There can be too much of a good thing, according to the responses we received to the “Challenges of working with wine” article, which raised the question of how we stay healthy when we work with copious amounts of food, alcohol and socializing. The volume of response has been staggering, with winemakers, C-suite executives, presidents, importers, advocacy groups, distributors, tour leaders and journalists adding welcome voices to the conversation.
The story clearly hit a nerve when it came to issues of behavior and habits, many long accepted as a mandatory part of the job. Intimate personal experiences were shared in person, or via phone and emails, detailing family struggles, career-affecting behavior and health-affecting habits. Many preferred not to go on record for fear of reprisal or judgment, suggesting we are still a long way from having an open and honest conversation.
Hospitality has always been an inherent part of the wine business; wines tasted with multi-course dinners and tasting menus are the norm, coupled with travel to wine regions and producers. At every turn there is a plate of excellent food on offer, from dishes prepared by Michelin starred chefs, to very simple regional cuisine. For most people, eating like this is special. For wine professionals, these are everyday meals, whose volume and frequency is not sustainable. Weight can balloon, and the constant travel and eating can make weight loss a problem. While self control obviously plays a role, it’s also true that most people who work in the wine business derive great pleasure from food and wine – few of us are in it for the huge salaries. It’s hard to push away a plate of food prepared by one of the world’s best chefs.
As one professional said: “For the freshman 15, there’s the distributor 24!” referring to the number of pounds gained in the first year in a distributor sales role. Modelling dining behavior from the most senior sales person at the table was generally not a positive move for health, and simply learning how to read a menu was critical. “I’ve seen young reps misconstrue menu descriptions or choose indulgent options, and devour dishes they are either too embarrassed to send back or feel they are under their superior’s watchful eye to eat.”
Jenn Friedrichs of Southern Glazers balances her time as a distributor brand manager with her professional body-building career and exercises six days a week and eats small meals every three hours. Mandatory, she believes, to help maintain metabolism and avoid sugar spikes.
For those for whom vigorous daily exercise is not an option, perhaps Amy Gross’s approach is better. The US wine author and founder of VineSleuth gained 20 pounds in four years after launching her company and now commits to Weight Watchers to help manage her eating plan. She is 15 pounds closer to her goal thanks to vigilant meal planning, carrying pre-portioned healthy snacks, buying healthy snacks for her hotel rooms and consuming water at every opportunity.
Beginning the “death march” of an 18-hour-a-day hosted itinerary can send shivers down the spine of even seasoned wine industry travelers. Days and weeks of eating, drinking and road miles not only takes its toll on personal health, but also on relationships. “Returning from my last three-week sales trip, I sat in my car and sobbed solidly for an hour to release the build-up of stress and anxiety that I knew I couldn’t take home to my wife and kids. I was completely and utterly exhausted,” said one professional who travels 250,000 miles a year for his role.
For another, the yearning for a salad and protein shake after weeks of travel causes ongoing tension with her wife. Staying at home with their child, her spouse wants a night out in a restaurant – but nothing raises more dread than another meal in a high end dining location.
The problem is acute for wine media. “Organizers of press trips need to rethink how they structure our days and the events. They treat us like we are a buffet on a cruise ship,” said New York writer Lauren Mowery. “Early starts, late days, no time for work, health, rest, reflection, and dietary requests are often utterly ignored.”
Although journalists are often traveling at a region or producer’s expense, the reality is that a distracted, soporific, exhausted, and cranky guest affected by alcohol will be less able to absorb the information.
As someone who organizes and manages media travel, I understand the desire to showcase as much regional cuisine and wine as possible, but we also need to respect the personal boundaries of guests. This requires clear communication before the trip, to ensure expectations are managed on both sides.
The allure of the product
There is a social cachet that comes with working in the wine business, and it’s being amplified by social media. Twitter, Instagram and Facebook feeds are filled with scenes of exotic dishes, close-ups of vertical tastings of rare wine, “waterfalled” magnums, and famous faces. Of course, these social media pictures are heavily edited, curated and filtered to portray an otherwise unattainable reality.
But underneath the glamour, there can be a harsh reality. As one observer said, the dinners and receptions exist for one purpose only: to sell wine. All the indulgence is masking the pressure that sales people are under to deliver results.
Abstinence and sobriety are not popular dinner topics for wine pros, but as a very respected journalist who no longer writes about wine said: “It's been hard but I don't want to die of something I held in such esteem, even loved, all apart from the alcohol in it. I’ve gotten angry at myself for not being stronger, and letting down my readers because I just couldn't handle what it was that we were learning about and loving together. But I have to let go of all of that, including the remorse.”
Even professionals without an alcohol problem find themselves opening that precious saved bottle, or buying a rare (and often unaffordable) vintage, or mindlessly chilling a great bottle in the wee hours, simply because the wine guests have stayed too long. Which brings up the problem of peer pressure: Early in her career, Monique Soltani, founder and producer of WineOhTv remembers coming under intense pressure from her New York bartending work mates when she chose not to drink with them after work until 4:00 am.
Writer Cathrine Todd, who blogs at DameWine, believes we need to discuss ways to stand up against the pressure to constantly have a glass in hand. “I have no issues with others wanting to drink but it is definitely not cool to pressure those of us who do not want to consume when we are working.”
What are people doing about it?
As a younger generation enters the industry, it seems the call for increased awareness of employee health is on the rise, with the long lunch now being replaced by time on a running track or yoga mat.
Wendy Narby of Gironde tour company, Insider Tasting, encourages her guests to eat breakfast before tasting. “You might not feel like it after a big wine dinner the night before but a full stomach will slow down the absorption of alcohol into the blood stream, especially fats and protein - eggs and yoghurt.”
Napa Valley vintner (and my employer) Michael Mondavi limits himself to eight ounces of wine per day (236 ml), and consumes double the volume of water to wine. If pushed for an after dinner drink, he orders a glass of dry white wine. Starting in the 1990s Mondavi also issued personal breathlysers to sales and marketing staff to encourage responsible drinking, a moderation tool he still insists on 20 years later.
Texas Master Sommelier candidate Cara Bertone CSW recalled conducting on-premise account calls early in her sales career, when her then-boss insisted they purchased and consumed a bottle at each of the four restaurants visited. She now trains her own staff to exercise restraint, take personal responsibility for their own health, and make smart decisions in the selling process. No sale is worth jeopardizing health for.
In his blog response to our piece, Richard Hemming MW described developing the “soft round” with wine loving friends in Sydney: throughout the evening, everybody would take a break from alcohol and order a soft drink. He notes that there is no incentive to do this in British pubs, as soft drinks cost the same as alcoholic ones.
Another initiative came from wine writer Lauren Mowery, who in early 2017 established Ataraxia, a FaceBook group focused on yoga, meditation and wellness for women working in wine. The group will host its first retreat in September in Lake County, California.
New York based Columbus Wine & Spirits President Larry Reiter, recognizes the emotional component of wellness is overlooked, with some gaining all their self-esteem from their job. He encourages employees to pursue philanthropic activities, and make time for local charities each month. “The act of giving time to others in need can provide a foundation for a stable sense of self.”
Finally, Deborah Brenner, President of Women of the Vine & Spirits, contacted me to confirm that they will build in a session on wellness for the 2018 conference.
In the end, it is companies that must set standards for staff and make the health and wellbeing of their staff a priority. I just hope we all stay well long enough to reap the benefits of a more balanced industry.
Rebecca Hopkins is vice president communication and partner, Folio Fine Wine Partners.