Today is International Women’s Day with a 2019 theme of #BalanceforBetter challenging each and every one of us to strive for a more gender-balanced world. We’ve put a few questions to our very own ‘Woman of Wine’, Victoria Bowes, to see why and how she ended up in such a male-dominated trade.
What sparked your interest in wine?
I studied French & Italian at University and was lucky enough to spend the third year of my studies at the University of Siena in Tuscany, Italy. We discovered a wonderful place in the depths of the vaults of the Medici Fort, the Enoteca Italiana, which stocked an enormous range of Italian wines. Every day, they uncorked a huge selection for sale by the glass. My friends and I sampled many, many Italian wines seated at small tables in the courtyard of the fort, beneath the boughs of the magnolia trees. Towards the end of my year in Siena, our professor from England came to visit us. We took him to the Enoteca and there, with a glass of wine in hand, he asked us what we intended to do with our language degrees, what plans we had for the future. I remember at that moment suddenly thinking, I want to work in the wine trade!
Where did you start your career?
After graduating, I made some tentative enquiries about working in wine. A common route into the wine trade was to start in retail but I didn’t think that was for me (I am NOT a natural saleswoman). I sent a few letters, had a few cups of tea in various panelled boardrooms with grey-haired men wearing pinstripe suits to discuss possibilities but no real opportunities presented themselves.
For a couple of years, I got distracted by a well-paid job working in London with Italian fiduciaries in the world of offshore tax but when I realised that I didn’t want to spend my life helping Italian millionaires reduce their tax bills, I resigned and went to Australia. And there were spent some of the happiest moments of my life, working at Lillydale Vineyards in the Yarra Valley, Victoria. When my work visa was up (and my arm was broken in a quad bike accident), I returned to the UK and sent my CV and a letter to about 40 different wine merchants. The response was very positive and I accepted a job as Buying Assistant at Anthony Byrne Fine Wines in Cambridgeshire. After a couple of years there, I was lured by the lights of Lay & Wheeler Fine Wine Merchants in Colchester and spent three happy years in the Buying Office.
What's your best vinous experience?
Some of the most memorable wine tasting moments were in the earlier years of my wine trade career, when my novice palate was young, unsullied but eager to learn. Whilst working at Lay & Wheeler, a fellow employee used to host the most wonderful dinner parties at his house in the Dutch Quarter of Colchester. For some reason, they were often on a Sunday evening, which we always regretted on the Monday morning… He cooked fantastic food and he shared with us some wonderful bottles from his cellar, always served in a vast array of Riedel wine glasses, and always served blind. The bottles tasted are too numerous to list (or remember) but two highlights, even after all this time, were a 1955 Spanna from Piedmont and an 1895 Madeira. The former did not show its age at all (I could not believe the vintage when the label was revealed) and the latter was wonderfully mature and complex – I had never drunk something which was more than 100 years old.
How did you find it entering such a traditionally male-dominated world?
Whilst I was working for Lay & Wheeler, they sponsored me through my WSET Diploma. I was awarded a Scholarship and had to attend a ceremony at Vintners’ Hall (my first ever visit to that esteemed and venerable institution). I remember being on the stage with all the Scholarship winners, looking out across the Hall which was packed with elderly, grey-haired men in pinstriped suits. The Master Vintner addressed the assembled masses and said words to the effect of,
“Gentleman, take note. Look at those standing on the stage. This is the first ever year when the number of scholarship winners is predominantly female. Change is afoot…” And he was right.
That was some 18 years ago. Ever since then, the proportion of women in the wine trade has grown exponentially; any wine trade event or tasting is nowadays a very healthy mix of women and men and next year, the Vintners will appoint their first ever Lady Master.
How do you manage the working relationship as a husband and wife team?
Caspar & I set up Bowes Wine in 2002 and have worked together ever since. We sit about four feet apart in the office, we run the business as partners. He has always been a salesman, I have always worked on the other side in buying and logistics. We are very different people with totally different roles, but it works perfectly from a business point of view. However, throughout the 17 years of being half of Bowes Wine and The Daily Drinker, I have often been asked (in a patronising tone) by other male wine merchants whether I “do any sort of work” or whether I “help Caspar out a little bit from time to time”, or once whether I “answer the phone for Caspar”!! Only the other day I was asked whether I had managed to learn anything about wine having been married to Caspar... Fortunately, my husband and business partner knows the truth; he always refers to me, quite rightly, as The Chairman of the Board.