WSTA Parliamentary Event : Women with Bottle, The women behind the wine & spirit industry

The Women in Wine LDN team attended the Wine and Spirit Trade Association’s Parliamentary event which brought together MPs and wine and spirit industry professionals. The theme of the evening was particularly close to our heart, as the focus was "Women in the Wine and Spirits Industry". Among the large crowd there were a number of prominent women in the industry, from educators, consultants, importers, journalists and media personalities and English wine producers. We were incredibly excited to see so many familiar faces of those who are also Women in Wine London panellists and current members.

Tim Loughton MP (East Worthing and Shoreham) gave the introductory speech, as he was the event’s co-host and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Wine & Spirit Group. He talked about the historic and current importance of our industry to the UK economy and of the key role women have played in it. Co-host Flick Drummond MP (Portsmouth South) is Co-Chair for the Women for Work APPG and spoke passionately about her work trying to bring the challenges that women face in the workplace to the forefront, including structural challenges in our current society such as affordable childcare and the difficulties returning to work after maternity leave. 

Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the speech of Sarah Morphew Stephen MW, the first female Master of Wine, who passed the exam in 1970. She recounted how she first became passionate about wine as a child growing up in Portugal, where she helped to pick grapes for harvest. Determined to join the wine industry, she persevered in landing a job at Ramos Pintos – despite the fact that several other Port houses had bluntly told her that women have no place in the cellar. Her natural talent and hard work resulted in her gaining a scholarship to study winemaking in France, where she did ‘genteel’ tasks like labelling bottles, but also allowed her to eventually work in Germany where she got hands-on winemaking experience mentored by a woman winemaker. There, Sarah spent two months in the thick of it; getting her hands dirty and scrubbing vats which, in hindsight, was an auspicious start to a winemaking career spanning Jerez to South America.

 Sarah Morphew Stephen MW, the first female Master of Wine, giving a speech at the WSTA Parliamentary event. The crowd hung on to every word. 

Sarah Morphew Stephen MW, the first female Master of Wine, giving a speech at the WSTA Parliamentary event. The crowd hung on to every word. 

Sarah gained her MW title six years before the second female to do so (the equally indomitable Serena Sutcliffe), which illustrates the male-dominated bent of the wine industry forty years ago. She continued to burst through glass ceilings as she steered her career towards  technical analysis with a Bermondsey Street-based bottling plant where she rose up to become a technical manager and then as the first female buyer at a Yorkshire-based brewery. She also eventually became Asda first beer/cider/spirits/wine controller working with very good quality, every day drinking wine – a pursuit which she says was, in many ways, even more difficult than making boutique fine wine. 

It was an inspiring and empowering speech, culminating in the advice she once received from Madame Lilly Bollinger many years ago. Mme Bollinger, who was then in her 90s and still cycling vigorously around her vineyards, stopped to chat to Sarah and told her the secret of her own success: "My dear, never try to emulate a man. Always remain feminine". As Sarah noted, many of the women in that very room at Parliament – without any prompting or ceremony – had done exactly that and have been very successful. 

 Miles Beale CEO of WSTA, Flick Drummond MP, Sarah Morphew Stephen MW and Tim Loughton MP. Photo courtesy of WSTA via Twitter @WSTAUK

Miles Beale CEO of WSTA, Flick Drummond MP, Sarah Morphew Stephen MW and Tim Loughton MP. Photo courtesy of WSTA via Twitter @WSTAUK

Special thanks... to Rebekah Kendrick, WSTA’s Parliamentary Affairs Manager, for the invite and for creating such a great event. Reflecting on the evening, Rebekah said,

“There are so many inspiring women in wine and spirits and this event was the perfect way to bring the industry together with Members of Parliament, to celebrate the incredible achievements that female distillers, winemakers, CEOs and MWs have made and are still making today. Working with the Women and Work APPG, as well as the Wine and Spirit APPG, really did show the support Parliament does have for women in business, and we look forward to their continued support.”