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When women in the Ontario wine industry support each other, powerful things happen

By Alison Oppenlaender

The landscape of the Ontario wine industry is comprised of many women, all in varying careers and stages in their careers, from new graduates to founding females who are following the footsteps of past generations.

The Ontario wine industry is fairly young, but the challenges that women in this industry face are obstacles that have been around for a long time. Recognizing that one of the hurdles we face is of the unknown – the not knowing each other and not having a network of support to contact for guidance and advice – led to the creation of Women in Wine, a mentorship event for women in the Ontario wine industry to talk openly and honestly about their careers, challenges, struggles and successes.  

Ontario wine

Women in Wine is based loosely on different industry events that empower and inspire collaboration, as well as encourage discussion among colleagues for growth, and most importantly for networking. As a young professional in the wine industry, I noticed that these types of discussions were not happening, or if they were, they were happening among staff and friends, not in a collaborative atmosphere for peers, which made me want to create a forum for new and seasoned women in the industry.    

What started as an Instagram question (below) based on the beautiful and successful Atelier Collective, I asked my Instagram friends if there is an interest from women in the #ONwine industry to hear from other women in the sector, and the responses received were plentiful and positive, with many saying, “this is so needed in our industry.”

I quickly got to work, and contacted women that inspire me in this industry to participate as panelists in this event. The feedback, again, was positive, and each woman asked was eager to participate. From there, and based on the fact that I wanted this to be a collaborative effort, I encouraged #womeninwine to let me know what they want to hear, or are too shy to ask other women. Again, social media helped and equipped me with topics, themes and ideas that helped me form coherent questions to ask the panelists.

After securing the speakers and the general messaging for the evening, an Eventbrite, Women in Wine Mentorship, was created with the capacity to sell 50 tickets – the event sold out in less than two weeks. To encourage transparency on the $30 ticket price, an outline of the fee was posted on the event page: $10 for wine, $10 for hors d’oeuvres and $10 to be donated to the Go Girls! A group mentoring program through Big Brothers Big Sisters.

On May 21 at Queenston Mile Vineyard, 60 women came together for the first Women in Wine Mentorship event. The evening consisted of a panel discussion, a Q&A from attendees, and plenty of time to connect and meet industry colleagues. 

Dr. Debbie Inglis, Director of Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology Viticulture Institute, Katie Dickieson, Winemaker at Peller Estates, Britnie Bazylewski, Marketing & Special Events for Creekside Estate Winery & Queenston Mile, as well as Heidi Fielding, Director of Sales & Marketing at Fielding Estate Winery participated as panelists, and each had to answer five thought-provoking questions. Questions ranged from their careers and the career ladder, to advice on navigating a career in a male-dominated industry, to building confidence and empowering women, and on how to build a wine culture and industry that is more inclusive. 

Reoccurring themes during the evening’s discussions from the panelists were:

  • Do not be afraid to ask questions, and if the answer received is not to your satisfaction, give your opinion on why;
  • In doing so, senior staff may view something differently, but most importantly value your opinion, and respect the courage that it took you to speak up;
  • Don’t give in to the status quo, ask questions, and always work hard, no matter your sex.

Another point that was raised a couple of times by the panelists was that male colleagues are not the ones hindering a woman’s career, but that more senior women are failing to encourage growth, which connects back to building confidence and self-esteem in women. Lastly, a point that resonated, was to always stay connected to the women in the industry, find out what is going on in both their professional and personal lives – the more you know, the better equipped you are to handle certain situations.  

What started as an event to connect women in the wine industry proved to be an important opportunity for colleagues to learn and grow from one another. This event was just the start of something that will grow into an annual, possibly biannual, event for all people in the industry to chat openly and honestly together in a forum that encourages mentorship to inspire the next generation entering the wine industry.

About Alison Oppenlaender

Alison Oppenlaender has been actively involved in Ontario’s wine industry for the past 12 years, that is, if you don’t count all of the summers she spent working on her dad’s vineyard while growing up. Currently, the projects and communications manager for the Ontario Craft Wineries, the organization that advocates on behalf of Ontario VQA wines to the government. A former committee member for the YWCA Hamilton, and a volunteer at the Hamilton Public Library, Alison is active about supporting her community and in the creation of safe spaces for all. With an academic background in marketing and English literature & communications, Alison uses this experience to continually promote the industry in the way that she knows best, by writing about it. Her writing has appeared in the Toronto Star, Look Local, and Chic Darling – a fashion, beauty, travel site. An avid bookworm, Pinot Noir lover, and wannabe gardener, Alison can be found roaming Niagara during her 9-5, and in Hamilton, where she lives with her partner and their cat.