Sarah Harshaw, 7.5.19
How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.
I got my start working in restaurants in Austin, Tx starting in 1998 - I’ve probably worked every position there is in the front of the house. At almost every restaurant I worked at, I always took every opportunity they allowed to attend or be involved education of food, wine, or spirits. That eventually led me to a few wine buying positions. It’s very common in the sales and distribution community to recruit people they encounter who have a certain type of personality that will be successful in the sales arena. Education is obviously important- but in my opinion- the type of person who is typically the best candidate in sales is outgoing, tenacious, and has the ability to read people.
After getting recruited by a small distributor to sell boutique wine, I was moved into a sales management position for their burgeoning spirits book. I loved the work but realized I excelled at positions with more autonomy and direct connections to the producers themselves. I partnered with a former boss of mine to start a brokerage for wine and spirits in Texas and was later offered a chance to work directly for a small winery in California as their Director of National Sales. After 5 years of learning more than I ever thought I could in that position, I was sought out by my current employers at Dalla Terra Winery Direct to be the Regional Sales manager for their very well curated book of Italian wine.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
There are so many of those moments that I can’t possibly choose just one. I think for most people its a combination or evolution of experiences. Mine really started at a very young age when my parents opened the Walburg Mercantile restaurant and I was mystified by all the cool beers, food, and cultural differences in cuisine. But I guess at the end of the day- I was exposed to some pretty stunning rieslings that flipped my whole mind around about what wine can be. That probably started my most recent track of discovery.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
People. People by far. Meeting people in our industry that share the same feelings about the food & wine culture always gives me energy and renews faith in humanity for some reason. I love how the ‘back of the house’ part of this industry is so small. You can travel to the tiniest corners of the world and run into people you know from this business. It’s a huge family at the end of the day and we all know how families are!
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?
Ok- I guess this is the part where I stop being Sally-Sunshine. Just like any industry in the world, the wine industry is not immune to sexism and discrimination. It’s almost worse in a way because people feel like they can’t say anything directly about it because they’ll be blacklisted for jobs or sales opportunities. Which is absolutely the truth! They WILL be.
I have been paid less for every single position in this business I’ve had than my male counterparts. I have been offered less opportunity, my opinions are undervalued, I have to “prove” why my opinions are right rather than be automatically seen as a professional.
I have doubted my own value or expertise because of it. I’ve held myself back because of it. I’ve been black-listed by men in the industry who got mad because I asked for professionalism or complained to my bosses about them.
Wine shops, wine buyers, and fellow sales professionals have sanctioned sexual harassment and revenge for reporting it. Everything you can think of has happened.
I know for an absolute fact that almost every single woman I’ve met in this business has had the same thing happen to them. They would probably never tell you about it because of the fear of backlash, or even worse, because they have been beaten down so much they start to believe it themselves. I could go on but I think we all already know it.
How can we as women become aware of our prejudice and change our behavior?
In my response to the last question I mentioned that many women have started to believe the crap that men have beaten in to our brains., even subconsciously.
I can say I have probably been victim to that myself. In my opinion, the key to change is that we all need to treat other women as allies and build them up at every opportunity we get. That includes mentoring people, even if it’s your competitor or they are going out for the same job as you! At the end of the day, you get what you give.
Simply be kind, honest, and forthcoming with women you work with about everything. Tell them if they messed up and how they might fix it. Ask for their advice. Don’t be petty. Realize we are a team and when one person is oppressed we all bare the brunt of that.
Say hello! How many of us have not taken the opportunity to just introduce ourselves at industry events? I mean, the list is long, but at the end of the day the Golden Rule is the best medicine.
When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women?
Women have better communication skills, better organizing skills, better interpersonal skills, and better palates! I mean, what else is there in the wine biz that you need? We are naturally suited to it. The more of us there are- the more the industry will benefit.
What change do you hope to see in regards to women in the wine industry in the next five years?
Where do I start? More women in management, more women in positions of power, paid maternity leave, equal pay, more respect, less sexual harassment, more female wine makers, more female viticulturists, more female harvest employees, higher incomes, better insurance, less age discrimination for older women, less superficiality, etc, etc etc.
What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?
I say it all the time. Believe in your value and talent. Don’t be a victim to the imposter syndrome. Be humble at the same time and don’t be scared to ask questions that you think will make you look stupid. Work your ass off. Get a thicker skin. Ask for more money! Men always do.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
When buyers and sellers alike stop acting like women aren’t experts and they are just secretaries then maybe we’ve made a teensy bit of headway.
What ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?
I try my best to support other women by recommending them for jobs and connecting them to important people that could help them. We really need to develop a “Good-ol’-Gal” system in this business. Who wants to start it with me!?
What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?
A woman who takes her job seriously. Being the best at the job she is currently in and setting the example for women that will come up after her. Paving the way for other women and making the men scramble to keep up!
What other women of wine do you admire and why?
If I started listing all the women I’d need a book. I’ll try to list one woman for every position in the biz that I think are some of the best at what they do.
Wine maker: Francoise Le Calvez of Chateau Coupe Roses
Cellar master: Leah Dorin of LIOCO
Wine maker/owner: Emily Virgil of Trailmarker
Harvest Intern and now Broker: Lauren Luquet of Luquet Wine Co
Imports: Debra Lewis of Vintage 59
Distribution guru: Melanie Wiltz of Massanois Imports
Wine buyer: Lauren Wiethe of Deps
Portfolio manager/Sales/Sales Manager/Partner!: Liz Willette of Natural Wine Co
Brokerage Royalty: Denise Erlich of Renaissance Wines
Spirits Royalty: Audrey Fort of The Rooster Factory
Sales person of the century: Kristie Delovitch of Wine Bow