Friday, 30 November 2018 12:49

Women in Wine: Sarah Szegota

Written by  Joelle Thomson
Sarah Szegota at the launch of Women in Wine at Bragato 2017. Sarah Szegota at the launch of Women in Wine at Bragato 2017.

Sarah Szegota had always planned to combine work with passion, only it was art rather than wine that she planned to work with.

She was a fresh young graduate with a degree in the history of art when she started work as a wine samples coordinator in the United Kingdom.

It was a busy role. Administration, shifting boxes and coordinating the needs of overseas producers with those of wine buyers in the UK all kept her head down and tail up until… her employer offered to invest in her wine knowledge with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s (WSET) education programme. She studied. She got promoted. 

She quickly fell in love with wine, due to the study and work combination.
“It was a fast love affair,” she says, with a bit of a laugh. 

“As soon as I realised that wine was such a diverse product to work with, I was in love it - the history of place is what got me because I’ve always enjoyed working with different cultures and wine is the perfect vehicle to do that. It was quite a quick romance.”

While she admits she is happiest when she is writing or painting, she loves to “wax lyrical” about subjects she is passionate about. So, while she loves the world of wine, it was never going to be something that she wanted to produce herself. 

“A career in winemaking never crossed my mind,” she says, “I’ll leave that to the experts.”

Her love of communication led to her holding the role of a lifetime, as communications manager for New Zealand Winegrowers, when she moved out with her husband to this part of the world. It cemented her love of the industry, while providing her with a chance to meet the people behind the product.

“The time at NZW was priceless and gave me a great understanding of almost all aspects of the wine industry.”

One of the highlights of her work in the national organisation, was getting the Women in Wine Initiative off the ground. 

“When I returned to work after having my daughter in 2016, my colleague and I read Meininger’s Wine Business International’s survey on the findings of the experience of women in the wine industry around the world. The results weren’t overly positive and we knew how many capable and astute women there are working in the New Zealand wine industry, and realised that none of them had put themselves forward as nominees in the NZ Winegrowers board elections.”
This led to her spear-heading the formation of Women in Wine NZ. It also fuelled another positive – the appointment of two women to the board of New Zealand Winegrowers - Katherine Jacobs of Big Sky Wines in Martinborough and Rachel Taulelei, CEO of Kono Beverages.

Asked whether she sees the New Zealand wine industry as better or worse than other countries in terms of the inclusion of women, she suggests it is better.

“That’s a hard question but I think we would probably be in a better position than some of the old world countries in the wine industry. Initiatives such as Women in Wine give our peers the access to advice, perspective, networking, long-lasting relationships, confidence, and encouragement. Everything required to help tip the balance of women putting their hands up to take the big jobs and the directorships.
“This is something I would love to see balanced out more as we move forward.” 

Szegota is now the global communications and PR manager for Villa Maria Wines, meaning she is now working within the industry, at the coal face, rather than for the industry. And she admits, it is different.

“Working for a commercial wine business driving market share, profit and brand loyalty are the most obvious differences. Globally the retail environment is fast-paced, energetic and at times ruthless. It keeps you on your toes.”

While English born, Szegota now feels very much a part of the New Zealand wine scene, she admits she felt a little conscious at first, with her broad Yorkshire accent. “I thought I stood out like an imposter, but that soon changed. The New Zealand wine industry is full of people from all over the world and in my experience, our nation is accepting to newcomers.”

That is showing through in the recently instigated Women in Wine Pilot Mentoring Programme which Szegota has been a strong advocate for.

“Initially it will give one woman from each of the country’s nine wine regions a chance to be paired in a mentoring relationship with an experienced female mentor from the industry and we hope it will grow to include more women and a wider range of mentors too.”

As for who has influenced her in her decision making, she is quick to praise her parents. 

“They taught me the importance and value of hard work and honesty. My mother also showed me that it is possible to ‘have it all’. 

She had a successful and long career whilst bringing up two children in a loving home. There are so many inspiring people in the industry, it is hard to name them all. Working for Philip Gregan for seven years certainly had an influence on my working style. He reiterated the importance of some of the basics – to listen, empathise and not be afraid of having an opinion.” 

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