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Why Are There so Few Women in the Spirits, Beer, and Wine Business?

We look to North Carolina to find out.

In the 1990s, Maryann Azzato moved from the Florida Keys to Southport, North Carolina, a charming town in the Brunswick Islands that had one small grocery store with a poor wine selection. She decided to start a wine club, and in researching North Carolina wineries, became more interested in the wine-making business. When the opportunity arose to start her own winery, Silver Coast Winery, Azzato left the world of pharmaceuticals behind, and her “little hobby became a business.”

“I think we were the 22nd winery in North Carolina. As far as I know, at that time, we were the only woman-owned winery,” Azzato said. “My husband is involved a little bit, but he has another job.”

The idea of a woman-owned winery in North Carolina was almost unheard of in the early 2000s when Azzato opened her first tasting room in Ocean Isle Beach, though there were more couple-owned wineries by the time she launched her second tasting room in Southport. Westbend Winery, for example, was started in 1972 by Jack and Lillian Kroustalis, but according to news coverage, the winery seems to have been primarily Jack’s venture until he passed away and Lillian took it over for a few years before selling it.

It was so unheard of that while at a Brunswick County economic development event, an older gentleman told Azzato, “Honey, I have to tell you, you got a lot of guts.” He kept saying a woman having her own winery is so unusual, Azzato recalled.

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In the early 2000s, Azzato was one of the first women owners of any type of a North Carolina alcoholic beverage company. The state’s distilleries, wineries, and breweries are primarily family-owned businesses and women often have a role in those companies, though not always as decision-makers.

The Tar Heel State is home to nearly 200 wineries, but it’s not super clear how many are woman-owned. Of the 90 distilleries in North Carolina, the Distillers Association of North Carolina believes that at least 22 are owned, co-owned, or managed by women.

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Melissa Katrincic started Durham Distillery in 2013 and launched her gin, Conniption Gin, two years later. In 2018, she became the first U.S. woman to be inducted into the Gin Guild, and in 2021, she launched the U.S. Gin Association. Like Azzato, Katrincic started Durham Distillery with her husband, Lee, but he maintained his full-time job and ran tours of the distillery on the weekends until 2019. Katrincic was the reason for the success of the company, but many people didn’t see that.

“When I was running the stills [in the early days], it was frustrating because when any salesperson—regardless of their gender—walked in, they wouldn’t understand that I actually ran the company,” said Katrincic. “History overlooks women in spirits, beer, and wine. Until we figure out a way to have that not be the assumption when someone walks in this door, we’ve got work to do.”

But why are there so few women in spirits, beer, and wine?

When it comes to distilling, the laws of North Carolina haven’t historically helped distillers—women or otherwise. From 1937 to 2015, the state’s 432 liquor stores, known as ABC Stores, were the only place that bottles of distilled spirits could be sold. In 2017, the law was amended to allow for five bottles per person per year. In 2019, the law changed again to an 8.5-liter per day limit.

With the passage SB 290 in 2019, other improvements were made on the North Carolina beverage front. Customers could now buy more than one glass of beer, wine, or cider at a time at a bar or brewery. It also gave distilleries the same opportunities that wineries and breweries in the state had for years: the ability to mix and serve cocktails in their on-site taprooms. In 2021, distilleries were finally able to sell their spirits on Sunday.

The change in laws allowed Katrincic to open an on-site cocktail lounge, Corpse Reviver Bar & Lounge, next to the distillery in 2020. “We knew that in being a gin distillery, having a cocktail bar was going to take us to a whole different level,” she explained.

North Carolina laws aside, the biggest reason for the lack of women-owned distilleries, wineries, and breweries boils down to access to capital.

“We are at a point in time where women can borrow money and stand up for themselves; it didn’t use to be that way,” Azzato pointed out. The kind of capital that’s necessary to start a winery, distillery, or brewery is significant. Azzato needs two years’ worth of products, and Katrincic uses state-of-the-art technology to distill her gin—neither of which comes cheap.

Briana Brake

Access to capital is even more difficult for women of color trying to break into the business. Briana Brake is the owner of Spaceway Brewery in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and is one of only two (known) Black women brewery owners in the state; the other is Celeste Beatty of Harlem Brew South Brewery, who was the first Black woman in the U.S. to open a brewery.

“It’s an expensive hobby, especially if you get obsessed like I did. You’re buying new equipment all the time and it’s time-consuming. If you got kids, it’s going to be hard to do,” Brake explained. “Plus, my background is in computer science and law. So, when I went to a bank and told them I wanted to open a brewery, they looked at me like I was crazy.”

A unique brewery incubator at an entertainment complex called Rocky Mount Mills allowed Brake to open Spaceway Brewery. She leases her brewing equipment and taproom and can take advantage of the knowledge of a community of brewers all building their companies from the ground up in one complex.

Food Seen Felicia Perry Trujillo

Brake may have found a way to circumvent the large capital required to open a beverage company, but not many other women of color have the same opportunity. Of the 380 North Carolina breweries, it’s believed by the North Carolina Craft Brewer’s Guild that a little over 50 are either owned, co-owned, or have a woman of color as Director of Operations.

In addition to Brake and Celeste Beatty, the state has one Cherokee woman-owned brewery, three Black women-owned wineries, and one Lumbee woman-owned winery. Women of color may be involved in breweries and wineries in other ways, especially at family-owned businesses like the Black family-owned, Seven Springs Farm and Vineyard. As far as distilling goes, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a woman of color who owns a distillery, although Mena Killough, a woman of Thai heritage, is the head distiller of Young Hearts Raleigh. 

“I think we’re diverse in gender, but I don’t think that we’ve even scratched the surface on any other diversity, which is frustrating to me,” Katrincic explained.

To get more women and women of color into the position to own such beverage companies, the industry must first do a better job in making their spaces inclusive of women and people of color and then provide methods of investment, apprenticeship, and funding for them.

“The beer industry has done a horrible job of marketing to the Black community and to women,” Brake explained. “I’m usually the only woman and Black person in the room. I’m working to change that and trying to get more people interested and aware of the opportunities that come with this industry, even if you’re not a brewer.”

Until wineries, breweries, and distilleries become more inclusive of women and the BIPOC community, tourism may be the way to increase the successes of these beverage businesses in North Carolina, and beyond.

According to Katrincic, tourism was crucial to the success of Durham Distillery in the first 18 months of its opening. Between 2017 and 2019, Durham received national media coverage as a must-visit destination in outlets such as Fodor’s. Such coverage boosted Durham’s tourism numbers and put Durham Distillery in the city’s top five destinations.

“I could spend all the digital media in the world and only skim the surface of having someone in here and experiencing our beverages firsthand,” Katrincic explained. “At our peak in 2019, we saw 200 to 300 people per weekend. Tourism was pivotal to our growth.”

Azzato experienced the same thing. When she was approached to work with the Tourism Development Authority for Brunswick County, Silver Coast Winery was the attraction in the area.

Silver Coast Winery

“Starting out, in order to make my winery work, I had to draw from Wilmington and Myrtle Beach to make my numbers,” she said. Her first tasting room was a few minutes off the highway for folks driving between the two cities. She opened her second tasting room in Southport to pull in the foot traffic after the town received national attention.

“The walking traffic in Southport is such that it gives us a great introduction to people that would not go further south to our [other location],” Azzato explained.

Brake sees the benefit of tourist foot traffic too, which is why she moved her taproom from downtown Rocky Mount back to Rocky Mount Mills, which pulls in more tourists traveling through the state. Today, people visit Spaceway for various reasons. Some love Brake’s beer can design; others like chatting with her about brewing. But many want to visit because a Black woman beverage owner is rare.

“When people Google ‘what to do in Rocky Mount,’ and my brewery pops up, they’re like, ‘Wow, I get to see one of the only Black woman brewers and taste her beer,’” Brake said. “So, the tourist thing definitely helped. I get a lot of people that have driven hours just to check me out. But don’t come to drink my beer just because I’m a Black woman. It’s a really good beer.”

It’s essential, now more than ever, that tourists support women-owned wineries, breweries, and distilleries because the pandemic disproportionately impacted women-owned businesses. Brake had just hired her first employees when the pandemic hit and had to lay them all off. She said the pandemic tried to “kill” her brewery. Azzato and Katrincic received fewer visitors and sales in 2020 and 2021, and now Azzato is dealing with a bad weather year for grapes, while Katrincic has supply chain issues that have left her without bottles for her gin.  

Tourism was a big part of helping these women owners get their businesses off the ground, and now it could be what keeps them in business for the long run. Yes, we need more women-owned beverage companies, but we also need to make sure to support the ones that already exist.

Food Seen Felicia Perry Trujillo

Katrincic believes that when tourists come by Durham Distillery and Corpse Reviver Bar & Lounge that they’ll understand “that the title of ‘woman-owned’ is great, but we’re actually following our passions. I would hope that anybody coming in the door would see the value in that. I’m sick of being overlooked.”

Brake has had the same mindset. It’s why she named her brewery “Spaceway Brewery” after a song titled: “We Travel the Spaceways” by Sun Ra, who is known as the father of Afrofuturism philosophy.

“Afrofuturism is about seeing Black and Brown people as leaders in spaces where they’re not typically seen. It just clicked,” she said. I’m trying to create a space where I’m seen as the leader. I’m not just pouring a beer. I’m not sweeping the floor. I think that when more women and Black and Brown people start doing this, it can only make the industry better and more exciting.”