Almost 10 years ago, when I was a fresh-faced college graduate considering my career options, never did I imagine I would spend so much time talking about my gender. As has happened in so many spheres, the wine world has grappled in recent years with the question of women’s roles, both within the industry and in the broader universe of journalism, education and collecting.
As a female participant in many of these ecosystems, with strong connections to other female industry members and leaders, I’ve had both first- and second-hand views. For my own part, I’ve had the somewhat disorienting experience of living through a time when who I am (young, Asian, female) has gone from being a hindrance to an advantage. When I was starting out, I was frequently dismissed by people who presumed I was the personal assistant of my then-boss Debra Meiburg MW, who to her everlasting credit would constantly correct this misconception. (I was, in fact, executive director of her business.) But later, when I became a Master of Wine, my gender, my ethnicity and especially my youth were touted in virtually every piece of press coverage about me.
In Asia, we enjoy a somewhat unusual situation. A significant portion of wine professionals, and especially top professionals, are women, from the more typically female realms of marketing, media and education to sales and management, entrepreneurship and even the notoriously male-dominant field of winemaking itself (examples of successful female makers include Emma Gao of Silver Heights, Zhou Shuzhen of Kanaan and Ren Yanling of Pernod Ricard).
Among Masters of Wine in Asia, women are in the overwhelming majority. This pattern seems set to continue since virtually every classroom and event I walk into across the continent, especially in China, is at least 50 per cent female if not significantly more.
Still, some circles remain Y-chromosome dominant, notably those of sommeliers and wine collectors. The reasons are not hard to fathom. As a mother of two children under the age of three, I can well understand that a job that requires a grindingly taxing trio of late nights, alcohol exposure and raw physical exertion (the unglamorous side of sommelier life that you won’t see on TV is the endless heaving about of unwieldy wine crates) is tough to balance with family life. This situation is far from unique to Asia—as a rough indicator, of the 172 Master Sommeliers in the world, only 28 are women. For comparison, globally there are 138 women among 395 Masters of Wine, who tend to work in trade, education, media, promotion and wine production.
The relative dearth of women among Asian wine collectors is more challenging to puzzle out given that Asian women have tended to smash through other luxury lifestyle glass ceilings. For instance, Asian women account for a much higher proportion of luxury car purchases than do their European or American counterparts. However, I still all too frequently find myself as one of only a few women admitted to male-centric collectors’ gatherings. Still, I’m reassured by the Asian female collectors I do encounter. Though not yet great in number, they tend to be among the most active in regional collector associations and far from reticent.
Overall, I am encouraged that younger generations in Asia seem less burdened by the outdated notion that wine collecting, making or trading isn’t for women. Maybe this stems from the patina of romance that wine seems to have acquired in Asia (“Wine is about elegance and sophistication,” I was told by one aspiring young collector). Or maybe it’s the result of a long-standing notion that a pre-bedtime glass of red benefits the health and the complexion (a view I once believed to be apocryphal but that I have now heard countless times, especially from Chinese women in their forties and older). Whatever it is, I now optimistically anticipate the day when our presence becomes so commonplace that nobody at all is interested in discussing what it’s like to be a woman in the wine world.
To get a sense of how female perspectives are shaping the wine market around Asia, I gathered recommendations from a cross-section of the region’s most influential female industry members and collectors. I asked each to recommend a luxury or collectible wine, either something unique and unexpected or else an icon that’s truly worth the hype.