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California’s Wine Industry Has Long Been a ‘Boys’ Club’

Good morning.

The Sonoma County town of Windsor is small. Tucked between the better-known destinations Healdsburg and Santa Rosa, Windsor had just 27,128 residents as of 2019.

But when The San Francisco Chronicle published an investigation early last month, in which four women accused Windsor’s mayor of sexual assault, the news rippled outward. The mayor, Dominic Foppoli, 38, had been crowned “prince of the wine country.” He was a rising political star and winery owner, The Chronicle reported, whose ambitions embodied those of the town itself.

Since the initial investigation, more than a dozen state and local lawmakers have demanded that Foppoli step down, and he faces a recall effort. Three more women, including a former mayor of Sonoma, have also come forward with accusations of sexual assault and abuse. Foppoli has denied wrongdoing.

The investigation surfaced more than accusations of a pattern of misconduct by one person. It also shined a light on the insular culture of the local wine industry, and how that industry is closely entwined with the region’s politics.

For anyone who has experienced, read or written about sexual misconduct, some of what the women told to The Chronicle most likely sounded familiar: They — like women in Hollywood, government and more — were hesitant to talk about their experiences, in part because they were afraid to cross a powerful man they had encountered in environments where the boundaries between work and socialization were blurry.

To learn more about what it’s like to work in the Sonoma wine industry, I asked Amy Bess Cook, founder of Woman-Owned Wineries, a wine club and directory aimed at elevating female entrepreneurs, to share her perspective, which she emphasized is based solely on her observations and experiences.

Here is some of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

Tell me about how and why you started Woman-Owned Wineries.

I have been in the wine industry for a little over 10 years. Prior to that, I worked in book publishing and nonprofits doing communications work.

I came to wine country in like 2009. I was just looking for work in the middle of a recession, and I wound up here.

And I figured if I wanted freelance writing clients, I would need to get to know the local community, so I rolled up my sleeves and started working at a local winery. It was a really wonderful opportunity. I got experience in vineyards and production and the marketing side, of course, to tap my communications experience. I got a sense of industry.

When I left in 2017, Harvey Weinstein had just come up, Bill Cosby’s case had just come up — it was that time. And it was also one of the first years with really terrible wildfires.

In the midst of all that, when I was evacuated because of those fires, I just wanted to do something for the community. And I started thinking about making a list of women-owned wineries locally — just good folks to patronize. At that time, the list was only about 50.

That’s out of how many wineries? Do you have a sense of the scale?

There’s hundreds. We started with that list, and it was so popular we decided to invest in researching nationwide, and it’s not definitive, but it’s now about 600 wineries strong. That’s out of 10,000 wineries.

How do people get into winemaking, or how do they become wine entrepreneurs? Reading the reporting about the Foppoli case, it seems very expensive to get started, and a lot of winemakers have a lot of generational wealth or family expertise.

I’m hesitant to say, “This is how it works,” because I see people come into winemaking and winery ownership from all different angles.

You don’t need to buy land in order to be a winemaker or to have a wine label. You don’t even have to buy all of the equipment, because there are a number of custom crush facilities that can accommodate you if you have the money and can hire out a winemaker who’s already working at a custom crush facility.

But, generally, there are scores of people working in this industry who are incredibly qualified to make and even run their own label — just wildly talented — and they’re not going to have the capital to start a wine business, especially after working for years in an industry that underpays hospitality and production folks. There’s just a wall unless you come in with generational wealth or get investors.

And I’m assuming if you’re unknown or you don’t fit a particular profile — if you’re a woman or a person of color, say — it’s much harder. How much does just knowing people make a difference?

I’d like to refer you to a recent survey by Lift Collective, which has done a lot of great work for women and marginalized people in the wine industry. There are a couple of questions around this topic, just how relationship-based the wine industry really is.

That’s natural in many ways because wine is a social beverage. They had it at the symposia in ancient Greece — but women of course were never invited. So it’s been a boys’ club for a very long time.

For more:

California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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