Posted on | December 30, 2013
Written by | Alia Akkam
Winebow’s annual symposium empowers industry women and celebrates progress.
In 1987, Madeline Triffon became the ninth American to snag the coveted title of Master Sommelier. But the distinction was groundbreaking for another reason: she was officially the first female in the U.S. to do so.
“I was entered into two national sommelier competitions and did well, and was invited to take the Master Sommelier exam soon thereafter. The fraternity I entered was welcoming both to me and to women who were coming up in the industry,” Triffon explains. “So, in the specialized world of sommeliers, I didn’t experience professional barriers due to my sex. What I felt, and still do, is, ‘If I can do it, so can you.’’’
Triffon’s words ring especially true when considering the second annual Women in Wine Leadership Symposium hosted by Winebow, which was held at New York’s Helen Mills Event Space and Theater in October. Female winemakers, sommeliers and retailers abound in the industry today, but just as the symposium is a celebration of these impressive accomplishments, it’s also a chance to reflect on—and be inspired by—how much further women can elevate their wine careers. For example, nearly 30 years after Triffon’s coup, there are 135 designated Master Sommeliers in the country, yet only 19 of them are women.
“Initially, we took note of the growing number of women in leadership roles at the properties we represent; we wanted to highlight these exceptional women, their passion and commitment to quality. From that goal the symposium was born,” says Karen King, a Winebow sales manager who also serves on the event’s advisory board. “The number of women in prominent positions in our industry has steadily increased since Winebow began importing and distributing wine over 30 years ago. The symposium gives us an opportunity to combine a focus on the women in our portfolio with an outreach to women working in the wine world. We wanted a way to connect to women in our business that could address their specific needs and concerns.”
At this most recent installment of the symposium, that synergy was achieved through not only guided and walk-around tastings of Winebow wines crafted by female winemakers—like Wine & Soul from Portugal’s Douro, Tres Sabores in the Napa Valley and Bodega Catena Zapata in Mendoza—but also through thought-provoking panels. “Building Key Relationships: Mentoring and Sponsoring” and “Strategies for Career Advancement,” for example, featured leaders like Master Sommelier Virginia Philip of the Breakers and Virginia Philip Wine Shop & Academy in Palm Beach, FL; Mary Melton, director of beverage for P.F. Chang’s; and Debbie Zachareas of Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant in San Francisco.
One of the enlightening panelists was Kristie Petrullo, the former Jean-Georges sommelier who now runs New York-based Petrullo Wine Consulting. “When I first started in the wine industry, I was intimidated by the women. I viewed them as incredibly strong, and they all appeared to be larger than life. I was a sponge. I watched them intently,” she reveals. “In preparing for the panel, I learned a lot about myself. The questions really made me think about the path I took to get to where I am. It wasn’t this clear plan that I set out for myself; my eyes were just open to the opportunities that were presented. I also learned that I wasn’t alone. In hearing some of the stories from the other panelists, I realized that many of the fears and insecurities that I had, they did, too.”
Perhaps the biggest highlight was the presence of Triffon. Now the in-house Master Sommelier at Plum Market, the full-service grocery retailer with stores in Southeastern Michigan and metro Chicago, she served as keynote speaker for the event, regaling the audience with her warm, candid advice. “It was enormously fulfilling for me on many levels. Last year, as a panelist, I was quietly shocked at how affected I was by the conference. Having spent most of my professional life keeping my eye on the professional ball with little thought to my sex, I think I subconsciously assumed that the playing field was level, that the industry had progressed past the point of our needing or wanting such a forum,” she explains. “Obviously, the appreciation and thirst for such a gathering proved me wrong. One of my closing comments was, ‘There is no doubt in my mind that this roomful of people can take the beverage industry to a higher level, and can improve how the industry does business overall.’ I feel that to my bones.”