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Wine Not Now?

Women forge their own wine trails into the industry

By Cynthia Adams

Photographs by Bert VanderVeen

In 1987, the Center for Creative Leadership’s Ann Morrison famously wrote about a confounding and confining glass ceiling: “The glass ceiling is a barrier so subtle that it is transparent; yet so strong that it prevents women from moving up the corporate hierarchy.”

Women working in the business of wine may find its ceiling shatterproof. Historically, the wine industry was and continues to be headlined by male names.

Yet half of female drinkers prefer wine over beer and spirits, and, when it comes to the work place, more choose the wine industry over other alcoholic beverage careers. No less than the venerable Wine Spectator acknowledges the archetypal wine drinker as “dominantly female.” 

If that’s the case, why are so few women in the wine industry, either at the helm or involved at a managerial level? Instead of trying to answer that question, perhaps it’s more productive to look at what women are bringing to the wine scene that might otherwise be missing and explore what impact women are having here in the Triad and Greensboro, where certified female sommeliers outnumber males.

“Men have a bigger voice,” says Julia Luce, who operates The Public House, a High Point business hosting private events and wine dinners. While not a sommelier, she has forged relationships with growers and suppliers. “Women are more polite,” she says. Luce seeks opportunities in nontraditional ways, such as wine classes and pairing events she develops herself. In a word, she says wine is “social.” Rather than cultivars, something she can also talk about endlessly, Luce has focused on cultivating a wine community of her own making. 

“Wine is about gathering people together. It is all about your food, your taste, friendships. The conversation. It’s never political or hostile. When you open a bottle of wine, it is over something good. If not celebratory, it’s a discussion. If wine was a person, wine would be a diplomat.”

The Public House grew out of Luce’s previous job. 

“In 2012, I worked for a French-Canadian furniture company — they loved wines. They created a commercial kitchen in their showroom and started doing dinners,” she says. “That building is now Earl’s Landing restaurant [in High Point.]”

There, Luce learned to present wines and create wine events. “Now, here I am.”

Stacey Land, vice president at 1618 Concepts, which owns 1618 West Seafood Grill and 1618 Midtown, has had a similarly circuitous route to becoming a female player in the Triad wine scene. Ascending to that role in 2020 from general manager and sommelier at 1618 Midtown, she had spent years working her way through the ranks from washing dishes, eventually becoming Greensboro’s second certified female sommelier via the Master Court of Sommeliers.

Land, who grew up in the food industry, was mentored by the first, Julia Hunt, an advanced sommelier at American Premium Beverage, formerly at Green Valley Grill, where they met.

(Certification requires candidates demonstrate advanced tasting skills and mastery of theory and service. There are various levels and attainments, one through five, with master sommelier the highest. Depending upon the source — and day — there are an estimated 273 worldwide master sommeliers and 164,000 certified sommeliers in the US. There are only a few accrediting bodies, including the famous Court of Master Sommeliers. Two other bodies, the National Wine School, and Wine & Spirit Education Trust, also certify sommeliers. The majority of working wine professionals industry wide are not actually sommeliers.)

Land joined 1618 in 2010. In 2021, she also earned a third level wine certification via the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.   

In the December 2017 issue of Seasons, Ross Howell Jr. wrote “Somm and Substance,” describing how Triad sommeliers, including Land, pursued the grueling path to certification. 

As with chefs, Land mentions, women in wine are the exception versus the rule. 

Once, Land “had dreams of being a writer and newspaper person.” Graduating from UNCG in 2004 with an English degree, she jokes, “It was like coming into the horse-and-buggy industry the year they invented cars.”

Returning to the restaurant world, Land bought into the former Grappa Grill, which soon closed in 2008.

“I had another crisis of am I in the right business?” 

Land flung herself into working full time at 1618 while prepping for — and passing — sommelier exams. “All of my certifications came within the last 12–13 years when working at [1618] West.” 

Left: Jennifer Talton & Julia Luce

She prepares wine lists and oversees the total guest experience, and fondly mentions 1618’s “Book Club,” their tongue-in-cheek monthly wine club, as a fun way to share wine knowledge. But professionally, she pays her knowledge forward by mentoring female and male colleagues seeking certification, like Hunt once did for her.

1618 colleague Evans Mack also grew up entrenched in the world of food, beverages and service. Now she is the restaurant’s second female sommelier. Land mentions her friend Jake Asaf, owner of Greensboro’s Lewis & Elm restaurant and Rioja! Wine Bar, who qualified as a sommelier at the same time she did.

Meanwhile, Luce has resumed monthly wine dinners halted by COVID. “Ju Ju’s Supper Club” is the latest venture offshoot of her business, partnering with Painted Plate Catering. (They restarted in February.)    

Wine dinners create a chain of opportunities for minorities working in the wine industry, Luce says, citing vineyard owners, an organic chef named Jennifer Talton, and a female wine importer. Luce maintains an office in Greensboro’s Fisher Park, decorated with plates signed by vineyard owners

“When you drink wine to enjoy, savor and pair it . . . that, to me, is to live,” says Luce. After all, she adds, “the French are living a long, healthy life because they do it — drink wine — with love and friendship.”

There are a number of other women earning a living in wine service in the Triad. In downtown Winston-Salem, Taylor Beal is one of three sommeliers at Katharine’s Bar & Brasserie, which opened in 2016. “I am the only female.” She earned her level one certification in 2019 through the Master Court, slowed by the pandemic. “I had COVID, which messed up my smell. I’m studying for level three.” 

Then there are wine shops and tasting rooms, such as longtime mainstay Zeto wine and specialty shop in downtown Greensboro, owned by Despina Demetriades and Su Peterson. 

Founded in 1999, Zeto has carved a niche with grapes that “are grown and produced mostly without chemicals or pesticides,” said Peterson in a televised interview. The shop features a Vinomatic, an automatic wine machine dispensing nearly 30 bottles for sampling, convenient for Zeto’s ongoing wine tastings and classes.

At least two other Greensboro tasting rooms have female owners. Alison Breen of the Tasting Room, and J’mihyia and Paris Whitsett of Marjae’s Wine Bar.

Sometimes, key players in the business of wine take lucrative, yet less visible, roles. “A team of women at Johnson Brothers wine distributors has worked together as wine reps since it was bought,” Land says. 

Left: Barbara Raffaldini

Middle: Evans Mack & Stacey Land

Right: Dr. Stephanie Bolton


Although approximately 200 wineries call North Carolina home, few statistics reveal how many women are at the helm or are involved on a managerial level. One is in the N.C. foothills at Raffaldini Vineyards, where Barbara Raffaldini, splits her life between running Raffaldini and a legal career.

In 2020, sister publication Seasons cover story featured Barbara, who co-owns the winery with Jay, her brother. “Fortune Favors the Bold,” discussed her dual careers as a winery owner and partner for an Illinois law firm. 

There remains an elephant in the tasting room. Something Land mentions over a glass of rosé at 1618’s wine bar in Midtown: whether women can hold their own in such a male-centric milieu.

Land worries that women, as an industry minority, struggle with imposter syndrome. She drops her voice. “I’ve been in this business for 20 plus years; if I don’t know how to do this, who does? Have I been faking this? No.”

The comment reflects what author Valerie Young presents in her research. Highly capable and accomplished women, Young writes, may wrestle with that, particularly in male-dominated fields. 

“You can have all the confidence in the world and still be reluctant to self-promote out of a steadfast belief that a person’s work should speak for itself. It doesn’t.”

To Young’s point, minorities in certain industries may also face unfounded criticism.

Quietly, Land says, “I think it’s in jobs that are male-dominated for so long. Think of women chefs. If you’re a professional woman in an industry that has been male dominated for so long . . . you feel that imposter syndrome.”

Worse, others may ask, “‘How did that woman get to the top of that field?’” 

That especially stings. Land’s father, who graduated from Napa’s Culinary Institute of America and remained in the restaurant field until his retirement, begged her not to follow him in the restaurant business. Now, she says proudly, he will call and ask her advice about wines.

Luce agrees that women struggle for a seat at the bar. “We are, industry wide, underrepresented.” 

A few years ago, I met Karen McNeil, author of The Wine Bible and a leading light in the wine world. She says, “The road up the mountain is long and sometimes confusing.”

Lesser known are women working in viticulture, the cultivation of grapes. One, Dr. Stephanie Bolton, is leading the way concerning safer and sustainable practices for growers from the rural heart of zinfandel country in Lodi, CA. 

A North Carolina native who once studied chemistry as an undergraduate at Wake Forest University, Bolton was recognized last August in Wine Enthusiast magazine’s “Future Forty” for her achievements in viticulture through her research and educational work at the Lodi Winegrape Commission. 

Now, her leadership and global initiatives with domestic and international wine growers extends as far as Israel, earning industry distinction.

“I can tell you that in general we are seeing more women get involved on the viticulture side of things, says Bolton. “It’s nice to have both the male and female perspectives in the wine industry positions — we all benefit from that.”

Bolton adds, “I can’t speak for all women, but I prefer wine as a drink of choice over beer and liquor because it transcends me to a time — the vintage — and place — the region it is from — while offering art, romance, history, education and elevating my dinner into a true feast for the senses. Even better when the wine was produced by a friend and I get to feel that special connection, too.”

Connections are key, as Luce suggests. Raise a glass while raising support, too, promoting fellow minorities who are gaining entrée to a once closed industry. 

Outliers, perhaps. Regardless, they are chipping away at the glass ceiling, proving it isn’t impervious after all.  OH

Spirits, Beer and Wine:

Chardonnay in the Brewery?

Two years ago, Fodor’s Travel writer Alex Temblador asked, “Why are there so few women in the spirits, beer and wine business?” 

The Distillers Association of North Carolina reports at present approximately 22 of 90 distilleries in our state are “owned, co-owned or managed by women.”

Meantime, women are forging inroads into brewery’s upper management. One example is Renee L’Heureux, who leads operations at Red Oak Brewery in Whitsett, N.C., including its Lager Haus and Biergarten.

Here, too, is an interesting acknowledgement of women as consumers of wine.  Although the brewery’s German-style beers have a dedicated following, their tasting room also offers a carefully curated wine list. During a week in mid-January, she says, their team spent hours reviewing wine offerings.


L’Heureux points out, “The industry standard is that 85 percent of wine drinkers at breweries are women.”

Why not offer a decent list, she asks?

Red Oak’s wine list is thoroughly considered, a pragmatic choice, she explains.