Thoughts On Covering the Wines of Italy

I was asked to submit the following essay by Italy’s Le Donne del Vino (Women of Wine) association, of which I am a member, in the occasion of Vinitaly held in Verona in mid-April. It was part of a group of essays by Italy’s female wine professionals that together formed the basis of a more comprehensive seminar hosted by the Italian daily La Repubblica during the trade fair. Because my essay generated many comments and points of discussion, I thought I would publish here in Wine Journal for your consideration. 

The photo of the fresco above is from the House of Venus in the Shell in the ancient ruins of Pompeii. The house was built in the 1st century BC. 

We’ve all heard the old adage that a woman must work many times as hard as a man to achieve the exact same goals. As I have personally discovered, this is not just hyperbole. My transition from lead reviewer of Italian wines with the Wine Enthusiast to the same position with Robert Parker Wine Advocate turned out to be much more complicated and uncomfortable (not for me, but for others) than I ever would have imagined. Ironically, the job description at the two publications is almost exactly the same. It is the perception of me, Monica Larner, that is different.

It’s fine for a woman to be the Italian Editor at Wine Enthusiast, a publication that also includes lifestyle coverage with wine travel and food. It is less acceptable, however, for a woman to be Italian Reviewer for The Wine Advocate, a publication that is perceived to move the market in terms of wine sales around the globe. 

Banal stereotyping soon slips into even more banal sexualization. I remember a photo of me posted next to a photo of my Wine Enthusiast replacement Kerin O’Keefe in a creepy game of “Who Would You Rather?” The photographic juxtaposition was evidently designed to prompt consensus as to which one of us was more physically attractive and therefore more desirable in bed. I had been at my wine writing career for 10 years by that point. My colleague Kerin was at it even longer than me. And, this had become our new, sad reality. 

Making the switch between the two publications revealed a world of chauvinism and petty jealousy that had been invisible to me. It’s as if I had taken claim to something that did not inherently belong to me. I had become a sudden trespasser or an intruder in a world that had previously nurtured and protected me. I can think of several (more than you’d like to think) versions of “you didn’t deserve that job” comments played my way both in Italy and abroad. 

I was told that the only reason Robert Parker picked me is because I am fluent in English. This made no sense because not all my colleagues are English mother tongue. Another time I was told that I must have been a distant second pick for the job only because someone else had refused it first. Believe me, no self-respecting wine critic would shun this honor. Needless to say, all of these comments were threaded with the conspiratorial subtext that Robert Parker had evidently lost his mind by choosing me. 

I asked Bob about this a while back and he laughed it off: “You were our only choice,” he said pointedly. The criteria for getting my job included the following: the proven courage to award 100-point scores; no ties to paid promotional activities; and no past scandals. An excellent palate was required as was a round-the-clock work ethic. “Humility, respect and deference towards the wines of Italy is what we wanted most in our candidate,” he told me. The Wine Advocate has little use for divas. 

When I was hired in 2013, I remember reading an online comment that predicted my immediate demise. It said I would never last at this job. I would either quit or, more likely, be fired within my first year. As I write this, I approach my five-year anniversary with the company. 

I’m still here and I’m still me. 

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