Erstwhile Mezcal’s core values are gender-neutral for the most part: mezcal education, transparency, empowering small producers to grow through export. That said, elevating underrepresented voices – including those of women – in Mezcal and the broader wine & spirits industry pulls equal weight in guiding every action and decision we make as a company.
Before diving in, let me first credit the featured image. Photographed by Brother Joe Ramirez on International Women’s Day 2020 (March 8, 2020), this is a photo of women in the mezcal industry at Mexico in a Bottle, hosted at Bread & Salt Gallery in San Diego, California.
For me, the importance of women representation in mezcal is part of a bigger truth. I believe that diversity – as measured by how well do decision makers in leadership positions represent their consumer base in terms of their demographics, values and backgrounds – is a good thing. A net positive for any industry. I believe that hearing the voices of women – as consumers and as industry professionals – is essential.
This is Part I of a longer blog series, in which I share some ways to elevate women’s voices in mezcal and the broader wine and spirits industry. They are based on my firsthand experiences in running a mezcal company, observations of other women and men who inspire me, and plenty of anecdotes from women working at all tiers of the industry.
This is not meant to be a definitive, exhaustive list. Rather, I invite you to join the conversation, speak up with your own ideas, and commit to taking concrete actions.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, recalls this watershed moment in her book Lean In:
“A few years ago, I hosted a meeting for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at Facebook. We invited fifteen executives from across Silicon Valley for breakfast and a discussion about the economy. Secretary Geithner arrived with four members of his staff, two senior and two more junior, and we all gathered in our one nice conference room. After the usual milling around, I encouraged the attendees to help themselves to the buffet and take a seat. Our invited guests, mostly men, grabbed plates and food and sat down at the large conference table. Secretary Geithner’s team, all women, took their food last and sat in chairs off to the side of the room. I motioned for the women to come sit at the table, waving them over publicly so they would feel welcomed. They demurred and remained in their seats.
The four women had every right to be at this meeting, but because of their seating choice, they seemed like spectators rather than participants. I knew I had to say something. So after the meeting, I pulled them aside to talk. I pointed out that they should have sat at the table even without an invitation, but when publicly welcomed, they most certainly should have joined. At first, they seemed surprised, then they agreed.
It was a watershed moment for me. A moment when I witnessed how an internal barrier can alter women’s behavior. A moment when I realized that in addition to facing institutional obstacles, women face a battle from within.”
Sit at the Table
I think of Ms. Sandberg’s anecdote often when I think about women’s voices in Mezcal and the broader wine & spirits industry.
While it can happen to both men and women – the lack of confidence to sit down with no invitation, let alone speak up – in my experience that hesitation is gendered. I see it in family dynamics when visiting and working with mezcal producers. I see it when interacting with consumers at tasting events, and leading staff trainings for bars / restaurants / stores all over the country.
I recognize it in myself. Much less now that, as a business owner, I have autonomy to make final decisions, and no need to defer to higher-ups when representing my company in public. But I certainly recognize it in my younger selves and professional settings before Erstwhile, especially when I perceived myself as the most junior or least experienced in the room.
Sisters: to have our voices heard, our opinions respected, first we have to show up physically and mentally as active participants, not bystanders. Step forward with confidence and claim your seat at the table. No matter your level of seniority in the room. With or without an invitation. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but less so with practice and repetition.
An example of how I put this idea to practice: earlier this year I went to see the owner of a local wine and spirits shop in Brooklyn. I wanted him to try and hopefully order other mezcal expressions from the Erstwhile lineup, in addition to the Espadin expression he already knew and carried in store. Three employees were in the store when I showed up – a young woman behind the checkout counter upfront, and two older men who were working further back. The owner called the two male employees over to the checkout counter – where I had set up a makeshift table with all the mezcal samples — so they could taste and give him input on a future order.
I knew and liked these guys. They were one of the very first retailers in the country to carry Erstwhile Mezcal. The conversation was relaxed and friendly, flowing freely especially after a few sips of mezcal …
Which made it all the more noticeable to me that the woman employee – facing us and standing on the other side of the checkout counter – was the only silent bystander, left out of the conversation entirely notwithstanding her physical proximity to everyone else in the room.
So I asked her if she would like to try some mezcal. She hesitated at first, and said yes. I handed her a sample, and gently pulled her into the group with open-ended questions. This is the Espadin you already have on your shelves – how do you feel about the smoke level? Now try this different agave varietal from a different producer – which flavor profile do you like better?
She seemed pleased. The owner seemed neutral, neither happy nor unhappy by her participation. Before I left, he told me he wanted to confer with one of the men on his staff before finalizing an order.
Now, this woman may have been left out of the decision-making process for reasons that have nothing to do with gender. Maybe it was her last day working there. Maybe she did not want to drink mezcal that early in the day, or on an empty stomach. Maybe she had no passion or curiosity for her work, let alone for any of the bottles sold there. Maybe when approached by customers with questions about a specific mezcal, she was content to deflect and say: “I don’t know. You have to ask my co-worker.”
Whatever the reasons may be, the fact she was a woman ultimately made no difference for me. I would have done the same had she been a man in the same situation. I hope you would too.
The point I want to illustrate with this anecdote is gender-neutral as well: anyone who wants to participate should get in the habit of sitting down and speaking up without an invitation.
To my brothers and sisters already seated at the table, small acts of thoughtfulness can go a long way. Pull up that open chair next to you. Invite your sisters. Wave her over. Welcome her warmly.
Does this resonate with you?
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Yuan Ji, founder of Erstwhile Mezcal