Sarah Tracey - Wine columnist for Martha Stewart Living & runs The Lush Life.
How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.
I’ve been working in the wine business full time since 2012. I didn’t start out in wine; I went to school for music and ended up moving to NYC to pursue a singing career. Between shows with my band, I always had cocktail waitressing gigs, and eventually ended up answering a Craigslist ad for a serving job that happened to be at a wine bar. That job showed me a whole new side of wine beyond the cheap bottles I’d split with my roommates in my little East Village apartment, and after a while working there I decided I wanted to learn more. So, I showed up on the doorstep of our local winery and begged them to hire me, which-- miraculously, they did! My very first task there was to empty and rinse spit buckets, and after a bit of doing that I was promoted to glassware polisher. I loved it! I knew I had to start at the bottom to really learn every facet of the industry, and to be honest, I was just grateful to be there. I eventually worked my way up to serving, then to being a wine captain, then earning my certification with the Court of Master Sommeliers and getting the chance to teach wine classes and host events at the winery. When it was time to move on, I went on to sommelier positions around New York and then progressed to Wine Director roles. The whole time I was working my way through the NYC wine/restaurant scene, I had been blogging about wine as a fun ‘side hustle’, which turned into other opportunities in writing and media-- most notably, getting recruited as the wine columnist for Martha Stewart Living in 2015 (I’ve published nearly 100 articles in my time there and still going strong). Today, my work is centered around writing and educating about wine, plus food/cocktails/travel, and hosting live and virtual wine events.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
Yes! I had been pursuing my music career, and at the same time had just started my wine blog which ended up taking off pretty quickly. I had a huge show with my band at a very important venue, where we sold out and had an amazing performance… but I ended my night in tears in the cab home because the club owner refused to pay us (classic music industry cautionary tale). It was so humiliating and frustrating, I was completely dejected and questioning my future in music. The very next morning I got an email invitation to visit a winery in Tuscany who offered to fly me out and spend a week in Florence and Chianti Classico learning about their wines, Italian food, and culture! I thought about which life I wanted— and don’t think I ever really looked back.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
One hundred percent, it’s the people I’ve been lucky enough to meet and work with. The passionate farmers, makers, communicators I’ve gotten to know— and being able to share their stories via my writing, videos, classes, social media. What an honor and privilege!
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?
Definitely as a woman, and especially a young woman just starting out, I was constantly underestimated. When I first started to attend wine events as a wine buyer or media guest, I would usually get mistaken for venue staff or perhaps a PR assistant. I’ll never forget a prestigious luncheon I attended where the gentleman seated next to me assumed I was the person that had put together the gift bags! As I’ve become more confident and seasoned, this has started to get a lot better. When I was the Wine Director of a Michelin-starred restaurant, I would check in with our guests and offer to assist them with our wine list. I was regularly assumed to be the hostess, and told to ‘send the sommelier over’. I don’t believe I fit the standard expectation of what a ‘sommelier’ should look like, which was disheartening at the time.
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?
This is a question I ask myself constantly. As a restaurant Wine Director, when I’ve been in a position to hire an assistant, if I had 15-20 applicants for the role, I may only have one or two women apply. And women of color? Probably even less. It’s frustrating to actively seek to hire or mentor women, and to want to support women of color specifically, and just not have the resumes materialize. I would encourage ANY woman interested in pursuing a career in wine to not be shy, to put yourself out there, and to people in hiring positions— to be proactive in awarding those opportunities. That’s the only way we’re going to move the needle of getting more women in this business. It starts at the entry level. That’s how we change— by being intentional and proactive with our support.
When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women?
I hate to stereotype, but I will say that women seem to be equally good at listening and speaking, which is the key to any productive collaboration! Listen and learn, and then also assert and express. I rarely feel that women are trying to prove ‘who knows more’ in the world of wine the way I’ve seen some men behave. From what I’ve experienced, women are more likely to check the ego at the door and just get the job done. The more women that we can support and elevate, the more nuanced and productive and dimensional the conversation will be— in my experience.
What changes do you hope to see in regards to women in the wine industry in the next five years?
I hope more representation— and especially with women of color, and intrepid women that haven’t necessarily been born into the business of wine through family connections. I have a great deal of respect for the women working in a family wine business, but I hope there is room for diverse voices outside these legacies to break through. I make sure that when I get to write a profile story about women in wine that I feature a diverse group-- which I was proud to do in my International Women’s Day piece this year for Vivino. I know a lot of females that hate to be labeled a ‘female chef’, ‘female sommelier’, ‘female winemaker’ etc— why the gendered qualifier? But I’m honored to have the opportunity to represent women. You can’t be what you can’t see, and representation matters. If one young lady just starting out as a cocktail waitress happens to read an article about women in wine, and sees my photo and reads about my journey and thinks ‘I can do that!’ then it’s worth it. I wish we were further along in the perception of the industry not to have to single people out for their gender, but I don’t know if we’re there yet.
What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?
Be prepared to work hard. But if you are willing to do the work, there are so many opportunities out there!
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
When one day gender/race/orientation/identity isn’t even a mention or consideration… I hope someday we will see this.
In what ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?
By showing that there’s not one way a ‘serious’ wine professional needs to look/act/be. And by encouraging more voices in the wine conversation, diverse voices, female voices, beginners and connoisseurs-- all sharing the same table. I started a hashtag on Instagram last August — #youcansipwithus — to promote inclusion in the digital wine conversation, and today it has nearly 50,000 posts from our growing community.
What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?
A woman that is accomplished, knowledgeable, strong, supportive, inclusive, and generous.
What other women of wine do you admire and why?
I have to shout out my friend and role model, Leslie Sbrocco. Leslie is a wine educator, author, speaker, event host, TV personality, and entrepreneur — and I can’t imagine one person being more supportive of me and my career goals. Leslie will not only check in with me often to see how I’m doing and make herself available for guidance and advice, but she has actively referred me for opportunities that she herself has been unable to take. They say a mentor is there to inspire and guide you, but a sponsor who will actively put you out for opportunities is truly what’s needed for anyone to progress in an industry. Leslie has been that for me, and also has become a true and trusted friend.