Sexual harassment in the wine trade: when will the other bottle break?

If you’ve ever studied Italian as a second language, you know that you invariably encounter irregular nouns early on in your class.

In nearly every curriculum, the examples the pedagogues use are the same: amico (friend) is pluralized as amici (and not amichi as the velar-paroxytone model would suggest); greco (Greek) becomes greci; and porco (pig) becomes porci.

It’s only natural that amico would come up frequently in Italian 1 class. The word greco is not as common in rudimentary Italian but it also has a place in introductory Italian language instruction since Greek culture pervaded the fabric of ancient Italy.

But porco? Ask any Italian instructor and she or he will answer similarly and without skipping a beat: gli uomini sono porcimen are pigs (a sentence that incorporates not one but two irregular nouns!).

It’s an aphorism that evidently comes up frequently in Italian colloquialism.

I can only wonder how many times the expression has been uttered in Italy as the American and Italian media has devoted ample coverage to widespread allegations of sexual harassment among U.S. politicians and in the U.S. entertainment, news, and restaurant trades.

Any member of the U.S. wine trade would be hard-pressed to deny that sexual harassment is sadly all too common in the industry.

While I was in Italy teaching earlier this month, many Italians — consumed, like their America counterparts, by this watershed cultural moment — asked me about it. When I got home to my wife Tracie in Texas, we spent a lot of time talking about it over the holiday weekend (the allegations began to circulate before I left but they seemed to explode in their scope and reach while I was gone).

We both remembered myriad episodes of highly inappropriate behavior over the course of our careers in wine.

When I first met Tracie nine years ago, she was a sales rep for Glazer’s in Texas (now Southern Glazer’s, a major American wine distributor). I’ll never forget her telling me about having to sell wine at an adult entertainment venue (an account that was assigned to her by her superiors; she had no voice in the matter). The club’s owner regularly harassed her.

Over the course of our conversations this weekend, she also remembered a ride-with with a particularly aggressive supplier rep who was widely known in the Texas wine community to harass young women (a supplier rep[resentative] is a sales agent for a particular brand or portfolio of wines; a ride-with is typically a day of sales work, when a rep for a local distributor hosts a supplier rep and the supplier rep rides with her or him).

I remembered a 2010 trip to northern Italy with a group of leading sommeliers from across the country. There was one woman among us. During one of our daily bus rides, the conversation became so sexually charged that I insisted that it stop. We rode in silence for the rest of that day.

I also remembered a 2007 dinner in lower Manhattan with a Tuscan winemaker. It was clear to everyone at the table that he was harassing his importer’s publicist. I tried as graciously as I could to separate them. But looking back now, I am filled with regret: I should have told him, however discreetly but firmly, that he had to stop. I feel so bad about that now. I can remember the look of terror in her eyes and her inability to reach out for help.

By the time we went to bed on Saturday night, my mind was swirling with memories of similar episodes: a so-called American wine writer who asked a Neapolitan publicist to take a shower with him (sound familiar?); a celebrity wine writer who literally groped a publicist at a popular Manhattan restaurant in front of the whole table (we all hovered like flies waiting for a windshield on a freeway); a respected old-line wine writer who agreed to take a trip to Italy with a publicist and then expected her to have sexual relations with him (she broke away from the trip on the first day).

And who can forget the immensely popular wine blogger who regularly attacks women wine writers with sexually crude language? Sexual harassment also occurs in the virtual realm of the U.S. wine trade.

Following the revelations about rampant sexual harassment in the U.S. restaurant industry, many high-profile restaurant groups are taking steps to address the issue.

It’s time that wine industry leaders do the same. When is the other bottle going to break?

Image created using Wikipedia Creative Commons images here and here.

7 thoughts on “Sexual harassment in the wine trade: when will the other bottle break?

  1. As, timely comments and observations ala “Me too”…As an activist and ardent supporter for many years, first I’d offer praise for your awareness. That’s step one – taking off the blinders (of common or accepted or ignored behaviors) and realizing the reality of what’s going on. Second, take some kudos for confronting it when you see it. As you readily admit, you could have /should have taken a firmer stance on occasion – great, learn from that, and encourage others around you to do the same. On this topic, the middle ground has vanished (thankfully) – you are either a force for change, or a supporter of bad behavior. Help others make the right choices, and further nurture the positive winds we are now seeing. It is a huge step forward – finally!
    BTW – I’m less worried about language than I am about behaviors, although they may go hand-in-hand. Adult women have a wide range of acceptance on crude language, just as men do…while not trivial, it pales in comparison to the aforementioned bad behaviors (IMHO).

    Again, kudos for taking a stand, and encouraging all of us to own the solution.


  2. On the other hand, have you ever worked wholesale as a sales rep? Going up against young attractive women who are hired by big companies for their looks? And whether or not any actual after hours stuff occurs, wine buyers at stores bars restaurants etc. give a lot of business to good looking women selling nothing to get excited about but selling a lot of it.

    • Tthis kind of “favoritism” hurts women just as much as men. Women who aren’t conventionally attractive (including, heaven forbid, those who are overweight) are discriminated against and less successful, often with the added bonus of feeling terrible about their bodies and their self-worth. And women who are conventionally attractive may be able to use their good looks strategically, but also end up with unwanted advances, having to question whether they’re valued for their competence, and fearing what happens as they age. Favoring women (consciously or not) for their looks hurts everyone. We all tend to show preference to attractive people — plenty of research to this effect — but the more we’re aware that that’s the case, the more we can choose to act consciously.

    • Donn, and on the OTHER hand, what’s your point? Men abuse their power EVERYWHERE. Young women, attractive or not, also have to put up with these buyers acting like pigs and abusing their power, a little bit of looking the other way or blowing off a comment so as not to get kicked out the account. Because companies hire attractive women, does this excuse the behavior?

      And your off-hand, “whether or not after hours stuff occurs…”

      This is a reckoning. This whole spectrum of behavior and abuse has got to stop. Whether they are buyers, suppliers, managers, etc. ENOUGH.

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