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Laura Brown - Leads ASL-interpreted tastings for companies like Vin Social and City Winery Nashville

How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.

To be honest, I’m trying to figure out how to answer that, because I feel my true wine career is only just beginning. I worked in the hospitality industry for fourteen years, beginning at the age of sixteen. I had started getting more and more interested in wine during my late twenties while working at some more wine-centric places in Los Angeles and venturing up to Santa Ynez for tasting. Around this same time, I was introduced to the idea of American Sign Language Interpreting by a regular customer of mine, which quickly became a pursuit and passion. I got a second degree and started interpreting professionally while still working on the floor and behind the bar. For years, I was just the friend who was low key obsessed with wine that you would text from the wine store to ask for advice. But a couple years ago, I took an opportunity for a side gig in wine, which inspired me to pursue my WSET credentials. I have realized my heart is in communicating and educating about wine, as well as working on accessibility and inclusion, not in sales. I recently joined the team at Vin Social, a female-owned and led company, as a wine educator, leading virtual tastings, and I love it! I'm working on combining my passions by offering ASL-interpreted tastings with Vin Social, City Winery Nashville, and hopefully many more partnerships with companies who would like to be more accessible.

Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?

I think I’ve had a series of “aha” moments that I didn’t realize were just that at the time. Looking back, I remember opening my last restaurant in Santa Monica, and experiencing some wine training for the first time- nothing crazy, things like smelling ramekins of black pepper, raspberries, clove, etc. and tasting different varieties. I was SO into it. I ended up rallying my new co-workers to all get a different bottle of wine or an interesting beer and inviting them to my little studio apartment for a bottle share. I didn’t realize at the time that I had basically set up a tasting group (that met one time, ha!). But now I see those first sparks of excitement over discussing wine, flavor profiles, palates, etc. that led me down this road of creating community through wine.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Seeing the light bulb moments in other people- whatever their level of interest or expertise may be. I love the spark in someone’s face when they finally understand a concept that has been glossed over in the past because of typical wine jargon, or trying a new variety they never knew about or didn’t expect to like. Introducing people to the unexpected and getting them just as excited and curious as I am is the best!

Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?

The prejudices that come to mind have been when I used to work on the floor in various restaurants and bars. At my last serving job, I was told by a drunk patron, a father, in front of his college-aged son and his friends, to smile and sit on his lap. I. Was. Done. Years of that sexist bullshit had built up and I was finally mature enough to recognize it for what it was. I went to management and the owner and asked them to remove this party. Instead of doing so, they stalled and attempted to placate me, while a fellow male server told me that I was overreacting and to shake it off. The good ‘ol boys club and gaslighting has quite the stronghold here in the south, and I retired from that part of the industry shortly thereafter.

Women are victims of the patriarchy as well, and are often more judgmental of other women as a result. How can we as women become more aware of our own prejudice towards each other and change that behavior?

Ain’t that the truth! I think recognizing that a) everyone has their own path, and b) there is enough abundance to go around are key. Comparing credentials and ‘paying our dues’ can be easy targets, as are pretty women with good cameras and large social media presence. But if we are truly advocating for bravery and evolution in this industry, who’s to say someone else’s path isn’t good? I think so much of that comes down to a sense of competition, which is really a fear that there isn’t enough to go around. So realizing that everyone has a unique story and that all ships rise with the tide are important lessons.

When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women?

Women will go out of their way to create community and support others. So one woman’s success usually translates to others’ subsequent opportunities. We are often connectors, and we want to share and celebrate success; so if an opportunity presents itself that we know a friend or colleague would be great for, we bring them along and we think about who has been left out. To me, that’s really what hospitality is all about.

What changes do you hope to see in regards to women in the wine industry in the next five years?

I’d love to see more women in prominent leadership and winemaking roles that have traditionally been male-dominated. For example, Master Sommeliers, winery owners, board members, etc. We’re already seeing so many strides, but I hope there will be more women recognized for their expertise, building businesses, and employing others. In the same breath, I hope the next generation rising to the top are themselves a diverse group- BIPOC women, LGBTQIA, disabled…so that diversity begets inclusivity in hiring practices and opportunities offered.

What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?

Look for opportunities to highlight others. We’re in hospitality and wine is all about connection, so use it to create a more welcoming world where you celebrate others’ strengths. Also, as soon as you sense you’re resting on your laurels, I would encourage anyone to seek out the next room where you aren’t the most knowledgeable or talented person.

What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?

It looks like equity. Equality says everyone has the same chance and looks good on paper, but we know that isn’t true in practice. Equality is easy. Equity requires a lot more energy and a willingness to undo what we know, potentially stepping back to let others in. Equity is what leads to true equality. We have to make an effort to look in the mirror, recognize the gaps we’ve overlooked and contributed to, and problem solve. That means ongoing humility, which I hope the industry can learn to embrace as a strength.

In what ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?

Specifically, because of my career as an American Sign Language Interpreter, I’m always thinking about what a tasting, a webinar, a wine education course would be like for my Deaf and disabled friends. There is a major lack of accessibility and awareness, and when it’s pointed out, there is often resistance and excuses. I see the word “accessibility” thrown around a lot in regards to making wine less intimidating, but it means something so much more to many communities. Imagine being in a wheelchair and arriving at your restaurant reservation, seeing the staff scramble to remove their extra wine storage off the only accessible seating for you. Or registering for an online wine course and the embedded videos either aren’t captioned at all, or the automatic closed captioning from YouTube misspells all the wine terminology you’re hoping to learn. And then you can’t participate in the live webinar or class because there’s no interpreter or live captioning. I say all that not to elicit pity or guilt. I just want to encourage people to widen their perspective. I’d like to think I can help the industry think about how they can be more inclusive in ways they hadn’t considered, and in turn, encourage a new wave of diverse wine lovers and wine professionals representing facets of society often overlooked. It can seem overwhelming at first, but accessibility is more achievable than people think, and I hope to highlight Deaf-owned businesses in the process.

What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?

I think a wonder woman of wine embodies hospitality. She’s creative, inventive, hardy, and warm- just like wine. These women think about how they can leverage the present to invest in the future.

What other women of wine do you admire and why?

I’m a bit of a Laura Maniec Fiorvanti fangirl. I love her grit and her commitment to mentoring others. She really seems to walk the walk in making wine fun; approaching educational, geeky topics with a casual flair. I’ve recently connected with Lia Jones of Diversity in Wine & Spirits, and her fervor for equity is just phenomenal. I love keeping up with Esther Mobley’s writing. When reading her columns, you’re learning, her style is neither over your head or patronizing, and it feels like you’re chatting with your in-the-know friend.

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