Jessica Tantillo, 3.22.19
How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.
I have been in the hospitality industry about 18 years. I always was interested in hospitality since a young age and I attended The University of Houston, majoring in Hotel and Restaurant management. I knew I wanted to take care of people, but I wasn’t quite sure in what capacity until I did a semester abroad in Spain. I fell in love with food and wine, and never looked back.
I went to Culinary School in New York City soon after, then after a few years of watching the sommeliers from my chef whites and yearning to be in their shoes, I decided to study wine. I took a job at Astor Wine and Spirits in NYC, got my level 2 certification with the Court and have been selling wine and spirits ever since. I moved to Austin about 10 years ago and settled right in with Twin Liquors, selling wine in retail at first, and now I am an Account Manager for Twin, running our wholesale distribution for bars, restaurants, hotels, and everything in between.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
1992 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello. I was invited to a wine tasting when I first started getting into wine. The host had a bunch of older California Cabernet. This was 2007 at the time, but I really hadn’t had the chance to try many aged wines. I was blown away; it was lush, vibrant, and delicious. I remember him laughing and telling me that it was actually young for that particular wine, and I started to become so intrigued about terroir, vintage, producer, varietal, et cetera. I became obsessed and wanted to learn everything there was to know.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The relationships and people I have met. My working relationships have turned into some of my closest friendships. It’s amazing to meet so many like-minded and passionate people that I learn and grow from every day.
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?
Unfortunately yes. I have had many moments of sexual harassment in the work place; this has involved everything from sexual comments, groping, and inappropriate sexual advances. At one of my first jobs in the industry a boss of mine made a sexual advance at me while I was at work. I declined and held back tears while I finished my shift. After this incident he decided to make my experience there awful and soon after, I resigned. Looking back at these moments I get angry I didn’t do more to stick up for myself. Because of fear and lack of confidence, I convinced myself those behaviors were what I had to endure to get ahead.
How can we as women become aware of our prejudice and change our behavior?
Thankfully the narrative for this type of behavior is being exposed, with societal awareness, education and industry support; However, it is just the beginning. We have to keep talking and exposing the prejudice to make a clear change. I do see a lot progress and that is incredible. With this progress comes confidence for women to succeed, to feel we don’t have to endure the prejudices. I saw a huge change when I let go of my insecurities, surrounded myself with strong and amazing women, and let go of fear.
When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women?
The wine and spirits world has been a boys club for a long time, and when we band together, there is no stopping us. It was incredible sitting in The Sunset Room at the W.W.O.W. Conference and seeing so many familiar and new faces. I felt so welcome and a part of a family. I felt heard and felt that we had a voice. There is no stopping so many amazing women, and having an outlet where we can all come together makes us even stronger. These connections will only take us further in the community and our careers. I’m looking forward to the day when we are all part of the “Ol’ Girls Club.”
What change do you hope to see in regards to women in the wine industry in the next five years?
I hope for better wages, better benefits, higher level job opportunities and more room for advancement. I hope for a day when we are no longer “hoping” and we are at a point when all of us are actually created equal.
What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?
Invest in Jancis Robinson’s book The World Atlas of Wine. Take it slow and don’t get frustrated. There is so much to learn. You learn by experience and you never stop learning. Don’t be afraid to fail. Travel and take trips to different wine regions. Visit wineries and get to know viticulture. Taste and smell everything; It helps when building your palate, even if it’s pencil lead. ;) Most of all, HAVE FUN.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
It means that men and women can come together in our industry and in the community as a whole. That we can have understanding and empathy on both sides. That we let go of the labels and work together based on fairness, justice, and respect.
What ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?
I strive to work fairly with recognition and consideration for all. I want to lift up everyone I work with by creating a support system to the best of my ability. Being an account manager for Twin, I work with so many different diverse clients. One day I might be in a fine dining restaurant, the next a Taqueria, and the next in a Honky Tonk. All of them share a passion of bringing great wine and spirits into their establishment. I strive to share the wealth of product and placement of product to everyone who is excited about them. Allocations are a big deal in this industry and I want to see great products in all of my accounts whether big or small.
What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?
Wonder women of wine are women that inspire you. They’re smart, fierce and incredibly strong. They bring our community together and lift other women up through empowerment, support, and a great palate.
What other women of wine do you admire and why?
I am incredibly lucky to have two great mentors in my life, and I work directly with both. Margaret Jabour and Sandra Spalding. Margaret Jabour is one of the owners of Twin Liquors. She and her brother took over the family Business in the 80s, and she revolutionized the retail wine and spirits market in Texas. In her words, she wanted to “elevate the industry,” and wanted to “appeal to women shoppers.” Dimly lit, dusty and uninviting liquor stores in Texas are almost a thing of the past, thanks in part to her. Her passion and enthusiasm for women in the industry are infectious. Also, Sandra Spalding who is the Events and Marketing Director for Twin Liquors is an incredible mentor in my life. I admire her ability to bring people together so effortlessly. She is a wealth of knowledge, not only in wine, but also art, music, food, travel, she is truly a renaissance women. She is a pillar in the non-profit world and has made giving back to our community a main focus. She lifts women up with enthusiasm, inclusion and positivity. I learn from her every day.