Denise Silverman - Executive Director for the Wine & Food Foundation based in Austin, TX
Updated: Aug 23, 2022
How many years have you been in the business? Tell us briefly about your background and your current position today.
My career started back home in NY in journalism/public relations. My hospitality career began when I moved to Austin in 2001 and opened my own event planning company, which grew into a full-service event production agency that I owned and operated for about 17 years. From there, I led sales & marketing efforts for another events company, and then accepted the role of Executive Director for the Wine & Food Foundation in June 2020.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
Prior to my role at WFF, I considered myself a budding wine enthusiast. Everything about wine was exciting to me. I always tried to pair vacations with wine regions and winery visits (pun intended). My particular “aha!” moments were while watching any movies (fiction or documentaries) about wine. I totally nerded out on wine movies! (And still do!)
What is the most rewarding part of what you do?
For me, it’s all about fostering and supporting our community. WFF’s mission is to cultivate and invest in the wine and food community through education, appreciation, and enjoyment. In short, my amazing team and I curate programming that both entertains and educates our members and supporters. The best part is seeing new relationships form within our community . . . people who didn’t know one another previously bonding over their passion for wine and food, and then becoming friends outside of WFF because of it! And it’s a great way for newcomers to Austin to meet new people with shared interests. Our community is also what enables WFF to provide support to the local hospitality community and partner with worthy and like-minded organizations like Lift Collective!
What do you do to create wellness balance in your life? Any particular activity, practices, etc that are meaningful to you?
Yoga is my go-to. A consistent practice makes such a big difference. When things get busy and my practice takes a back seat, that feeling of wellness dissipates – both mentally and physically. Aside from that, my Zen comes from time with the people (and pets!) I love, experimenting in the kitchen, travel, and making plans (plans for literally anything – I just love to plan!)
What changes do you hope to see in the wine industry in the next five years?
1. Diversity, equity and inclusion – obvs! And quickly, please! While we have a long way to go, organizations like Lift Collective are making an impact by creating new and better standards. There are some fierce advocates implementing such standards in their own businesses, but not enough. Everyone needs to be a part of the solution. 2. Openness. Wine does not have to be a scary thing. It’s for everyone to enjoy. There are no stupid questions. Those with experience should make that extra effort to welcome newbies and help educate them so they feel accepted and not intimidated.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
There are so many facets under the equality umbrella. My hot buttons are equal treatment, respect and kindness. For such a long time, the hospitality industry felt it was an exception to the professionalism and standards of other industries. From inappropriate chatter to full on sexual discrimination/harassment . . . it was all accepted simply because “that’s just the way it is.” It was nearly impossible for people from marginalized communities to be successful and advance in their careers. While it has improved (some establishments have gone above and beyond to implement high, zero-tolerance professionalism standards), there is still a long way to go towards true equal treatment.
How do you feel you’re contributing to creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive wine industry?
WFF is a proud advocate of DEI in the wine industry. We proactively work with all members of the local industry and make it a point to ensure we are doing the best we can to foster as much diversity as possible. Last year, we implemented programming for Women’s History Month and Black History Month. And we have plans to do even more in 2022 (stay tuned to our events calendar for some great Women's History Month programming in March!). Our board of directors has gone from almost entirely male to nearly a 50/50 split. And finally, we proudly selected Lift Collective as the beneficiary of our Rare & Fine Wine Auction last year! We recognize that diversity equates to MORE talent and creativity - which benefits both the industry and consumers. It's the definition of a win-win!
What advice would you give to someone starting their career in the same sector of the wine industry as you?
Working in the non-profit sector of the wine industry is as fun and rewarding as it is challenging. Our work is heavily event-driven, so we look for people with deep event experience, ideally TABC certified, who have a passion for wine and food, and a desire to learn!
Name some people who inspire you in the wine industry and please explain why.
In the 18 months I’ve been in this role, I have met some seriously amazing people that inspire me and teach me all the time. Not to be cliché, but I mean – Rania and Cara – hello! These ladies have done so much for this industry in such a short time. I’m constantly impressed by their passion, reach and impact. I have also had the great pleasure to work alongside Soncy Chin. Soncy is with RNDC and is a member of WFF’s Board of Directors. She is always there to answer our industry questions, and is a fierce advocate for diversity and equality in the industry.