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Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2024: Deborah Brenner — Making the Wine Business Safer and More Inclusive

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By Kathleen Willcox 

 

Deborah Brenner built her career on creating spaces for and celebrating women in places where, while they weren’t necessarily unwelcome, they certainly weren’t a notable force. Today she finds herself as the founder and head of not just one but three organizations pushing for greater safety and inclusivity in the wine space. It’s an outcome that makes sense though it was, in many ways, not expected.

“When I was working in the tech and film industry, I would take trips to Napa and Sonoma to explore the wineries I’d grown to love,” Brenner recalls. “To my surprise, it turned out that most of the wines I connected with were made by women.”

This was in the early aughts, when, Brenner says, “brands weren’t necessarily highlighting the stories of the people behind them.”

Hailing from male-dominated industries herself, Brenner felt a kinship with these women, and decided to tell their stories. In 2006, she published “Women of the Vine: Inside the World of Women who Make, Taste, and Enjoy Wine”; the book served as an unexpected catalyst for a much bigger conversation about the role of women in the industry. The female vintners she profiled, including Heidi Peterson Barrett of La Sirena and Gina Gallo, discussed the challenges faced not just by women, but women of color in wine. 

“Writing that book did it for me,” Brenner recalls. “I transitioned to working in wine and worked in just about every capacity you can think of, on- and off-premise. And throughout, I’d be approached by women who would say, ‘Hey, I’m a woman of the vine too! How can we connect and join forces?’”

After hearing that question posed again and again for almost a decade, Brenner knew she had to do more than “just” write a book. 

Founding a Movement That Drives Change 

In 2015, she organized the inaugural Women of the Vine Global Symposium. But rather than being exclusionary or an exclusive girl’s club, Brenner didn’t just welcome male attendees, she actively encouraged their participation. “We’re never going to change anything if it’s just women at the table,” Brenner says. 

At that first symposium, she also made the importance of broad diversity and inclusion foundational to Women of the Vine’s mission. The event featured sessions on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), well before that was de rigueur. Today, annual spending on DEI-related efforts sits at $7.5 billion globally, and is projected to reach $15.4 billion by 2026. 

The response and turnout were outstanding. But, perhaps predictably, those first 500 attendees wanted a permanent base camp for networking and outreach efforts. In response, “I created a year-round membership organization with the goal of empowering and equipping women to advance their careers, whether they worked in the cellar, tasting room or in any other wine-related field, from marketing to law,” Brenner says. 

Her original mission of bringing people together has since expanded on several fronts. Two years after creating a year-round membership organization, she launched a Foundation that would put the organization’s mission into action. “We wanted to give out scholarships to women in wine education,” Brenner says. “So far, we have given out more than 300 scholarships totaling $780,000 to people from 74 countries.”

In 2016, she expanded to include spirits and beer, and renamed the organization Women of the Vine & Spirits (WOTVS). Today, WOTVS has 11,000+ active members and 100+ corporations invested in membership.

“When a corporation joins forces with Women of the Vine & Spirits, it tells employees — and the industry, in general — that its organization supports inclusion and diverse leadership,” Brenner notes. “E&J Gallo contributes $100,000 to our foundation for scholarships annually, and it not only helps the recipients who might not be able to afford WSET or other classes otherwise, it also sends a huge message to the industry.”

Expanding the Vision

Erika Hopkins, corporate vice president and head of culture, social responsibility and DEI for Republic National Distributing Company, appreciates the way that WOTVS brings people from all corners of the industry together to work on something positive. 

I love the way Women of the Vines and Spirits exposes me to the different tiers and lets me learn from experts across the industry,” Hopkins says. “It encourages us to take off our competitor hats and come together for the greater good. This is very important to me. We will never fully realize the potential within our industry if we don’t collaborate and take collective action.”

That need for collective action was put into stark relief during the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements of recent years, Brenner says. 

“In 2020, when the Court of Master Sommeliers sexual harassment accusations emerged, and Black Lives Matter was showing all of us just how far we had to go, I knew we had to do something as an industry and an organization,” Brenner says. 

Brenner connected with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the largest nonprofit in the U.S. dealing with gender-based violence. “We hired them to customize sexual harassment training for the beverage alcohol industry specifically,” she says. 

The training is annual and, thanks to support from DISCUS [the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States] and WSWA [Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America], free for everyone. In March, WOTVS will launch a dedicated website and resource hub called 86harassment.com. 

Spotlighting Diversity

Brenner keeps pushing forward. In 2023, Brenner launched Diverse Powered Brands, a B2B digital catalog for diverse made, owned and led brands. “This will be a completely separate entity, and you don’t need to be a member of WOTVS to participate in Diverse Power Brands,” Brenner explains. “Suppliers will subscribe and can control how their story is told, and then buyers can go in and explore by variety, type of alcohol, low or no alcohol, and more.”

As of December 2023, more than 100 suppliers were on board, “with more being added every day,” Brenner says.

Women of the Vine & Spirits brought the industry together on inclusion and diversity. The foundation gave people access to opportunity. Diverse Powered Brands is poised to give more diverse brands a wider audience of buyers. 

Thanks to Brenner, all of those initiatives add up to a more diverse — and safer — tomorrow for all wine, spirits and beer lovers.  

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Kathleen Willcox

Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is keenly interested in sustainability issues, and the business of making ethical drinks and food. Her work appears regularly in Wine Searcher, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen also co-authored a book called Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox

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