• Queena Wong on impact of MW Gérard Basset funding 

    “Curious Vines’ approach to redressing the gender imbalance in the wine world is two-fold: not only do they provide high-quality education and academic support for women undertaking the highest level of wine qualifications; but they complement this by fostering a genuine community of women in wine.” Which is why The Gerard Bassett Foundation has just awarded Queena Wong, founder of Curious Vines, a Master of Wine support funding programme to help female candidates taking the exam. Here we talk to Queena Wong about the work Curious Vines does to bring women in wine together and how the new funding will help.

       

    “Curious Vines’ approach to redressing the gender imbalance in the wine world is two-fold: not only do they provide high-quality education and academic support for women undertaking the highest level of wine qualifications; but they complement this by fostering a genuine community of women in wine.” Which is why The Gerard Bassett Foundation has just awarded Queena Wong, founder of Curious Vines, a Master of Wine support funding programme to help female candidates taking the exam. Here we talk to Queena Wong about the work Curious Vines does to bring women in wine together and how the new funding will help.

       

    mm By January 13, 2023

    Curious Vines’ Queena Wong explains how she will be working with leading Masters of Wine to help ensure the funding support from the Gérard Basset Foundation will have a big impact on female wine professionals taking the MW exam.

    For those that don’t know you and Curious Vines can you give some background? 

    I personally am a wine enthusiast who also collects wine – something which is not common for a woman. However, I am also a champion for women in the wine industry helping them achieve their qualifications and also have created a diverse community of wine women which has an ethos of supporting others to nurture confidence and strength. It grows by word of mouth and also provides a platform to encourage women to promote themselves, their work or as a way to for other women in wine to influence their own gender biased spheres by finding more women to bring to their own arenas.

    When and why did you start Curious Vines?

    Queena Wong now has over 500 women from across the wine industry involved in Curious Vines

    Curious Vines has always been about gender bias in wine and has changed a lot since the name was created. I started looking at this arena when I had more time to devote to something outside of my family. The first iteration of the brand “Curious Vines” reflected my personal experiences in the fine wine consumer and collector world – I couldn’t understand why I was so often the only woman at a wine dinner and wanted to help that change. 

    After a few years of running events for professional women it was clear there was minimal impact on giving my merchant partners on the project new potential clients or increasing female purchasing. When Covid hit it stopped those events. Instead, I did some zooms with panels of industry friends on a topic with the aim to emotionally support my sommelier and on-trade friends all so lost stuck at home, while raising a little money and awareness for the Drinks Trust and Hospitality Action as the zooms were open to my consumer networks for a donation. 

    I stopped when the industry started to find ways to do professional content and send out samples. In March 2022 after the long Omicron lockdown, I organised a gals BYOB for some industry friends and told them to invite their pals. The demand was phenomenal – a full room of 50 women came with a waitlist of 20. This was repeated two months later with the same long waitlist and then a bigger venue found for a third gathering of 70 women in July. 

    At this point I could not ignore the demand and so I have allowed it to organically grow and morph into what it is now – currently 520 women contributing content themselves to a regular newsletter of support and encouragement with the backbone of in person events and gatherings which is where it all began.

    What steps have you been able to take so far with Curious Vines in terms of membership and mentoring and building a community of women in the wine sector?

    Women working in the wine industry can join the community at any time – they just need to send me an email with where they work and job title (or advise if freelance/consultant) and they have to believe in the female space understanding to use it as a platform, contributing to it or giving support to others. 

    There is no marketing for it and is organically growing by word of mouth. The community is driving its growth and the mentoring happens naturally as I bring women into a room or when someone asks for help. If someone needs something they can use the newsletter to appeal and it has never failed to give willing support from among us. 

    The space is so safe that it provides an environment where women can be vulnerable and ask for support freely. This is where some of the greatest work has happened – scared new students of the MW came forward and I asked other students to step forward so they could be connected together to form their own student support network . I have encouraged them to invite any male students they find too into their student network as a way to be leaders and be inclusive – the male students need support too and have as much to offer. 

    I also asked Stage 2 students to come forward to offer a chat with a newbie which calmed nerves for many and took away some anxieties. Curious Vines is a platform for the community to use and to also give back in so many ways.

    What sort of network do you now have – in terms of the backgrounds of women who are taking part and signing up?

    The network is magic. Any woman whose job touches wine can join – and they have. Trade, sommeliers, marketing, brand ambassadors, writers, educators, PR, journalists, influencers, buyers, sales, research…just everything. Today I had someone who is an expert in excise join up. This diversity is interesting for the women to meet people they normally wouldn’t and also provides incredible opportunities for business synergies and provides a wealth of knowledge and experience to access.

    Is it aimed more at wine professionals versus consumers?

    This is aimed at people working in the industry. Though wine professionals are great consumers too.

    How did the Gérard Basset Foundation support come about – how did you agree the funding?  

    Queena Wong announces the new Gérard Basset Foundation funding on her Instagram page

    The Gérard Basset Foundation had a process where organisations can apply for funding. They have a panel which decides the organisations that will be awarded funding and how much. I just went for it as it didn’t hurt.

    What does the MW support actually entail?

    The Curious Vines MW Support Programme awards are as follows:

    • Six Hours of One-to-One Tuition – Two Awards
    • Practical Paper Tuition – Six Awards
    • May Blind Tasting Bootcamp – Two Awards

    In total there are 10 awards with details more below.

    You are working with some MWs who are offering their time and support – who are they and what are they doing?

    Martin Hudson MW will be providing the Practical Paper Tuition which will be three in-person sessions of mini papers with 4 wines. The feedback and discussion on these will be important to help award winners understand what will help achieve marks for the exams. These 6 award winners will also gain a seat at the May Blind Tasting Bootcamp.

    Martin joined the wine trade in 2002 full-time with Oddbins, having already passed the WSET level 4 Diploma exams.  In 2003 he joined Berry Bros & Rudd, initially in their retail outlet, but subsequently became involved in wine education for both staff and customers, and latterly was also a member of the wine buying team. In 2008 he became an MW and has since acted as a judge in international wine awards and is involved in the MW education programme.

    In 2015 Martin’s wife persuaded him to take early retirement and move to the seaside at Bournemouth, Dorset. He continues to do consumer tastings and consultation to the trade and hospitality.

    Lenka Sedlackova MW and Natasha Hughes MW form the May Blind Tasting Bootcamp team – two 12 wine practical papers will be conducted in exam conditions in one day. This is to work on stamina and concentration for the actual exam.

    Last year’s Curious Vines Bootcamp MW workshop hosted by Natasha Hughes MW and Lenka Sedlackova MW

    Natasha has been a freelance wine and food writer, consultant and educator since 2001. She is a panel chair for IWC and has judged at competitions around the world, while also deeply involved with the IMW education programme.

    Lenka is a Czech MW with a special love for Greek and Spanish wines. She is senior brand manager at Bancroft Wines. Previous to that, she managed agencies for Berry Bros & Rudd. In her spare time she lectures about wine and judges at international wine competitions. Lenka was the first to back me with support alongside Sarah Abbott MW at the inaugural Bootcamp 2021 during Covid.

    Natasha will also be fulfilling the One-to-One Tuition with her educator hat – these hours will be tailored to the individual and used for anything from theory or even how to plan studies to maximise chances of passing exams. These two award holders will also gain a seat to the Practical Paper Tuitions and the May Blind Tasting Bootcamp.

    What stage of the MW process would you say the funding is best aimed at? 

    It is beneficial for all stages. Stage 1 students still need to pass a practical tasting paper as well as a theory paper – you need to get through all stages to get the qualifications.

    People can email me for an application form at queena@curiousvines.co.uk. Like a job application, they will require to provide some education and work history. However, the clincher will be a personal statement and reference – so don’t leave it too late. Intelligent humans are not all the same so I am sure it is going to be a difficult task to decide the awards.

    Why did you want to get funding for MW backing in particular? 

    The Foundation’s primary mandate is to fund education. The MW was the first on my list given that I had already been running bootcamps with the help of MW expertise during Covid when women appealed to me to help their blind tasting exams as all professional tastings had been called off. It seemed a natural progression.

    How are your personal ambitions both for Curious Vines and for your own career? 

    Curious Vines and I are one and the same. The dream has always been to make a difference somewhere in the world – I wish to lead by example in how to support and collaborate with others to make actual changes to gender bias. If everyone helps each other then things will happen much faster. I encourage everyone to forget any natural competitive tendencies and to bring other women with you if you manage to get through a “door”. I can only try and show people how effective it is to be a supporter of others. This is about making change.

    Hannah Milnes, aka @the.british.bouchon, hosting one of Curious Vines’ Workshops for Educating Broader Skills

    How would you describe your own personal overall experiences being a woman working in the wine industry? 

    There has been ups and downs. I have had to do more to prove my validity and have dealt with my fair share of sexual harassment. I appeared out of nowhere from family life several years ago and it has taken many years to find a space where I was not patronised or dismissed. 

    I may be middle aged and have looked after my children for a big chunk of my life, however, you’d be surprised at the assumption made that perhaps I was not intelligent and that I didn’t know anything about wine – I had one gentleman actually say “We have talked about the children and holidays. So what else do I say to you?”. 

    I have been grateful for the people that encouraged me in the early days as a wine enthusiast, a collector and now also as a voice for women in the industry. It is heart-warming when men have stepped forward to offer help. The bar for me has definitely been much higher for me than my male peers in some arenas so I prefer to just find a way around it as there is no point banging on a door which is shut.

    What would you like to see the sector do more to better support and promote better diversity? 

    I actually would love for the industry to create its own diversity organisation. Initiatives like mine and Be Inclusive Hospitality under Lorraine Copes (which focuses on racial equity) will become more effective if the wine industry can make commitments to work towards diversity among the workforce and importantly how to overcome the challenges that people may face over a career. 

    For women it is such things as pregnancy, having family or elderly parents and even things like menopause. Some of these are more difficult in an industry which involves alcohol, and which is male dominated. Retention of staff is key to ensure good talent and the work on diversity is not wasted and given to other industries.

    Anything else you would like to say?

    A female only space is not for everyone though I feel it is necessary while trying to 

    make changes to give women confidence and strength while the gender ratios are still tough to deal with at the work place. I’m not anti-man – it is pro-woman. Some of my events men can attend – your female colleagues and friends hopefully will invite you along. 

    If they don’t, perhaps it means they still wish to have as many women around them at these events. The dream of course is that one day we will have made a new world in wine where women will no longer need these spaces.

     

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