Women's History Month - Career paths and advice from women in the drinks industry

To celebrate International Women's Day - and Women's History Month - Drinks Retailing has spoken to women across the trade about how they got started in their career and what advice they would give to others hoping to follow a similar path. 

Dawn Davies, buying director, Speciality Drinks (pictured top left)

Whilst I always say my career has been down to a lot of luck, a lot of being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people, I would also have to say that I have worked incredibly hard throughout my life. I have always had an interest in food and drink, so a career in the drinks industry just felt like the right path for me to take. I started in bars and then went to restaurants, finally landing in retail as a buyer. I have loved every minute of my journey and I have been incredibly fortunate to have had so many men and women support and give me their knowledge over the years. As a woman, especially when I was just starting out when we were very much in the minority, you had to: work harder, play faster and be stronger than your colleagues. I have been consistently underpaid in comparison to my male counterparts and at times not taken seriously because of my sex.

My advice would be make your own path, listen to your own heart and fight for your position and pay. Don’t be afraid to be heard, your voice is as important as anyone else’s no matter what your position. Be opinionated, don’t be afraid to say no but at the same time be open and supportive to those around you. At the end of the day, I don’t want to be judged on whether I am male or female. I want to be judged on how good I am at my job, I am not a female buyer, I am just a buyer.  

 Hannah Tovey, event director, London Wine Fair

Initially I planned to pursue psychology at degree level. When decision time came, my desire to be fluent in an additional language turned out to be the strongest pull and I opted for French.

My immediate and extended family have always had a very keen interest in wine, with some of them working in the industry (import to the UK) and separately my uncle studying wine to diploma level “just for fun”. When the time came to choose where to live for my year abroad, I made a strong case for Bordeaux. I came back to the UK in 1999 with my own passion for wine ignited. I was just completing my finals when a job advert in the one of the UK broadsheets entitled “A Very Fine Vintage” grabbed my attention. Decanter was hiring for an admin assistant, ideally with languages. I stayed at Decanter for several very formative years.

In the 20 years following I have worked in commercial roles on several of the leading trade and consumer wine titles, also co-founded Imbibe magazine and exhibition which I ran for eight years. I then freelanced for a handful of years, part-time, managing consumer wine events and consulting on drinks titles, whilst having my two children.

Four years ago I took on my current role. This calls on every single one of the skills I have acquired over a two decade career in wine, sales and managerial roles. 

I would say that studying languages initially is a great way to reduce barriers and create a springboard into any global industry. I’ve also found languages to be a real asset in my personal life, opening up otherwise off-radar conversations and opportunities. Living overseas as a young adult definitely increases confidence and for me it created a taste for more travel and adventure, both of which sit well in the wine industry. A majority of the wine trade professionals I meet share the same passion for travel, culture and people (along with wine!) and it’s not uncommon for many to have started their career journey with languages.

Joanne Moore, master distiller, Quintessential Brands (pictured bottom right)

I started my career in the industry in 1996 and sometimes describe myself as an accidental distiller, as I didn’t set out to become a master distiller. Having just graduated with a biochemistry degree, I began working at G&J Distillers. Twenty-five years later, I’m still here! My first role was in the quality control department, where I learned about the production process, from raw ingredients through to distillation and bottling. Part of the role involved product development, and this led me into the wonderful world of botanicals and creating gins. I discovered a real passion and talent for creating gins, which the company recognised. When our sixth master distiller retired in 2006, I was honoured to be made only the seventh master distiller at G&J Distillers since 1761, and the first woman to be given the role.

There are definitely more women in the spirits business in general, but we still have a way to go to be seen as a truly diverse industry – if you have that interest in the industry,  go for it. Be passionate about your product and be mindful to have balance between work and life. Be a happy distiller. 

Vaani VetriKo, co-founder of Neitiv coconut flower beer

Growing up in an Asian household, it is imprinted in our minds that alcohol, mainly beer, is an unethical drink for women. Beer is perceived in my cultural background as an immoral drink which is something I wanted to change. This mindset drove me and my husband to revive an ancient drink called ‘Callu’ (coconut flower wine). Our motive was to revive and renew this drink and make it readily available around the world. I wanted to create a beer that satisfies my taste buds and one I could enjoy with no bitter taste. I also wanted to promote a healthier relationship between beer and consumers by practicing mindful drinking.

I am proud of every aspiring female entrepreneur for their undertakings. My advice is; don’t be afraid to take the leap. Combat your self-doubt by turning your emotions into the fire that fuels your success. Be ready to stand your ground when you make decisions. You can’t satisfy everybody so make sure you are happy with what you are doing and do what feels right for you. Naysayers will pop up along the way - you must learn how to cope with this. Sadly, there is an obvious lack of diversity in the drinks industry worldwide. I am confident that the slogan on our bottles ‘Coconut Flower Beer For Women’ will play a significant role in cultivating change and pave the way by encouraging more women from diverse communities to consider a journey in the drinks industry.

 Jana Post, co-founder, Forest Wines (pictured top right)

After years of working in the city, I was really looking to follow my passion and use all the experiences I gained working in different jobs. Running a small business gave me the flexibility I needed while raising two small children, plus working close to home was really important. 

And the advice I would give is - get stuck in and make the most out of everything. I have learned so many new skills and met people who are passionate about what they do. There's something new to learn every day and you need to be open to adjust, change and try new things. 

Sophie Lord, wine buyer, Virgin Wines

I come from a family who loves wine – it was always part of the evening meal or a celebration with loved ones. I joined Virgin Wines shortly after graduating university, knowing very little about different wines but with an enthusiasm to try different ones. By working with other people who were equally passionate about wine, and where I was able to learn more from those around me and embark upon my WSET studies, I gradually gained more confidence and knowledge. Fifteen years later, I feel extremely lucky to have a job that I love, that affords me the opportunity to travel the world trying an array of great wines, and to share my passion with others.

If I had any advice for other women, it would be don’t be afraid to ask for what you want - and make the most of every opportunity which comes your way. I really do believe that you make your own luck in life.

Nicola Allison, winemaker, Château du Seuil

I have been working in the wine industry for over 20 years and perhaps the main challenge, and true for women in all businesses, was juggling children with travel and out-of-hours commitments. 

My advice would depend on which part of the drinks industry you want to join - my role was running a vineyard and I would say to anyone whether they are male or female, it is key to be able to multitask, think outside the box and enjoy meeting new people. Of course, you need to have a passion for wine, too.

Emily Revell - PR and outreach manager, Virgin Wines

After completing a law degree, I decided the legal sector wasn’t for me and took a job working for a publishing company. There, I ended up working as a commercial features writer with a focus on restaurant reviewing and food and drink content. After a couple of years, I moved over to branding, PR and communications. Firstly, working for a cancer charity as a branding and communications coordinator, before moving to a PR manager role at an agency specialising in home and interiors. It was during my time there that I was approached by Virgin Wines to take on the role of PR and outreach manager in April 2021. It hasn’t been long, but I have enjoyed my first 10 months in the drinks industry. 

Virgin Wines puts staff through the WSET Level 2 Award in Wines, which was great as it gave me a strong understanding of the wine basics from the get-go. I’d say take any role you can within the industry, as it’s a foot in the door, and continue to learn about the areas that interest you. It’s a very fun industry to work in. 

Collette O’Leary - head winemaker, Henners 

Winemaking can be a male-dominated environment, and on occasion I have felt the need to work harder and longer to prove my value and gain respect in the winery. However, there is nothing that cannot be overcome in the cellar, and as a woman, I have often had fresh ideas and alternative perspectives on how to get things done. I have always felt at ease in the cellars I have worked in and now as a winemaker at an English winery, I am really heartened by the number of female winemakers, vineyard managers and owners working across the industry. Women are working in every aspect of UK grape growing and winemaking and I believe this brings much needed balance, insight, and different perspectives to the wine industry.

There are so many opportunities for women to learn, travel, do vintages and get involved in wine that I would recommend the wine industry to anyone. My best advice would be to get in touch with people working in different aspects of the industry, invite them for a glass of wine and pick their brains. You never know where that glass of wine might lead you.

Laura Davies, general manager, distilleries, Penderyn (pictured bottom left)

I joined Penderyn 10 years ago. Fresh from university following a degree in forensic science with criminology, I started looking for my ‘dream job’. The role at Penderyn was advertised anonymously, with no company name and with contact via a PO Box (if you advertise a role within the whisky industry, unsurprisingly, you’re swamped with applications, many completely unsuitable). I took a chance and applied, thinking it would ‘do for now’. A few weeks later, I found myself sitting at a table with the directors of Penderyn, and Dr Jim Swan – a world-renowned expert in whisky. As if that pressure wasn’t enough, I was then given an assessment – nosing 10 glasses containing a range of different liquids, from cleaning products to spices. Happily, I passed the test and joined the team as a distiller. Ten years later and I’m now general manager for distilleries, overseeing all aspects of our distillery operations across two (soon to be three) sites.

To those women who want to follow in my path, my first bit of advice would be to believe in yourself, and, even when you’re not sure if you believe in yourself, try anyway. If you don’t try, you definitely won’t achieve what you’re looking for, but if you try, you’ve at least got a chance. My second piece of advice would be not to wait for someone else to put you where you want to be – put yourself there, demonstrate that you can do what you need to do.

Lynsey Reid, head of digital, and gender taskforce lead, Heineken UK

In the last 24 months, we have made real progress towards a more inclusive and diverse Heineken. Reflecting on the last year, as leader of the gender taskforce, I am particularly proud of the launch of our Women and Allies Network, a company wide network of men and women, who are all supporting our ambitions for gender balance, the introduction of a gender dashboard which helps functions use data to understand where the opportunity is for more balance, and the launch of Safe Space, a forum for colleagues to reach out to for support should they ever feel uncomfortable at work or in trade. However I am most proud of the conversations that I hear every day. In the last 12 months I have heard colleagues openly discuss gender equality in townhalls, one-to-ones, roundtables and team meetings. These conversations will lead to better understanding, which is key to real progression. 

Alex Robson, founder and CEO of West End Drinks

Have a clear idea of what you want to achieve and what your goals are while being flexible to adapt to any situation. It’s incredibly important for anyone trying to start a business to build relationships and friendships within the industry. Above everything else you have to remember to have fun because it is hard, very hard. It’s 80% hard work and 20% fun.

Emily Faulconer, head winemaker, Viña Carmen

I had always been attracted to working in the wine industry, despite being raised by a family with no wine connections in a region that does not grow grapes. I moved into the wine industry after studying agricultural engineering at the Universidad Catolica de Chile, but this business is about more than just making wine – it is a career invested in the countryside, places and people working with an agricultural product with historical traditions. It captivated me completely and became fundamental in my life, wine is very much something that brings people together. 

We traditionally celebrate IWD at Viña Carmen with the whole team. We sit down and share the experiences of women who work in different areas of the business, where we come from and what we have achieved. Our main objective is to encourage women to make their mark in whichever aspect they are involved in, progressing equality, freedom, and opportunities. Obviously, we finish with a good glass of wine. 

Cara Gilbert, distillery manager, Tobermory Distillery

I graduated with a biological science degree and initially thought I would go into teaching, but quickly realised my passion lay in biological engineering and the manipulation of microorganisms into alcohol. So, I decided to do a master’s degree in brewing and distilling before moving on to work in a distillery as a process support, based in a lab. After finding my true calling, I then secured a job at Bunnahabhain on the world-famous whisky island of Islay, which was an excellent way to immerse myself in the workings of a distillery. It was then that I moved over to the beautiful island of Mull to live onsite at Tobermory distillery which was an absolute dream come true. This is where I was promoted to distillery manager, less than five years after joining the spirits sector, and I feel so honoured to be one of the youngest distillery managers in the world. 

My advice would be to always say yes to opportunities that you think are exciting and challenging. If you have your eyes set on a role or opportunity, find out and plan the route that works best for you.

 Julieann Fernandez, master blender, Bunnahabhain, Tobermory, Deanston Distillery

 My journey to master blender was probably quite different to most. I was always interested in forensic science and studied it at university, but during a placement year at Chivas Brothers, I entered into a whole new sector which introduced me to the world of spirits. I realised my passion lay in the sensory and chemical impact of distilling, gaining valuable experience in everything from working with raw materials to the art of maturation. This led me to a dream role at Distell International as their assistant blender working mainly in the labs, before moving up the ranks to master blender for Bunnahabhain, Tobermory and Deanston distilleries. 

If I was to give one piece of advice on how to get into the whisky industry, I would say immerse yourself as much as you can. Join whisky clubs, come along to tastings and see what it’s like. The more you experience the community, the quicker you’ll fall in love with it. Social media is also a great way to reach out to others in the whisky industry for advice or to find out about the latest news and launches. 

Tatiana Fokina, CEO, Hedonism Wines

I came to the world of wine from luxury retailing when I was 22 and to be honest, I found the industry very intimidating. However, the fact that it was so male dominated back then (this was over a decade ago) was also a great motivation. I was hugely inspired by other women who were driving change in such a historically conservative field: Serena Sutcliffe, Laura Catena, Nicole Rolet, to name a few. Some of the most creative, hard working and passionate people in the industry are women and as there are more and more of them it is certainly becoming more dynamic and modern.

Don’t be intimidated if you are sometimes the only female in the room, use it as motivation. It is one of the most wonderful industries to work in: stable in some ways, but ever-changing in others. I believe in seizing opportunities if they present themselves and not being phased if something has not been done before and seems too ambitious. 

Caterina Mastella, owner and marketing director, Villa Della Torre 

Working in the world of wine is a source of joy as well as a challenge. Every day I try to listen, to understand how people meet and talk about wine; what tools they use to do that, and in what physical and digital spaces. They are the modern ‘piazzas’ of today, where we women commit our energies, living and working. It is also where – to paraphrase Hannah Arendt – we can also create instants of virtuous politics.

The joy is therefore in engaging with different worlds and generations, and of ‘reading’ our time through the medium of wine. The challenge is to understand the direction in which these worlds are moving, trying to understand them, sometimes to anticipate them, and sometimes to accept them. This is the advice that I feel I can give to women who are now embarking on this path: to keep their eyes open as they survey the general mix of factors, remaining attentive to diversity, sustainability and beauty.

Lucie Parker, trade director, Jeroboams 

I chose wine as an industry because it combined so many interesting subjects – languages, science, creativity, human eccentricity.  Nobody ever promotes sales as a career when you’re thinking about what to do but it’s a rewarding, varied job with interesting career progression especially in sales which give you a strong commercial outlook.  With wine, you have opportunities to learn and travel, and you will meet some seriously interesting characters.  

I never had a planned out career path and have just followed my gut and my interests, which has mostly worked out, and the times where it hasn’t I learned about my own resilience and ability.  My advice to any women starting out would be to follow your instincts – if it feels right, it probably is right!  As wine is still quite a male dominated industry, learn to feel comfortable in that environment – you don’t need to apologise for behaving differently, you are different and that in itself is an asset.

Astrid Lewis, director, Spritz Marketing & PR

I’ve always worked around people, wine and food. First in hotels and restaurants in Australia, and then in the UK, in advertising, wine education, and marketing, communications and public relations. For the last 8 years, I’ve run my company Spritz Marketing & PR with my friend and business partner Elizabeth Cook, working with the most wonderful clients. While I feel very fortunate to be in this position, I also recognise it’s been a long journey with significant ups and downs. 

I look back at my younger self and wish I’d had the confidence to not let people treat you, or the people around you, badly or inconsiderately. Countless times, women (and others) are dismissed too quickly, judged too soon. Stand up for the voice at the table that is trying to speak, but is being drowned out by the louder ones. And, try and seek out good mentors who you can learn from as they will be your guides and your inspiration.

Tamra Washington, owner and winemaker, Kelly Washington Wines

I found my way into winemaking through my true love for science and history, which I wished to combine the with travel. Times have changed since I began my career, yet I still feel there are plenty of great opportunities for women who desire to work in wine, just like I had.

Be prepared to be super committed and work super hard in the early years - you will be rewarded. Be a sponge for information, and be inquisitive -don’t be afraid to ask questions. Believe in yourself and what you have to contribute, no matter who you are talking to.

Kim Wilson, founder and managing director, North South Wines

I had dreams of becoming a teacher, yet I decided against university after taking a telesales role with The Unique Pub Company. I stayed on because I took to the commercial environment so well. From there, I went on to work for Bulmers and then Carlsberg where I became a territory manager in the off-trade, looking after cash & carry and independent retailers. Luckily, I had an amazing manager at Carlsberg who taught me the tricks of the trade.

In 2006, I decided to look at the wine industry and took a role with South African company Arniston Bay. Jeremy Borg was running the UK business then, and gave me the job. I now represent him and his conservation brand Painted Wolf at North South Wines.

The advice I’d give any budding entrepreneur is to be prepared to work around the clock. Believe in yourself and give yourself the head space to think. Always keep on top of your cashflow – that’s vital.

Tough times will be easier with a good team around you. Your team will inspire you, drive you and make everything possible and worthwhile. Treat people the way you would like to be treated yourself. Above all – enjoy!

Maggie MacPherson, group buyer, Jeroboams

My interest in wine first started at university where I joined the Wine Society mostly a society which revolved around socialising and drinking appealed to me – classic student. However, turns out it was a great move, and I really enjoyed the learning (as well as the socialising and drinking) and famously once asking “can red wine be oaked?” much to the amusement of everyone there. However, turns out there really is no such thing as a stupid question, as having made that gaff pretty early on, I’ve never been afraid to ask for more clarity or extra information, so that’s my first bit of advice – don’t be afraid to ask questions – the more you understand the better equipped you are to progress.

My second bit of very boring advice is to take an excel course if you’re not comfortable using it. Buying sounds like a sexy job of tasting lots of wines, and there is some of that, but primarily its spreadsheets and costings – excel will be your best friend. In fact it was my excel competency rather than my wine knowledge which allowed me to first get a job in the wine industry.



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