Melissa Sutherland, 6.28.19
How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.
I’ve been in the wine business in New York City for 14 years. My prior decade-long career in Washington, D.C. focused on domestic social policy and managing campaigns at the local, state, and federal levels. I cut my teeth in wine retail in NYC for eight years in roles that combined both a buying position and marketing management.
Since 2013, I’ve been on the supply side, working in brand management for importers, distributors, and estates. Today you can find me wearing many hats that span my multidisciplinary skill set at Panebianco Wines, a small Italian importer of fine wine in NY and NJ.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
There were three “aha” moments for me. The first one happened in 1992. I was still at university, dating a man somewhat older than myself, and he loved Bordeaux. He had a shit ton of older BDX from the 60s and 70s. It was my 22nd birthday and I was interning on Capitol Hill for a senator, and my boyfriend surprised me, flying into the city to share a lovely meal and a bottle of 1970 Ducru Beaucaillou and a well-worn early edition of Hugh Johnson’s Atlas of Wine, pre-Jancis Robinson. The “aha” moment was loving how fruit could develop into savoriness and that learning about wine was similar to my History of Art studies.
The second “aha” moment was in 1998 at Windows on the World. My boyfriend at the time and another couple were having dinner when our friends suggested having a white with the red for dinner. I was silly and said I didn’t drink white wine. Boy, did my mind change for the better after drinking the 1990 Domaine Weinbach Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg. (You see how these “aha” moments were of course French wines. lol.)
The third “aha” moment came in 2007, just two years into the wine business. Someone brought me a white wine to taste blind. (I was really into white wines of the Loire Valley at the time. Yup, I was a Francophile.) It was the 2006 Pietracupa Greco di Tufo DOCG. This wine launched my curiosity and never-ending love for Italian white wines. (And now I get to communicate and represent the wines of Pietracupa at Panebianco.)
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Always the people, but specifically the person making the wines and the consumer who enjoys them. Period.
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?
At the beginning of my career in wine, old timers and some younger colleagues didn’t get my multidisciplinary approach to wine. Now this is common to bring to wine as a skill set, but many ideas were often discouraged; many I still managed to pull-off. The confidence I had despite many people holding me back came mostly from within, and success-despite-the-odds from my prior career.
How can we as women become aware of our prejudice and change our behavior?
Remember that campaign in NYC after 9/11, “If you see something, say something”? Well, that’s one all encompassing way, but the main way to change your behavior is by being self-aware.
When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women?
A healthier wine industry in general, more diversity, and more money. Honestly, we’ll also have much more fun.
What change do you hope to see in regards to women in the wine industry in the next five years?
For the entire industry, I want to see salary transparency. This is the most profound tool for knowing a benchmark against the experience, skills, and value you bring. It doesn’t quite make sense for a recent college grad with two years in the business to feel they are owed $100K/year because they (1) compare wine to other industries, and (2) don’t understand what people are actually making and the years of experience it took to get there. Then, and only then, will we see wage gap closure.
What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?
Do the work. Don’t boast and brag. Follow through. Execute. Execute. Execute. Listen more than you talk. Keep your head down. Help other women even if you’re a newbie.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
You know when you walk around NYC and see the diversity of multitudes? And then we say: That’s America. The wine industry should resemble this.
What ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?
I’ve always felt like an outsider after having come to wine later in life and after a first successful career. Because I keep the perspective of an outsider, I manage to see and resolve injustices and question more than others who are entrenched might attempt.
What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?
Perseverance. Being a good listener. Speaking up. Understanding abundancy vis-a-vis scarcity. A wonder woman of wine walks the walk and puts in the work it takes to advocate for and establish opportunities and pathways for more women to enter the wine business.
What other women of wine do you admire and why?
Marilyn Krieger: A consummate PR professional.
Sarah Bray: Says what she is going to do, and does it. Excellent example of how to execute.
Lauren Mowery: Chasing the story, and bringing the vast world of wine on a global scale to us.
Rebecca Hopkins: Gets the zeitgeist of health and balance the wine industry needs to survive.
Marissa Ross: Not giving a fuck. Haters gonna hate.
Jeanette van der Steen (Château Bon Baron): Against the odds, making singular wines of such precision and beauty via biodynamic protocols in Belgium.
Stevie Kim: Herself a lesson of how keeping an open-mind to all ideas and diverse voices leads to innovation and evolution.