Wonder Women of Wine

As her career as a sommelier in the fine dining restaurants of Houston and Austin progressed, Rania Zayyat found that most of her peers — both sommeliers and winemakers — were men.

“Looking back,” she says, “I wish I’d had more female mentors, especially when I was just getting started. I’m grateful that women leaders in the wine community are now much more prevalent in Austin.”

Zayyat wasn’t alone in noticing this disparity. The Guild of Sommeliers has conducted an annual salary survey since 2014, and a central focus of their analysis is the difference in pay by gender. According to survey responses from the past four years, women comprise only 30 percent of the sommelier workforce and their average salary is less than that of their male counterparts.  Fortunately, the gap has begun to close. In 2015, the average income for male sommeliers was $7,150 more than that of female sommeliers, but the most recent survey shows that imbalance narrowing to $4,000.

Seeing those numbers inspired Zayyat to find ways to empower women in the industry and to help them find their voices in a traditionally male-dominated crowd. “I wanted to promote more women in leadership roles and create more mentorship programs for young women,” she says.

In early 2018, the Women’s Initiative of the Wine and Food Foundation of Texas asked Zayyat, now an Advanced Sommelier and wine educator, to host a class highlighting the successes and achievements of ten female winemakers from around the world. The sold-out class, titled Wonder Women of Wine, motivated her to do even more to celebrate and promote women in wine.

That inspiration has transformed into a two-day conference, also called Wonder Women of Wine, which will be held on Saturday, March 2 and Sunday, March 3, at The Sunset Room in Austin. Presenters will include winemakers, sommeliers, distributors and wine business executives with a focus on empowering women — particularly young women — in the industry. The second day will feature a trade tasting of wines from top female winemakers.

“It’s not just about highlighting women for the sake of highlighting women,” Zayyat says. “I choose women who are doing really amazing things in our industry and trying to make that more the norm.”

Leading up to the conference, Zayyat is sharing the stories of women from all aspects of the industry in weekly #FemmeFriday Instagram posts (@wonderwomenofwine). The short interviews capture the diversity in roles, leadership and style of the growing number of women in the wine world. “There are so many women that I draw inspiration from on a regular basis, and I wanted to foster that spirit of mentorship locally by highlighting the amazing women in our city,” she says.

Zayyat hopes the interviews not only spark interest in the conference, but also attract supporters. Donations to the conference will seed a scholarship fund for young women in the industry who might not otherwise be able to attend — an investment in the next generation of Wonder Women of Wine.

By Kristi Willis