The fine wine trade can be odd to work in. A microcosm, made up of overlapping disciplines, global markets and a plethora of products, consumers and personalities. Outsiders are usually envious when they learn you work in wine (or spirits, or any other top-end section of the broader food and drinks world). Not surprising. When you earn your keep from working with a product associated almost exclusively with opulence, enjoyment and indulgence, the assumption is that your job is – at all times – a luxurious dream.
And make no mistake, there are shades of truth to this. You may well be lucky enough to spend your days on picturesque wine estates, sampling the most exciting wines on offer or even traveling the world – all in the name of our beloved liquid gold. I have regular “I love my job” moments when I glimpse a spectacular winery view, or when I’m sitting in one of my favourite tasting rooms. It is a privilege and beats a corner office any day.
The problem with this veneer of a near-carefree career is that it can downplay severe underlying stresses, exacerbating the toll on an individual’s mental wellbeing.
Mental health. Now there’s an issue you didn’t expect to be reading about in a wine publication. And maybe that’s part of the problem.
On a deeply personal topic such as this, I can of course only write from my own experience. I am fortunate enough to not struggle with any (diagnosed) mental health condition. If depression is the black dog that sits on your lap or follows you where you go, then anxiety is the demented little demon that sits on your shoulder with his hands squeezing your heart, whispering fearful thoughts and irrational worries into your ear. These are two conditions we can all relate to, even if not on a clinical level.
I have people in my life who battle – or have battled – with a mental disorder or condition of some description. Some mild, some severe. Some manage it seemingly perfectly, for others it is a daily skirmish. There was even one for which it was all too much, until she found her final peace.
The importance of keeping your mental health in check extends beyond – but is not mutually exclusive to – diagnosis and treatment. Whether you are battling a known condition or if you just grapple with the pressures of life in general, working in wine does not make it easy. The most basic advice for improving general health includes seemingly simple tweaks like getting enough sleep, exercising, reducing your alcohol intake and making time to relax. Easier said than done in an industry where a significant amount of work is done during evenings and over weekends. Let’s not even get started on the effect of working across several timezones.
Add to that the unique pressures of wine in South Africa: a market striving to punch above its weight, aspiring to growth in a time where production is shrinking and issues like drought places immense pressure on tourism and, in turn, direct wine sales. Not to mention the downright terrifying percentage of South African wineries who hardly break even or operate consistently at a loss. We are constantly chasing sales, chasing quality, chasing growth, chasing recognition. We’re sprinting a marathon and it’s taking a toll on the runners.
This toll is going largely unchecked. Under the surface, industry professionals are overworked, often underpaid, constantly stressed and always hovering dangerously close to burnout. And it simply is not spoken about.
Perhaps because a large chunk of the industry still adheres to boys club rules – and big boys don’t cry. The flip side is that another large chunk consists of women who would sooner die than admit they can’t cope, aren’t up to the challenge, cannot cut it.
For the lucky among us, this pressure – this anxiety – can be alleviated relatively easily. More often than not, it’s a case of “this too shall pass”. That said, it can just as easily manifest into something altogether more serious – more damaging.
This issue is being slowly recognized in the global wine industry. In the UK, The Benevolent – a drinks industry charity – launched the #NotAlone campaign to highlight the issue and commission some research around it. They will be discussing their findings at a dedicated panel discussion at the London Wine Fair (Wednesday 21 May at 12:30 (see here).
Maybe we are due for a similar health check locally. I know the problem is rife here, even if it is largely being suppressed, ignored and avoided. I’m guilty of suppressing, ignoring and avoiding it myself on a regular basis. And I see it in many of my industry friends.
Do yourself this kindness. If you’re having trouble, talk to someone. A friend. A colleague. A professional. No job in the world is worth burning out for. Not even one you love.
- Marthélize Tredoux is nuts about wine. By day, she helps SA wineries sell their produce in the USA. She won the Veritas Young Wine Writers Competition in 2013 and likes to proffer the occasional opinion.