If 2018 was a year of reckoning for the industry’s relationship with alcohol, balance, and wellness, may 2019 be the year we develop the tools we need to improve the health of our industry and evolve its culture. At the start of the New Year, SevenFifty Daily asked drinks industry professionals who go beyond the directive to “eat less, exercise more” to explore their personal commitments to wellness and share what they see as the industry’s opportunities for change in 2019.
Build Support Networks
Gary Obligacion, the general manager of the luxury property Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California, and the former operations director of the Alinea Restaurant Group in Chicago, has set the benchmark for excellence in luxury and culinary hospitality for more than 20 years. “Being onstage can be exhausting for the most seasoned hospitality professional, with smiles and nods often hiding what can be a struggle with anxiety, depression, and negative emotions,” he says. “Connecting with other people in the workplace and the community at large is critical to maintain mental stability.”
To sustain his stability and vitality, Obligacion has organized a personal “board of directors”—a small and trusted group of four or five people to call on when he needs to separate himself from a distressing situation. “On my board,” he says, “are people I trust on matters of finance, job decisions, and matters of the heart. Members can come and go from the board, but importantly, they are a source of encouragement and support. It’s critical to maintain a close community.”
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Continue to Diversify
As SevenFifty Daily’s recent Career & Salary Survey Report highlighted, although race and gender diversity remain concerns for the industry, small steps are being taken and opportunities are being created.
In 2018, Julia Coney, a wine and travel writer based in Washington, D.C., led an initiative to help women of color secure scholarships to attend the inaugural women’s forum Bâtonnage in Napa Valley, California. Through her efforts, five scholarships were granted to women of color; there were 320 attendees altogether.
Leaders from across the beverage alcohol industry—and beyond—share strategic frameworks, fresh ideas, and actionable tips for effecting change
Responses from the Bâtonnage scholarship recipients who attended the conference were overwhelmingly positive, but Coney believes there is much more to do. “For 2019, I’m committed to increasing the visibility of women of color in the wine space,” she says. “There’s a big movement for [inclusion of] women of color in the hospitality space, but the wine space is still lacking.”
Create Cultural Change
While personal commitments to wellness are encouraging, cultural leadership is critical to empower people to actually make change a priority. According to the Global Wellness Institute, 52 percent of American workers have access to wellness programs. For many in the wine and spirits industry, however, there exists little support for assistance beyond medically mandated programs, with the onus on the employer. This means that the specific challenges of working with alcohol often go unaddressed.
At Milo’s Cellar and Inn in Boulder City, Nevada, the head sommelier, Cameron Sisk, MS, laments that little has changed in the industry during her 35-year tenure, and that the industry itself is still a long way from creating a business culture that supports wellness. Sisk suggests it’s a problem that stems, in part, from a long-entrenched “good-old-boy camaraderie” that favors some men. “There is business and then there’s backroom business, a double life underlying the corporate template,” she says. “It’s effective in bringing in the numbers, and yet it’s unhealthy in the long run, running off talent, excluding [certain] top new hires, [causing the loss of] hours—or years—of potential productivity.”
In an effort to find a solution, Sisk implores drinks industry professionals to speak up in 2019 and support others in their progress toward a culture of wellness, fairness, and sound business practices. “Maybe,” she says, “everyone will drink a little less, too.”
Take Time for Yourself
In June 2018, Wente Vineyards, a producer based in Livermore Valley, California, launched #MakeTime, a program of online videos, to encourage employees to make time for life outside of work. Wente’s president, Amy Hoopes, actively encourages the program though company meet-ups, movie nights, a speaker series on health and wellness, and partnerships with health and wellness providers to help demonstrate that the #MakeTime idea can be acted on in a meaningful way. “Wine is such an important part of the Wente family,” she says, “and wine is what brings people together, so we want to inspire our employees to make more time for what matters.”
In 2019, Hoopes plans to expand the program by increasing funding for school art programs, consumer outreach, and broadening the Wente Vineyards community at large.
Fitness is important to Jennifer Paré, the Diageo business manager at Breakthru Beverage Colorado in Denver. She maintains a very active routine, including skiing, golfing, and working out with her “fitness squad” colleagues. Recently, she was encouraged to see that her company launched an active wellness program that includes a Bike to Work Day.
“Competition both within and outside our industry is increasing,” says Paré, “and I see our leadership taking an active role in making sure our employees take time for themselves.” For 2019, Paré aims to “try like hell to incorporate a new fitness activity and shake up my routine.” She appreciates that health and wellness are not just an individual’s responsibility. Rather, she says, “it takes a village to cultivate a healthy atmosphere in which everyone can thrive both personally and professionally.”
Bring Mental Illness out of the Shadows
Given the number of deaths of well-known people in the beverage alcohol and hospitality industries from suicide and addiction-related causes, it’s not surprising that the subject of mental health often made headlines in 2018. Even so, many believe the discussion is far from where it needs to be.
“The first step is to acknowledge that we work in an industry where substance abuse, workaholism, and misogyny are common issues,” says Michael Wangbickler, the CEO of Balzac Communications, a boutique wine marketing and communications agency in Napa. Wangbickler openly discusses his own struggles with depression, citing therapy, antidepressants, and “natural beauty to restore his perspective” as tools that have supported his wellness, but he says that the industry has a long way to go.
“As leaders, we must do better to be more inclusive, open, honest, and fair with the people who work for—and with—us,” he says. “We need to reach out to those we see may be struggling and let them know that it’s okay, we understand, and that we’re here for support.” Wangbickler encourages open and honest dialogue among his colleagues and employees, who in 2019 are strategizing to make the company’s workspace more fun and less cluttered. These changes will be approached with the goal of easing stress and establishing a comfortable work environment for Wangbickler and his team.
Monitor Your Relationship with Alcohol
Sobriety is a topic that’s not often considered by most wine professionals; it can be hard to contemplate long-term abstinence when the sheer joy of being in the wine business is the pleasure of appreciating wine itself. But for veteran wine writer and educator Bill St. John, committing to sobriety in 2017 was the most important decision he’d made to sustain his long-term health.
“I wrote and taught about wine, and wine and food, for more than 40 years,” he says. “But I no longer drink it. I found that a little wine inside of me leads, by a short route, to a lot of it inside of me, and that, time and again, I did it no honor and that I damaged myself with it. I had to give up being around wine. All of it, in any form of it, even its simple presence. I cannot handle taking it in.”
Leaving his wine-writing post at the Chicago Tribune, St. John returned to his hometown of Denver and today shares his decades of encyclopedic knowledge with a reader audience of food enthusiasts and aspiring home cooks at the Denver Post. In 2019, he has resolved to continue sharing his experience and offer his support to others who may be struggling with alcohol dependence. He hopes that by coming forward, he can let others in the beverage alcohol industry know that they’re not alone—and that help is available.
Given these responses, there seems to be an underlying theme of community and connection emerging for 2019. Opening up dialogue and connecting with a supportive community are the elements that our experts say will improve mental, physical, and cultural health.
As Obligacion puts it: “We are social creatures, and transactional stuff doesn’t feel good—we want it to be more. I was taught that it’s not the value of the coins, it’s the warmth of the hands exchanging them. When you get to the point of connecting with another human, that’s the sweet spot.”
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Rebecca Hopkins works in wine communications and is a freelance wine writer and speaker on wine. Her work has appeared in Meininger’s Wine Business International and Wine Business Monthly Australia. In 2018 she created A Balanced Glass, an online industry forum to support and promote wellness for wine industry professionals around the world.