How LiftCollective Is Fighting For New Voices In The Wine Industry

Over the past year, we’ve seen a surplus of prominent figures — across a wide swath of industries — advocating for racial, social, and gender justice and equality. Between all the viral hashtags and company statements, it seems as though the call for diversity and inclusion has become all the rage. Which is, generally speaking, a good thing.

But behind the scenes, many industries still haven’t made the internal structural changes that could result in a real and equitable impact. Especially in the U.S. wine industry — where Bloomberg estimates that just 1% of brand owners and winemakers are black.

Now here’s the good news. There are people finding innovative new ways to diversify the vino game. Like the ladies of LiftCollective, a non-profit organization founded by Rania Zayyat, a sommelier and Wine Director at Austin restaurant Bufalina — who has used her experiences coming up in the male-dominated wine industry to educate and advocate for gender equality and greater transparency.

So what’s the juice on LiftCollective?

The organization is at the epicenter of the march for change within the wine world. Through scholarship programs and mentorships, they’re quite literally giving the keys to aspiring wine professionals (and those who are already working the vines) from all backgrounds and identities, providing them with resources to successfully immerse themselves in the industry and giving folks a safe space to openly discuss ways to combat problems of inequality, discrimination and harassment faced by women, BIPOC and LGBTQI+ people.

To mark Women’s History Month, the group hosted their second Virtual Conference — partnering with experts and thought leaders throughout the wine and spirits industries for a two-day event of discussions emphasizing entrepreneurship, health and wellness, equity, and inclusion. In April, LiftCollective will collaborate with Be the Change Initiative to host a job fair specifically aimed at helping people from marginalized communities secure job opportunities across wine, beer, and spirits.

To mark these initiatives, I chatted with both Zayyat and LiftCollective’s Board Vice President and advanced sommelier, Cara Bertone. Our discussion touched on the work they do with the organization and how they’re making a long-lasting impact. Check our conversation below.

Was it fate for you ladies to work together on LiftCollective?

Rania Zayyat: It was like two years ago. Cara started Roots Up, bringing some of the leading women in wine in Austin together. That was shortly after I started Wonder Women of Wine, and Cara talked about wanting to do more work regarding diversity and inclusion. From there I was just like “Yeah, Cara should definitely be on the board of directors.”

So, I think it was fate.

Cara Bertone: Our meeting was definitely fate, and as for working together, it’s just what happened. Your passions come out at some point, and if your passions align you’re lucky. I feel really fortunate that the women I work with within the industry are all aligned, value-wise.

How did you end working in the wine industry?

CB: Working in the wine industry was secondary for me. I loved Red Bull and vodka, and I would have done anything to keep that preference in college because it was a great motivator to stay awake and hang out with friends. I ended up working at a restaurant in Dallas, Texas, and that was the start of my love for wine. The wine list had like 2,000 labels on it, and it was a sushi, Vietnamese restaurant. I had a glass of Harlan [Estate] ‘94, and that was all she wrote.

It’s a much longer story… I drooled the wine all over myself… but it was one of those ah-ha moments. I often tell people that most of us don’t go out searching to be in the wine industry—something happens. You’re having a great time with friends and the wine hits you in a way that all of a sudden you taste the subtle nuances and you feel like you’re a part of the vineyard.

Once I had that one wine, my head was stuck in a book for the next 15 years—never really came out of the book, to be honest. I went to school for finance, so I had a boring life ahead of me until wine hit me.

RZ: I started working in restaurants 17 years ago. I took my first hosting job when I was 17, and I always thought that I would work in restaurants as a temporary means to make money while I was in college. I switched my major halfway through from journalism, and then really started getting excited about cultural anthropology. I always had an interest in archeology and culture when I was young, and I knew that I wanted to travel for work. I was on a seven-year college program — because I was going half-time and working to support myself — and about four years in, I started working at a steakhouse in Houston that had a really robust wine program.

I was finishing up my last few years of school and I was thinking about wine and how I had kind of fallen in love with it at that point. Serving it for so many years, wine was something that I just chose to study because I felt like as a server, you pride yourself on product knowledge. It was really important to me to be comfortable talking about wine tableside. Working at that steakhouse was the first time I worked with a team of sommeliers, and there was baller wine going out every single night to the richest people in Houston, big oil money — very flashy spending. But it was a really cool place to study wine. It really opened my eyes up to the possibility of making this a career, and I realized I could travel for work and talk about culture through wine. That’s really when I decided to become a sommelier and start taking wine more seriously and studying more.

From there I got offered trips, took exams, and just moved my way around different wine programs.

Olive + West Photography
Lift collective founder, Rania Zayyat

How did the idea for LiftCollective come about?

RZ: LiftCollective is actually a rebrand of an organization called Wonder Women of Wine. We started Wonder Women of Wine in late 2018 as we were planning for our very first annual conference here in Austin, Texas. We did a lot of great work with Wonder Women of Wine and, in a way, I definitely feel like it’s the still same organization. But we’ve really broadened our mission to be more inclusive of all marginalized identities in the wine industry. We still do an annual conference. We do weekly interviews on Instagram that were formerly called Femme Friday where we’d feature different women in wine every week. Now it’s opened up to just inspiring people with inspiring stories in the industry. But our focus really with the rebrand, which took place in January of this year, was just to make sure that everyone feels like they have a seat at this table, and we’re really using our platform to advocate for change for everyone who’s ever felt marginalized in some way.

I think that represents a lot of us—not just women. It’s the intersectionality of so many different identities.

Why was it important for you to use your voice and platform to advocate for more inclusivity and diversity in the wine industry?

RZ: Looking back on when I was working at that steakhouse when I was younger and deciding I wanted to do this and pronouncing it to my co-workers and the wine team at that restaurant—what I went through to get to where I am today, to be able to be a wine director and educate people, it was definitely an uphill battle. I always felt like I wasn’t taken seriously. I was busting my ass to work wine shifts, to learn, to study. And I was passed over three times while I was doing that hard work for some white male to come in and take the job that I was going after. There were never any clear guidelines, like, “Well you need to achieve this to get this position.” But whenever they’d hire other people, they’d be like, “Oh, well these people have an advanced pin. And that’s important to us.” And it was like, okay, that was never communicated to me, and I’ve been putting in all this time and work. A lot of my experiences were shaped by being in this cult that was the Master Court of Sommeliers and feeling like women were looked at like a piece of ass to all these older men that we’re supposed to get in good with so that we can move up. I could have really used some strong women to lean on at that time. I really could have used some people who looked like me or didn’t look like white men to help guide me and make me feel welcomed. I wanted to start an organization that really did that for other people getting started but also create a space where we could talk about these things safely, and celebrate each other successes because we’ve all been through so much.

CB: A lot of what Rania said holds true no matter what marginalized community you are a part of. I have this weird dynamic with men specifically in the industry. You drink wine and you get into these boozy situations. I’m lesbian. I’m married to a woman, and so as soon as men find this out, all they’d do is talk about women and they’d treat me as if I was one of the guys. Hearing these men talk [about women] like pieces of meat? Absolutely. That’s all they would speak about. But what irks me and really digs at the core of me is the simple fact that no matter what, if you’re not in the group or at the table, your voice is never heard. Period. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have. It doesn’t matter how many relationships you have within the industry. If you are seen as someone who doesn’t hold power because you don’t have an executive role, you don’t have a voice. And we can’t be better as an industry if we don’t elevate all voices. It’s not just our industry, it’s multiple industries. I don’t know what industry wouldn’t benefit from being more inclusive. I am a little atypical because I will go out and ask for a lot and push my way into bigger and better roles, but I’ve never been seen as an equal to my peers.

I’ve been in the industry for almost 25 years, but if I compare myself to a white man that’s been in the industry for as long as I have, I guarantee he will have a CEO position within the industry. And that, to me, is infuriating. I’m not saying I’m smarter than them. All I’m saying is that I should have had just as much opportunity at that table as they do, and I’m clearly quite a few years behind being able to get that seat. Think about all marginalized people. I’m loud, but there are a lot of people who aren’t loud like me. I want to advocate for them. We should be lifting everybody up because just me rising up is not enough. It’s not that it doesn’t mean anything—it’s great—but if I can use my voice to help bring other people up — hell yeah.

It’s just sort of a no-brainer for me.

Do you feel like there has been more of an increase in visibility for women in wine?

CB: I do believe that we’re seeing more women come into the industry, but what I want to be more specific about is that there is more coverage of women in the wine industry now than five years ago. Even as of 12 months ago, I would often take pictures of the front cover of Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator, Tasting Panel — any of the industry mags — and I would shoot it over to groups of people and just be like, “Why can’t they get their heads out of their asses?” I would actually count the articles [written] within those publications, males versus females, something that simple. Women mentions? Less than 10 percent. Women pictures? Less than 10 percent. And if it was a woman pictured, it was a pretty girl, arm candy with the cocktail off to the side with the bro dude holding a bottle. And I’d just be sitting there going, “You’ve got to be kidding me. This is how they see us.”

So I don’t want to take away from the fact that I do think women are coming into the industry a bit more, but I do believe that we’re getting people to listen.

RZ: I’ve seen a lot more journalism by women. We’re the ones who are actually telling the stories now. So we get to decide who we’re going to include. So many of these people have always been here. But as our network grows, as we get to celebrate each other more publicly in articles, in the news. The exposure has really been key, and I think it’s made a big difference, especially financially, for so many people. Just being able to have these platforms and be visible, women have gotten so many job opportunities. We’re being elevated by being able to make more money too, and that’s such an empowering thing.

What is the goal of LiftCollective’s 2021 Virtual Conference?

RZ: The overall goal is to have actionable and solution-oriented conversations where we can provide everyone that’s attending some sort of actionable items or resources to spark change—so they feel like when they walk away from our event, there is something they can do to start creating more change. That goes not only for professionals but also for consumers. We’re educating consumers on how they can spend their money differently, what types of questions they should be asking when they’re shopping for wine so they can support more diverse winemakers.

It’s really just about preparing people for what happens after this event, what are the next steps, and building upon that.

Cara Bertone
LiftCollective Board Vice President Cara Bertone

What specific changes for women and marginalized groups are you working on right now that will have an impact in the next year or so?

CB: Be the Change job fair. That’s something that we are also a part of, and we are bringing in a huge pool of candidates. We do not discriminate against the candidates, but we have a huge outreach for marginalized communities. We just teamed up with Thurgood Marshall College Fund to work with their campus coordinators to bring their December and June graduates on board and get them into the industry. We’re working in tandem with distributors and suppliers for spirits, wine, and beer to work directly with companies who value diversity, equality, and inclusion. We’re working to try to find people jobs.

The idea is the more people of marginalized communities we can bring into the space, the more they can grow together, the more they can make change. That’s the hope.

What’s your quick, water-cooler-pitch advice for people of all communities and backgrounds that are considering breaking into the wine industry?

RZ: If certifications and testing are important to you, I encourage people to consider the reasons for going down that path and making sure you’re doing it because that’s something you want to do for yourself as a measure of success. Make sure you’re not doing it to conform to someone else’s expectations of you as a winemaker. That’s something I really wish I would have thought about before I got started. Also, adhere to your values. Try to find people you can work with and for that want to lift you up and see you grow.

There are times when people mask animosity towards others by saying they’re just being tough on them. I think it’s so important to work for people who are nurturing and really invested in your growth in a caring way rather than a negatively challenging way. I’ve worked for some toxic people and in those times I was like, “Oh this is good for me, I’m learning. This is just how it goes. You have to put in your time.” But looking back, those were really toxic and harmful relationships. I just wish I would have known that I didn’t have to go through that to become a better professional. So surround yourself with people who really care about you and your growth and your success.