It is 20 years since Laura Jewell, European head of Wine Australia, was first able to put the ‘MW’ letters after her name. As she prepares to co-host tomorrow’s Australian Women in Wine Awards she reflects on how education has played such an important role in not only her own career, but in creating a level playing field for women in general to be so successful in the global wine industry.
This week the Australian Women in Wine Awards will celebrate how well women are doing in the Australian wine industry, but for Wine Australia’s Laura Jewell MW it is also an opportunity to shine the light on the wine industry as a whole as a great career for women.
Much has been made in recent weeks and months about the ongoing discrepancies in business in general that lie between men and women when it comes to job opportunities, promotions and being paid an equal salary.
The wine industry is arguably no different to any other when it comes to fair play as well as fair pay in the work place. Not that we can say that for sure.
Any generalisations, however, about how well or not the wine industry is doing in offering a level playing field for men and women are exactly that. Generalisations. Businesses are not held BBC-like to release details on how much they pay their staff. But what we do know is that women make up 44% of the UK drinks industry across all roles, including hospitality.
But there is one area of the trade where we can be pretty sure there is no discrimination. Education.
Education, education, education
The wine industry is pretty rare in the world of grocery retailing to place such an importance on education and qualifications as part of its recruitment criteria.
Yes, you need to know your way around a fermentation tank in order to be able to make a quality, sellable and safe bottle of wine. But increasingly you also need to know about everything from wine production, to wine marketing in order to be able to work in the industry full stop.
Having a WSET certificate on your CV is arguably more important than any degree or A levels you might have got. The more wine certificates and accreditations you get on your CV then the more chance you have of moving up the wine career ladder.
Clearly you need to have a bit more about than you just a WSET diploma, but it will certainly help get more than one foot through the door.
The statistics are all going in the right direction. In the 1970s only 10% of the WSET diploma graduates were women, and only 10% of MW were women and there were no female Master Sommeliers. Between 2010 and 2017, 42% of WSET diploma graduates are women, and the number of women passing the MW and MS exams now sit at 48% and 18% respectively.
Becoming an MW
Laura Jewell MW, European head of Wine Australia, is well placed to assess how important education now is in the wine industry. This year marks the 20th anniversary from when Laura Jewell first became a Master of Wine.
It is highly appropriate that she is marking that achievement by helping to co-host the latest edition of the Australian Women in Wine Awards with an awards ceremony on September 26 at Australia House in London followed by trade tasting featuring the women winemaker finalists.
It is the first time the event is being held outside of Australia, which is an achievement in itself, but the fact it will be the biggest gathering of Australian women winemakers anywhere in the world is another major coup.
Jewell says the event is important in two ways. Yes, it recognises the abilities of lots of very talented women, but it also shines the spotlight on winemaking and viticulture as a possible career opportunity for women in general. A career that, to date, too many wine have chosen either not to join, or have left too early in their career.
She hopes the awards, which are being broadcast live around the world on the internet, will put wine as a career firmly in the spotlight.
She explains: “We will have close to 60 Australian women winemakers over, possibly more, representing 51 wineries from over 20 wine regions. Part of the strategy of the awards is to encourage more women to stay in the wine trade as viticulturists and winemakers and look to create mentors for others to look up to.”
It is that leadership role that she is particularly keen to foster.
For as well as the awards to celebrate women’s success in winemaking the event will also include a debate, at 5pm, featuring leading women in different roles across the UK wine industry. Including Ruth Yates who has built up her own small chain of independent wine merchants, Corks Out, in the north west: Christine Parkinson, head of wine buying at the international Hakkasan restaurant group; Luciann Flynn who has helped establish Liberty Wines’ as one of the country’s biggest national distributors; Sarah Ahmed, aka The Wine Detective, successful wine writer and communicator; and Laura Jewell herself.
Noticeably the debate will also include Ian Harris, chief executive of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, who has done so much to bring wine education to the masses, men and women, around the world.
Mentors for next generation
Jewell is keen to stress that this is not some sort of “bra burning” crusade, but more an opportunity to demonstrate and promote the big changes that have taken place in the wine industry during her own career, and lay the ground work for the next generation.
“I have been in the trade for 30 years and it has changed enormously. Women are also doing such a wider range of jobs including more technical and buying roles,” says Jewell.
“We have really seen the major retailers embrace women in senior buying roles. I have been fortunate in my own career because of that. When I started at Tesco in 2010 all the major retailers had women in charge of brand development. We are also now seeing so many more women sommeliers. Lots of the heads of generic wine bodies and PR companies are also women. I think in this country it is very positive.”
She hopes the examples being set, and the stories being created by the Australian Women in Wine Awards, can help not only encourage more women in to the winemaking part of the industry, but raise the profile of wine as a career to all women.
Particularly in a country like Australia where the industry is still male dominated, concedes Wine Australia.
Jewell is confident events like this awards ceremony will help those taking part to share their experiences and offer encouragement to others.
She certainly remembers the time she found out she had become an MW. It was during her time working at wine distributor, Waverley Vintners, in Scotland and she had to wait three days for the letter with the all important news to arrive.
Thankfully her boss at the time was happy to wait to do her job appraisal until after the MW letter had arrived.
Jewell she was lucky to be working for a business as encouraging and supportive as Waverley at the time. “There was a real culture there to have the ambition to try and do the MW.”
Judged on knowledge
Not surprisingly Jewell is a big supporter of wine education in the trade. “You are being judged on your knowledge. It opens doors and levels the playing field. It is something I would encourage everyone in the trade to do. It has nothing to do with gender.”
She admits that at times the trade can be guilty of getting “bogged down in product knowledge” and could certainly do with more business skills, particularly when it comes to sales and negotiation. Which is why she is such a supporter of the WSET’s annual Business and Commercial Knowledge Course.
Jewell has also helped to bring more commercial aspects in to the MW exam and has for the last 11 years been panel chair for the business of wine paper.
“Understanding the lead times involved in making wine is important. If you are doing a contract for a wine then it has to be planned at least a year in advance,” she says.
Experience and knowledge she was able to glean during her retail buying and wine development roles at Sainsbury’s, Spar and most recently Tesco.
A time when she was responsible for handling – and blending – millions of litres of wine from around the world. In fact, blending own label wine, she argues, is a skill much harder than the trade appreciates. “It is an art that I was very fortunate to be taught,” she says. “It has given me great pleasure being able to blend together millions of litres of wine,” she says.
Jewell says she is very happy to help and advise people in the trade whenever possible. As she knows how much help she received along the way.
Working with Angela Muir MW, she says, was instrumental in developing her skills and appreciating how much you need to understand logistics and shipping as much as you do the actual working with the wine.
She also mentions the influence and support of Allan Cheesman, whilst at Sainsbury’s, Christopher Carson during his Constellation days, Hatch Mansfield’s Patrick McGrath MW and Dan Jago during their time at Tesco.
Opportunities for Australia
Jewell’s background certainly gives her a rounded perspective on opportunities and challenges facing the Australian wine industry in the UK.
She says she is particularly encouraged by a “better balance” of wine now coming to the UK between bulk and bottled. Bulk might still dominate at close to 80%, but plays a very important role in helping to develop retail own label. Going forward she can see a “huge upsurge” in interest for bag in box wine.
The UK, she stresses, is still Australia’s biggest market by volume, and third by value.
“We are still getting strong interest from producers looking to get distribution in the UK. It is still seen as the market that leads the way in terms of trends and what you achieve here can be transferred to other markets. Like last year’s Artisans of Australian Wine tasting we held in London which has earlier this month taken place in San Francisco and New York. We still have so many of the world’s big influencers here too. Things are all pointing in the right direction.”
Starting tomorrow at the Australian Women in Wine awards.
- For a full line up of the finalists in the Australian Women in Wine awards and the trade tasting then click here.
- You can watch the live feed of the awards on September 26 by clicking here. The awards will be presented from 10am.