders or drive the forklift. We also agreed that I would work a half-time shift, partly because my nervous system could not handle the standard 12- or 14-hour stints. Lack of sleep induces seizures as reliably as beer.
Despite these accommodations, I felt myself slipping mentally and physically, forgetting things and botching enology data. I cannot stress enough that my managers were as kind and reasonable as any in my whole career. Yet they couldn’t protect me from my teammates, who knew I received special consideration, but didn’t understand why. As much as I wanted to explain my struggle, disclosing disability is complex. Their discouragement with me was plain, and I became demoralized. Weeks before the end of the season, I quit.
Even the most supportive manager cannot compensate for a broken winery workplace culture—one that moves at such an unapologetically lightning pace that it fails to consider the potential contributions of those who work differently.
As ashamed as I felt about bailing, I was not alone. One in 10 working adults with disabilities reported experiencing some kind of workplace discrimination within five years of the passage of the ADA, according to recent research. Strikingly, a third of those respondents permanently exited the workforce. How many workers, then, has the wine industry lost to disability discrimination?
Disability Discrimination in the Workplace
Joshua Pehle is an enologist and cellarmaster at Justin Vineyard in Paso Robles, California. At age four, he began having partial seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy. “The first memory I can remember is of having a seizure,” he says.
In his mid-20s, Pehle began having much more intense, violent, nighttime seizures too. By that time, he was on the winemaking career path, and had not only worked local harvests in his native Missouri but begun interning at prominent wineries around the world.
If epilepsy challenged his work, it didn’t stop him: He was passionate to learn all he could about winemaking and thrived in a demanding atmosphere. “The cellar was super fast-paced and I had to get the job done in a certain way.”
Eventually, Pehle landed his dream job at a cult winery in California—but the dream was over during the very first month, when he disclosed his epilepsy to his employer. News of his termination came via email, which did not state a cause for dismissal. To Pehle, the reason seemed clear: “They looked at me like a liability.”
While since 1990 the ADA has ostensibly protected workers like Pehle, prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities, the reality is more discouraging. In 2021, workers filed a record number of lawsuits against employers accused of violating the act.
In the aftermath, Pehle doubled down and found new ways to manage his epilepsy. In April 2022, he underwent a left temporal lobe craniotomy to remove the part of his brain most vulnerable to seizures. For months, he would leave work early to rest or attend follow-up appointments, eliciting heavy side-eye from colleagues who were unaware of his circumstances. For practical reasons, he told his manager, but was hesitant to share with coworkers.
“I’ve always been open to talking about [my epilepsy],” he says, “but I’ve learned that if I try to disclose, it can get blown out of proportion.” Instead, he kept working. “I would try to power through to be there for my team.”
While the surgery was largely successful, Pehle now finds his brain gets easily fatigued. “They took out the ‘problem’ part of my brain, but it was around motor and speech,” he says. He finds, as the workday wears on, “I can barely talk. My brain doesn’t function like it used to.”
Pehle reports that living with epilepsy has given him greater compassion for anyone going through difficulty. “If you’ve been healthy your whole life,” he says, “you probably don’t even think about it.”
Breaking Out of Isolation
In 2013, Nathan Carlson, the general manager and winemaker of Center of Effort Winery in Arroyo Grande, California, began experiencing hearing loss, along with debilitating dizzy spells, nausea, and vertigo. As symptoms intensified, Nathan’s doctor diagnosed him with otosclerosis, which results when the bones within the ear ossify and prevent soundwaves from passing.
“It really had affected my work,” says Carlson, “mostly in interactions with other people, not being as good a leader for my team as I would like, and missing out on connections with other people.”
Hearing, of course, is integral in the cellar. “It is crazy how much hearing comes into play in the wine world, whether communicating with customers, employees, or team members,” says Carlson. “Even listening to a barrel fermentation, or the rising tone of splashing as a barrel is filling. Pumps, tractors, and fans all signal their condition through sound.”
He soon learned that his condition could be corrected by surgery, but it would take multiple surgeries over the course of several years. Meanwhile, his frustration mounted. “I think I came off as not very sharp, and socially inappropriate, when in fact I was just struggling to hear and understand,” says Carlson.
When his hearing was finally fully corrected in April 2021, it was “completely life changing.” He says, “I find it to be a lot more straightforward to communicate with people around me, to connect and understand subtle inference, jokes, and nuance in a way that has been impossible for years. Hearing loss is really isolating.”
“The world in general is not very understanding of people with any disability that is not clearly obvious,” says Nova Cadamatre, the owner of Trestle Thirty-One Winery in New York and the first woman winemaker to earn the title of Master of Wine. Living with a condition called dyscalculia—commonly described as math dyslexia—Cadamatre faces daunting challenges in the winery, including calculations for tank additions.
“It’s really hard to have [dyscalculia] as a winemaker,” she says. “I flip numbers around as I read them. I can’t memorize numbers or even keep more than a two-digit number in my head for more than a few seconds.”
In a beverage production cellar, numbers come into play nearly every day. Getting the figures right can be the difference between making an award-winning wine and one that’s downright flawed. To compensate for her disability, Cadamatre works extra hard.
“For analysis, I make sure I am working very slowly over the results and always triple check my addition calculations,” she says. “If it is a particularly tricky or impactful add, I will still have someone else check the math for me. I’ve also built several spreadsheets to help do calculations for me. I still have a program I wrote in Basic for my graphing calculator that solves the quadratic equation.”
Working with diverse teams of coworkers, a little curiosity goes a long way, says Cadamatre. “If you see people struggling, try to understand their point of view. Try to understand if they are experiencing a different reality from the one you see.”
Speaking Out and Building Representation
Importantly, no single perspective should be considered fully representative. In the words of Angela Pieper, a wine industry veteran who lives with both ADHD and autism and serves on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee of Women of the Vine and Spirits (WOTVS): “If you’ve met one disabled person, you haven’t met them all; you’ve met one disabled person.”
As Pieper worked her way through the beverage industry—from an early job in wine retail to her current position at Jagermeister—she never knew that she was living with invisible disabilities. She only knew she was struggling mightily. At 37, she was finally diagnosed, bringing extraordinary peace of mind. Since then, Pieper has been adamant about staying vocal in order to build representation within the beverage industry and beyond.
Pieper has led industry webinars in neurodiversity for WOTVS and lends her perspective to their regular meetings. To colleagues who may be struggling to adjust in the workplace, Pieper stresses the importance of communication. While recognizing the complications that can sometimes come with fully disclosing a disability, she advises, “It’s your responsibility to understand your limits and capabilities. It’s important to understand yourself and be able to clearly communicate that to managers and coworkers.”
Importantly, notes Pieper, employees must ask for help when needed. As a parallel, she references her height. “I’m 4’11” and I need a stepladder to reach the top shelf. I ask for help!”
For employers, Pieper underscores the importance of documenting procedures and policies through written materials. Everyone learns differently, so it’s very important to offer employees a reliable way to refer to company guidelines.
Carlson reiterates this advice. “Provide instruction on critical items in multiple formats—describe, demonstrate, and have a written standard operating procedure available. Make it clear that it is always okay to clarify instructions or to ask for accommodation when needed. This will benefit your team even if they are not operating with a disability.”
Winery leaders striving to create a more welcoming workplace for a diverse workforce may find this advice to be only the tip of the iceberg. They may also find real challenges: The majority of wineries in the U.S. (81 percent, according to the Wines and Vines Analytics database) are small operations lacking adequate human resources professionals to facilitate accommodations and support for workers with disabilities. Still, winery leaders can seek supplemental support through independent HR agencies and consultants.
The wine business as a whole can do far more to cultivate curiosity and acceptance and to create a more welcoming and diverse workplace. We can begin by listening to people with disabilities, invisible and otherwise. Importantly, every winery worker in any position of power can make a greater effort to practice compassion and understanding with colleagues who work differently. Let’s give it a try.
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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.