In Fleishman is in Trouble, Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s novel-turned-zeitgeisty 2023 television series, the character Libby Epstein compares being a working mother to having two full-time jobs. “It’s just math,” she says.
For many real-world working parents, the sentiment resonates. A 2020 Gallup poll showed that fathers in heterosexual, dual-income households don’t share childcare, cleaning, grocery shopping and other duties equally with their female spouses. And, according to a recent study on motherhood and burnout, “less than a third of  parents surveyed believe that caring for kids is evenly split among both parents.”
This imbalance plays out in the wine world, too. Mothers who work in wine also have irregular hours and late nights to contend with, not to mention varying sociocultural attitudes toward raising children around alcohol. Plus, anyone who’s filled glasses or presented a wine list while visibly pregnant has endured more than their fair share of raised eyebrows and cutting remarks.
But the irony is, pregnant women could be considered some of the wine industry’s sharpest analysts and we may be hindering the potential of mothers at all stages. Instead of sidelining or isolating motherhood from the field, we might consider its potential to unlock new ways to understand wine.
Pregnancy and Evaluating Wine
Every person and pregnancy is different, but, as many as two-thirds of women report heightened senses of smell during their pregnancies. That could certainly be seen as an asset in an industry where professionals spend years training their noses and palates to identify and evaluate a wine’s aromas, ripeness, alcohol content and balance.
Suzie Kukaj-Curovic, senior director of public relations and corporate communications for Freixenet and Mionetto, one of the largest sparkling wine companies in the country, had her first child in November 2020. The majority of her pregnancy fell during the strictest shutdowns of the early pandemic.
“I found out I was pregnant on the first day of shelter-in-place,” she says. Despite the immense challenges of the situation, she describes her professional experience as “incredibly positive” due to her manager’s support. When the company eventually rolled out a hybrid return-to-work plan, for example, she was exempt. “Not many people had that luxury at other companies,” she says.
From home, Kukaj-Curovic hosted twice-weekly virtual events where she would sniff, taste and spit wines, with tasting groups. During her pregnancy, she noticed significant changes in her sense of smell. “I was picking up all of these really out-of-the-ordinary aromas and tasting notes. I felt like my aroma library expanded,” she says.
For a communications specialist whose duties include discussing aromas with people who have diverse biographical scent memories to call upon, it was an incredible asset.
Another example, Brenae Royal, who handles winery relations and vineyard ops for Monte Rosso Vineyard, found that each stage of pregnancy impacted her senses differently. During her first trimester, she found wine flavors almost unpleasantly pronounced. By the second trimester, however, her already-expert nose and palate were supercharged.
“My sense of smell was so strong that I swear I could smell the soap used to sanitize the stemware,” she says. “Wine became much more nuanced, and I felt like I could smell and taste things that you usually get after the wine has been decanted. I’ve been loving participating in tastings because wine just opens up in a way it hasn’t before for me.”
Royal attended trade shows and other wine events while visibly pregnant, and credits other female wine professionals for dissolving stigmas so she could do her job and feel supported. “I feel that most people knew I had the strongest senses in the room,” says Royal.
If Kukaj-Curovic had attended any of those same events, she likely would have agreed. “I have friends and colleagues that swear during their pregnancy they were the best tasters, and that their palates evolved,” she says.
The Medical Research Gap
Statistically, women have stronger senses of smell than men, explains Andrei Rebarber, M.D., clinical professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, and president of Maternal Fetal Medicine Associates, PLLC. “That becomes especially pronounced during pregnancy when estrogen and cortisol levels are higher,” he says. Some believe this is an evolutionary adaptive mechanism, orchestrated by the body to protect the fetus from potentially unsafe foods.
Unfortunately, studies on how pregnancy affects the senses are few and far between. “There’s so much gender divide in [medical] research and reimbursement,” says Rebarber. By means of example, he explains how insurance companies reimburse procedures to remove warts from male genitalia at higher rates than for the same process on female patients.
He hopes that medical treatment, funding and research will become more equitable as gender parity in the field improves. “More women are going into medical school, and there are going to be more women in leadership positions.”
The Future of Mothers In the Wine Industry
Female wine professionals—alongside those from BIPOC, queer and other marginalized communities—are making similar strides to diversify drinks businesses. Still, gender biases persist and affect the ways wine professionals do or don’t talk about everything from postpartum recovery to the effects of pregnancy on the sense of smell.
“Because it’s a male-dominated industry, a lot of people have this perception that you don’t want to raise the idea that, because you’re a woman, any female-related issues are impacting your performance or ability at work,” says Kukaj-Curovic.
That’s not to say the members of wine companies’ C-suites have evil intentions. Executives of all genders in many industries adopt a don’t-ask, don’t-tell attitude toward female healthcare due to the scope and endurance of workplace pregnancy discrimination nationwide. Besides, many of us would prefer to share fewer personal health details with our employers, not more. However, those in positions of power have immense opportunities to change the ways gendered healthcare is viewed and experienced in their workplaces.
Depending on the relationships managers have with their employees, they might celebrate pregnant staffers’ heightened senses by encouraging them to write tasting notes or participate in research and development. As with anything related to personal health, context is key. Still, it would be a shame to categorically ignore pregnant wine professionals’ supercharged skill set.
Camillya Masunda, founder of Ebony Wine & Spirits, didn’t work in wine when she was pregnant, but being a mother is now part of her business. She uses hashtags like #mompreneur in her branding, and her teenage daughter contributes to the company’s digital and creative strategy.
“Women in wine get underestimated,” says Masunda. “Not only are we in the industry and creating varieties and brands and doing everything we can to move things forward, but we’re also teaching the next generation.”
Every year, members of the industry wring our hands about losing generational market share. Meanwhile, there are so many wine professionals whose potential contributions have barely been permitted to scratch the surface.
Female wine professionals are among many who feel they are sidelined in the industry. Those in positions of power could regard this as a call to action to be more inclusive. What other valuable assets and perspectives do marginalized communities bring to wine? Who benefits when they’re amplified, and what issues persist when they’re continuously overlooked?
From pregnancy to motherhood and beyond, diversity and inclusivity are keys to building sustainable businesses. This isn’t political. It’s just math.