In Rania Zayyat's later years as an Austin sommelier, she worked under two powerhouse women in the wine industry: Vilma Mazaite, wine director at now-defunct restaurant La V, and June Rodil, beverage director for the McGuire Moorman Hospitality group of restaurants. They imparted valuable lessons to her about running a business, making connections and, of course, spreading the gospel of wine.
But not every woman working in wine has female role models to learn from and emulate.
As the #MeToo movement progressed last year, Zayyat said she realized there was a need for a new kind of wine conference — one focused on the women in a still predominantly male industry. This weekend, the inaugural Wonder Women of Wine event will do exactly that, highlighting the need for gender equality in the wine scene with discussions, networking and wine tastings.
"The idea for the conference started a year ago, but it was something that I've noticed during my eight to nine years in wine," she said. "It's very male-dominated, especially in the testing and accreditation culture. The idea came to me after seeing what was happening with Me Too, and I wanted to create positive change in the industry and get more women into leadership roles. I didn't know any women in leadership roles when I first started working in wine."
The statistics suggest she might have a point. In 2015, for example, a nonprofit sommelier organization surveyed the salaries of nearly 1,000 sommeliers (trained wine professionals) and reported that women sommeliers earned roughly $7,150 less than their male counterparts.
Other data the Wonder Women of Wine conference cites on its website? Women are responsible for 60 percent of wine purchases and 80 percent of wine consumption in a $34 billion industry in the U.S. But women hold only 23 percent of leadership positions in the industry. These statistics are no doubt going to come up during the two-day conference on March 2 and 3, but Zayyat wants each of the panels to address ways to change them.
"Everyone has stories about those experiences, but this is about finding a solution," she said. "What I really want for the conference is to have a balanced audience of men and women so that men can be part of the solution, too. I was really conscious of not creating an echo chamber. I really wanted to have these great people together so that we can create the greatest impact possible."
The Wonder Women of Wine conference will feature an array of female voices. Austin's own Rae Wilson and Adrienne Ballou will sit for a panel about trailblazing Texas wine. Mazaite will be one of three moms at another talk about the "unique set of challenges" that working mothers in the wine industry in particular face every day. And wine writer Karen MacNeil — author of the single best-selling wine book in the country, "The Wine Bible" — will serve as the day's keynote speaker.
RELATED: Just in time for patio weather, a Texas rosé is returning to Austin
Zayyat will also take her place behind the microphone for a session: "To Test or Not to Test?" The question of whether women in the wine industry need to seek accreditation through the Court of Master Sommeliers and other organizations is a pet issue for her. She's an advanced sommelier, but she recognizes that taking the tests to become one might not be the right course for everyone.
"To be taken seriously, you have to be certified," she said. "But I encourage people to explore the options that are available, looking at all of them as equal, and choose the one that makes sense for your career path. Don't just choose one because that's what you're surrounded by or are told it's popular."
Advocacy and education, for example, is the direction she has taken her wine education. She's veered away from the traditional path of working at restaurants and now, in addition to organizing the conference this year, teaches classes about wine for women lawyers and other folks.
She's also sought nonprofit status for Wonder Women of Wine — to continue the mission of the conference on a more regular basis.
The first day of the conference, on March 2, will focus primarily on speaker panels. Day two, on March 3, features wine tastings from a variety of vendors. General admission tickets to the weekend are $130; VIP tickets are $250. The conference is located at the Sunset Room, 310 E. Third St.
For more information, visit wonderwomenofwine.com.