Discover more from Fermentation
Tanya Morning Star Darling: The Ramble
A Rambling Interview with one of the most interesting people in wine
For this second Ramble at The Fermentation Substack, I invited one of the most thoughtful people in wine that I’ve come across in a very long time: Tanya Morning Star Darling. It was a fascinating article Tanya wrote for Guildsom concerning the history of women in wine that made me want to know her better. The article was unusual in its approach to discerning the current and past role of women in wine. I took issue with part of the article and wrote about it. But I couldn’t bet Tanya out of my mind, began following her work and that resulted in this Ramble. Tanya is a very accomplished wine educator whose efforts coalesce under her CellarMuse company. She is certified on numerous levels and her efforts and talent have caught the attention of nearly every scholarly wine organization in the world. And Tanya has thoughts and ideas and ambitions and she is particularly an advocate for women and for raising them up in general and within the wine industry.
And a word about this interview format. Normally I would send off a set of questions to a subject, let them respond in writing and there it is. This interview, and those that follow in this series, begin with one question emailed to the subject. They respond in any way they choose, which in turn prompts my next question, and so on. It is a less formal way of conducting an interview, results in something a bit messier and rambling, but also produce something more interesting and authentic.
FERMENTATION: I want to thank you for going on this ramble with me. I wasn’t sure you’d accept. I posted a story (link) last year about an article you wrote about the exclusion of women from wine through history (link) and sort of took you to the woodshed on one point. But I wrote about your article because really was quite good, well researched, different and useful. So, thanks for not blowing me off. I want to give you a chance to address my criticism. But first, I want to ask what is your primary motivation for your chosen vocation in wine: teaching and educating?
TANYA: Thank you so much Tom, for writing about my recent article in Guildsomm, Women in Wine History: Systematic Exclusion and the Success of Tenacious Women. I am grateful for both your words of praise, as well as those of criticism, and have given the things you said a good deal of thought, so I am pleased that you reached out to me to do this rambling, and to share my response with you – and enter into a real conversation on the subject.
Before we talk about the article, you asked me to share the inspiration behind my vocation in wine as an educator and mentor. It is intuitive of you to use that word for my work (vocation), as I do feel engaged in a calling. I fell in love with wine as a very young woman, when I was studying art history in France, and that curiosity grew over the years as I supported a career in the performing arts by working in restaurants in NYC. My first calling was to storytelling, community building, and culture shifting through art. A main point of inquiry for me through both my work as an artist, and as a wine historian and teacher, has been to find meaning in the cultural constructs of ritual and community, this research has led me to a nexus between food, wine, art, and cultural identity, which is the trough-line of my work really. I am curious about identity, personal freedom, and cultural constructs of community. The quest to understand these things has run throughout my work in the theater, as an academic, and as a wine professional.
In this quest for community, I have come to understand that individual identity and freedom are essential, and we have to understand ourselves if we wish to find ourselves in health and unity with others. So, I have to underscore, that although I feel compelled to write more these days, I am at my core, a performer, and it comes very naturally to me to tell and share ideas with people on the stage, in the classroom, and at the table.
I find writing to be a very difficult job, one I am interested in, but also one which is a real labor of love (underscore labor). As I engage more as a writer, I sometimes feel frustrated with how difficult it is to convey something of real visceral meaning through the written word. It is both the time it takes to paint the pictures I want to paint, and the limitations of the scope in which I am asked to do it (literally number of words and length that I will be able to command the reader’s attention in print on their phone or computer) that I find constricting.
In regards to the Guildsomm article, the subject of women in wine history is one that I have been developing a point of view on over the last 10 years, primarily as a professor of wine history in the college setting. Last year, I was asked to distill those years of research into a keynote lecture for the Lift Collective’s annual conference on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in the wine industry. It is from this lecture, that I was invited to write the article for Guildsomm, and put this story into print as opposed to a performative presentation.
I am not afraid to call myself a radical feminist, but I am absolutely not grouchy, full of anger, hate or resentment. Rather, I feel very empowered to discover, through the study of history and the sharing of those stories in the classroom, our own power as human beings. For me understanding the painful systematic exclusion and subjugation of women is just a tool to liberation.
In the classroom, it is natural for me to present solutions, through intimate discussions, which are inspired when I am teaching about the meaning or legacy of history in our contemporary context. Through classroom community, discussions and mentoring, I am able to engage in real, meaningful action in regards to helping women and men recognize their self-worth and accept that we are responsible for shaping the present and future we want. We are not victims of history, if we really seek to understand what brought us to the present moment. It is at this point, collectively, that we can move to creating the society we wish to live in.
So, when I read your article, your point of criticism hit a sore spot for me – the fact that I had failed to figure out how to do in print, what I am able to do in the classroom – present dynamic solutions (and I will admit that some of that is due to my lack of experience as a writer, combined with the fact that I was very busy with other work as the deadline approached to turn in the Guildsomm article…I had to find resolution for the article with a limited amount of time)! When I finished the article, I knew I had failed to present the inspiration that I feel is the core of my work…evolution. Even before I read your article, I had been pondering the next steps in the conversation, including a follow-up article completely dedicated to the subject you so accurately point out as missing…what now???
I am working on developing those ideas, and do plan on a follow up article, but maybe more importantly, I am actively engaging my students and mentees in meaningful symposium-type discussions, presenting my ideas in speeches, and lectures and also have formed a tasting group called “The Feminine Symposium” to create a space for a group of women to taste and ask questions about wine in our own forum, a completely feminine forum (which, as I point out in my article, although women are now admitted into the same spaces as men, those spaces were created by centuries of men exploring ideas through male only forums…so essentially we as women are being allowed in, where I know that it is time to liberate ourselves, as a community of women, to discover what kinds of systems and structures of thought we might create if we give ourselves spaces of our own.). I am excited about the group and plan on documenting our process as we invite each other to abandon the ways we have been thought to relate to our academic and sensory experiences around wine. I hope that this project will also lead to me being able to produce a story, which will be useful and inspiring for women today, seeking to find their way. I believe that the most urgent agenda item for women today is to liberate ourselves and each other from self-doubt and from unnecessary competition with one another. For me, a follow-up article is important, more writing on the subject is forthcoming, but most urgently for me, is doing the actual work inside our community to discover what we can be as people if we free ourselves to trust that we belong, and that our ideas are worth exploring, developing and sharing.
FERMENTATION: You aren’t ambitious are you!! I’m happy to hear you will be diving into an exploration of how women can better understand themselves and their place in the wine industry.
When you embark on a project to understand and help create "systems and structures of thought we [women] might create if we give ourselves spaces of our own” are you suggesting that there are fundamental differences between men and women that make existing (male-created) spaces incompatible with women’s unique needs or that the wine world’s spaces would be different if they were imagined and created by both men and women but since they are not, it’s on women to create their own? And as an aside, do you think women-created spaces and systems will work for men? And I”m wondering, can you give one or two quick examples of the systems and spaces in the wine world that is so obviously created by men alone that they don’t or can’t accommodate the needs of women?
TANYA: First of all, the patriarchal structures if our society, including historically, education and intellectual forums, have been shaped by spaces for men with the exclusion of women, from the Greek symposium to formal educational institutions of the not so distant past. The feminist movements of the last couple hundred years have opened the doors more and more for women to participate in both academia and industry, but to participate in a society, which has been functionally structured and crafted by men. Today we are included, but often only if we can meet a value system that considers issues typically faced by women, such as family and caretaking or even our biology: menstruating, childbearing and nursing, for example - as a liability.
I recently was in Italy studying intensively 10 hours a day in a convention center setting far from amenities and shops, and while the bathrooms dispensed condoms, it was impossible to find any feminine sanitary products. We started our studies so early and finished so late that all shops were closed by the time we arrived back in the city canter each day. There was a menstruating woman who failed the exam as a result. This is a simple, practical example of the realities women face as part of a societal structure centered around male-oriented thinking. Even though there are no legal barriers to participation in such a program, this woman was disadvantaged by her biology, and it went completely unnoticed. I could spend the whole day citing ways in which it is difficult for women to show up as their authentic and best selves in academic and professional settings, from values to biology. This is simply one very agrégions example.
On other levels the millennia of exclusion and subjugation of women has created an unnecessary sense of competition and mistrust amongst women, which needs to be addressed and healed by women, amongst ourselves. This is one reason for women to gather together to explore and share ideas without the presence of men, which is more about us than a focus on the exclusion of them.
So, absolutely, I want to be part of a culture shift that promotes all people to show up as their authentic selves, meaning that all people arrive at the table to break bread, drink from the cup, and partake together. This is, as an educator, mentor and a facilitator, the most important objective, and it relates to all people. Period.
I absolutely do not think that the things women have to offer in terms of perspective, are incompatible with the participation of men, but as I said I am curious what we might discover if we afford ourselves some of what men have historically afforded themselves - a forum of our own.
In practice, I am engaging with this experiment of a female-only tasting group, as well as other community experiences which invite people to show up as their authentic selves and explore the value of each person’s unique experience, without fear. I am curious about what might happen when we encourage in open discourse about our wine experiences without fear, intimidation or exclusivity. This to me is about all people, community, and progress, and ultimately is something we need to grapple with together. Female only formats are simply a part of a process, which may help women show up better in our culture as a whole. I believe everyone will benefit from that.
FERMENTATION: The barrier your friend faced in Italy that you just described is particularly frustrating for me to hear about because it seems one of those very rare things: a structural problem that can be so easily solved. But it strikes me that the really hard problem to address is the "unnecessary sense of competition and mistrust amongst women”. I think in general the wine industry is very collaborative. Particularly on the production side where neighbors often help neighboring growers and winemakers. However, from the start of my career on the marketing/PR side I assumed I was in competition with everyone else. I assumed someone wanted my job, my client, my position. And I think that assumption is a valid one. This way of seeing the world is either a fact of human nature or a fact of male nature. I personally don’t know the answer and don’t really care. But you do obviously care where it comes to women because you see this competition stifling in some way how women operate in the wine industry. What if this sense of competition is a natural outgrowth of the human condition?
TANYA: I actually feel that this example is not rare, but simply one of many, many ways in which women are disadvantaged by structural systems which have been largely built by men, or to favor men generally. Men may not even realize that these disadvantages exist, but they especially relate to systems in the workplace surrounding fertility, childbearing, and care-taking - and they are pervasive, even in the most progressive companies. Access to affordable childcare for example (which should not be a women’s issue, but is, and keeps women out of the workplace), nursing accommodations, paid family leave around the birth of a child, the way gaps in one’s resume adversely impact employment opportunities (when women are more likely to pause employment to birth or raise children or care for elderly than men are). I can go on, and on, and every one of these are issues has actually directly impacted me personally as a woman and mother, who also has done other family care-taking.
The thing is that these systems, which favor men, or disadvantage women, can be insidious (you, yourself said that you thought my example was rare, when I believe it is just one example in a string of many, which are pervasive, and many of which go virtually unaddressed, or under-addressed). The systemic disadvantage for women in the workplace causes insecurity in women, imposter syndrome, and anxiety in women. Additionally, the fact that leadership (and including winemaking) roles are so significantly filled by men over women, in partnership with these disadvantages I have cited, causes women to be less likely to show up as their authentic or best selves, and more likely to view other women as competition (as being pitted against one another for a limited amount of opportunities, for those who are able to overcome the systemic disadvantages which still exist).
As it relates to tasting and certification, the wine industry is full of competitive, exclusive, and ego-driven structures, which I feel intimidate people generally, and give people who seek to know wine and work in wine a deep sense of insecurity that somebody else knows everything and they don’t or that their ability to taste is somehow basically inadequate. This silences people (I am talking about all people, but I think that the effect is more significant for under-represented groups…not just women).
I could go on more about this subject, but there are time constraints to this dialogue. I will say that there is a high level of really dysfunctional pin chasing, pretentiousness, and insecurity generally in our current education and tasting structures, and I have many thoughts about how to help students (all students) get past these detrimental aspects of wine education, to achieve real benefits, not just pins or diplomas to constantly prove we are good enough in the industry. I am curious if women might be able to correct some of this dysfunction in our industry (for everybody’s benefit), if we put our minds to it together.
Regarding my tasting group, I am curious, to openly explore with other women, how we might taste, and relate to wine together when we remove the existing structures. I don’t know what we will discover, maybe not much beyond your average tasting group…but we might discover something very exciting, which we could then bring forth and share generally. This is an experiment, and eventually, if we discover something interesting, we will want to open up the conversation beyond women, certainly. I just want to see if something different happens when there are only women in the group. Men have had that opportunity in wine for millennia, and we just haven’t had the opportunity to see what would happen if we had that same opportunity.
By the way, we had our first group, and it seems promising…that is all I will say here, since I plan to write extensively about our discoveries at some point, myself.
FERMENTATION: To be fair, I think I said your example was rare insofar as it was a problem that is easily addressed once identified. Many problems aren’t so easily fixed.
Regarding the inadequacies of the educational and tasting structures, you identify problems: its competitive, ego-driven structures intimidate people producing insecurity and a feeling that somebody else knows more than they do. But these things are true in many cases, aren’t they? I” ve evaluated wines and I’ve judged a number of competitions. But I know for a fact that there are many, many people who are far better wine tasters and possess far deeper information and knowledge than I do. And I knew this especially when I was a junior associate at a wine PR firm 30 years ago. Isn't the solution to feelings of inadequacy hard work? Digging in? Tasting more. Learning more? This seems easier than attempting to “remove existing structures”.
TANYA: True, the problem I pointed out could easily be fixed, and yet, it was shocking that I watched that simple problem not get resolved for her all week. For this reason, this small problem not getting fixed in emblematic of all the other problems…those which could be fixed easily and those that are not so easy.
I’ll approach the second part of your question like this. I believe that finding out what strengths and deficits we have and celebrating our own self-worth and style of learning is essential for people to bring the best of themselves into any situation (here we are talking about study success, but the same is true in the workplace). After years of mentoring, and teaching (difficult and elite certifications, and degree programs), I believe strongly that instilling people with the understanding that our unique strengths should be uncovered and celebrated/elaborated (not to emulate somebody else who appears to be succeeding if the ways they are working are not compatible with another person’s learning style…so many people bang their heads against walls their whole lives trying to learn like somebody else, when they could unlock the key to success through the discovery and elaboration of their own unique way of thinking). This means that the premise that we are not all good enough as a starting point, is damaging and false. (We are all worthy to learn and engage!) The first task is one of self-discovery, and instilling self-worth. The next step is to determine, based on one’s strengths and weaknesses, a strategy and path to success, this includes determining how hard one will have to work to achieve their goals, based on what is is within themselves, not external perceptions (which may or not be accurate) about other people’s capabilities, or successes. I strongly believe that a culture of value not deficit and sizing up against each other promotes better success for everybody, and also generates more interesting outcomes in the world.
I will also say something about ability. I have mentored and taught people with many different abilities to success. For example: ADHD, Bipolar, traumatic Brain injury, PTSD, Grief/Depression, and even somebody who lost all feeling/taste/smell in one side of her face due to Cancer treatments. All of these students came to me in fear, and had language they used like “I can’t achieve what I want because…”, “I don’t speak up in class, because everybody else has some latent talent I don’t have…” etc.. Now let me give the examples of success for these students:
ADHD - now getting ready to sit the MS, and has achieved WSET L3, and MS Advanced
Brain Injury - is now WSET L3, FWS, IWS, and started a successful import company
PTSD - Me, I achieve everything I set my mind to, and I work really hard.
Cancer survivor - Passed the tasting and theory for WSET L3
Every one of these students said "I can’t" when I met them (and I have been there myself at certain points). Every one of these people (including myself), has to work harder than a typical Type A personality with no learning differences, or interfering life experiences. But, measuring ourselves against ourselves, and starting with our strengths and self-worth, and the idea that we have a stronger community when each person’s strengths are able to be brought to the fore…I believe will create the kind of industry and world I want to live in. An environment of intimidation, fear, and competition, where there is a limited measuring stick to people’s value, turns people away from self-discovery…When people back down from doing the work because the message is that they are not worthy from the on-set, the world potentially loses a mind, which might have contributed something of real meaning.
This same approach also creates better outcomes in those who do not face significant challenges and creates overall a more vibrant community all around.
So, yes, hard work is the answer, but I believe a more open approach than the one we generally have in our wine culture, will bring us all to a much more vibrant place as a community.
FERMENTATION: What a remarkably diverse set of students you’ve mentored and helped. And what a perfect set of examples to clarify and better explain your approach to learning about wine by meeting the student/mentee where they are. Its really inspiring to read.
Earlier in this Ramble you mentioned “pin chasing” in the industry, clearly a nod to a seemingly heightened perception that some sort of credential is necessary for success in the wine industry. From my perspective, this move toward pin chasing really took on steam about 20 years ago. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon? Is getting the MS, MW, WSET cert necessary to succeed? Worth the effort from a career perspective? Is it good or bad or something else for the wine industry as a whole?
TANYA: I have been teaching every certification available in America (including college degree tracks in wine, and excepting CMS) for 10 years. I define “Pin Chasing” as the maniacal quest for more and more validation of one’s self-worth. This happens when students have issues with self-worth (which is so common in our industry/culture, not only amongst minority populations and people with learning differences), and that the only way they can feel better about themselves and prove they are worthy is through an endless quest for certifications. I will admit, I have engaged in a bit of this myself on my path to self-realization in my work (as a mother, a woman, and a person with PTSD). On the other hand, learning and practice is what hones our thinking and skills, and certifications are more and more important in the wine industry (rightfully so), to demonstrate knowledge in an efficient way for employment and reputation. So, certifications are meaningful in multiple ways - most importantly for the learning journey they inspire in us, and also as a tool to employment and professional achievement.
If a person, comes to their professional process and education with a basic premise that they are worthy, and that curiosity, humility and hard work are core value systems in that process, certifications become tools. A person can then assess the value of the particular certification (based on the two reasons to seek them, which I named above), and decide if that certification will get them where they want to go. By determining which certifications to seek based on the premise of the individual’s unique aspirations, talents, and abilities as opposed to an arbitrary quest to prove oneself to others who are perceived as more worthy to belong. Students can then, make better decisions, get the most out of learning, and find greater success through their education and certifications. When one assumes their basic value and is willing to work hard, they are able to make decisions about certification which leads to efficiency in achieving their goals through education/certification, not wasting time on things which they do not need. People save themselves squandering their energy/lives studying in ways simply designed to pass a test and stroke the ego (the brain usually dumps information learned in these ways, shortly after an exam, which leads to over-certified, but under-qualified people). When education and certification are pursued in a manner that is designed to inspire real critical thinking, and discovery, we end up with people who are genuinely qualified, and certifications likewise become even more useful and meaningful to our industry.
FERMENTATION: Tanya, you are very generous, particularly with the time and thoughtfulness you’ve put into this Ramble. I have one more question I want to end with: You get to decide one specific wine that every wine drinker in the U.S. MUST drink tomorrow night if only a sip or a glass or the whole bottle. (I’ll figure out the logistics of how to get the wine to everyone). What wine do you provide us all with?
TANYA: Off the cuff, I am going to tell people to drink an Orvieto wine from an Estate producer. The freshness, delicacy, and nuance will delight and surprise, no doubt…it won’t break the bank but will deliver from a sensory/intellectual perspective, as well as just pure comforting pleasure. Alternately, I would say 1er or Grand Cru Chablis with a few years age on it for the same effect, but more meditative.
Thanks, Tom for this thoughtful dialogue.