This is no fairy tale. This is a true story of grit, determination, and triumph. On the surface, San Diego appears to be an easy place to set up anything wine related. It has the climate, the land, and it still has a pioneering spirit.
Vineyards, winemakers, and wine tourism has grown significantly in San Diego County in the past 20 years, and there are new American Viticultural Association (AVA) classifications where new wineries are opening tasting rooms and offering locals and visitors alike a chance to sample and buy.
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If we look at San Diego solely as a land of year-round vacations and biotech, well, we are missing much about its many layered wine world, and the women who are entering its marketplace – with some local support amid a host of challenges.
I entered this world through the Women’s Wine Alliance (WWA) – a group designed by and for women who grow grapes, operate vineyards, make, distribute, import and sell wine, offer winery tours, and teach everything wine. The WWA was on a hiatus for a couple of years while Covid overtook the planet, but reinvigorated their membership in early 2023.
The first event was held at Barrel & Board in downtown San Diego. On a wet and cold evening I entered the place through a walk-in refrigerator door and the speakeasy atmosphere on the other side of that door was vibrant. The place was buzzing, and in the far corner of the bar perched a woman sporting a stark white mohawk, horn-rimmed glasses, and a broad smile. That’s Moe Girton. An extraordinary entrepreneur. The entire evening was dedicated to helping WWA come alive again, and the host for the evening, Moe, had offered her bar and restaurant for the kickoff. I heard from so many women of the vine that night, but more on them later.
Moe’s San Diego relevance in the food, wine, and spirits world is quite remarkable. She has spent the last 24 years building an empire that is inclusive and woman-forward (her words) and she is not close to stopping. Her business mission is to offer a safe working environment, a decent wage, and a great place to work, as long as “you don’t lie or steal.”
Her philosophy heralds creating safe spaces for women and the LGBTQ+ community. Places where they can enjoy their social life in a safe space. An athletic, competitive swimmer from an early age, always working more than one job as a teenager, and eventually working as a coach and in retail management in Orange and Los Angeles Counties, Moe subsequently moved to San Diego in 2001. Her job as a bouncer at a local gay bar lasted less than one evening. The bar owner immediately recognized Moe’s enthusiasm and can-do attitude, making her a barback that same night.
Moe worked there for four years until the bar was sold. She quickly took a spot at another local bar whose owner is now one of Moe’s business partners. That spot, Baja Betty’s, gave Moe more autonomy and in time she parlayed her initial ownership experience into another highly successful enterprise – Gossip Grill.
Moe’s focus is even more sharply honed these days because being number one in her business is an easy spot to lose. She is, like many businesses in California, tackling the tax laws, minimum wage requirements, and the difficulties of doing business under a strong regulatory lens. While she has to stay mainstream running the businesses she creates, it’s her approach that sets her apart. She wants anyone and everyone to feel welcome in her bars and restaurants.
Moe gave me a copy of her Barrel & Board drinks menu. It was peppered with the letter W against the wines and spirits the bar offers. The W denotes the product is made by a woman-owned business. And, she doesn’t sell anything she hasn’t tried. She puts her money where her mouth is. Moe has business partners and runs seven major establishments in San Diego. She is very energetic and has visions of a future that include possible franchise opportunities for Gossip Grill. But that’s what Moe feels is the easy part.
Underneath what appears to be a smooth operation are the constant shooting threats, hate speak, and rhetoric designed to intimidate. This ramped up over the past six years with a change in political leadership that normalized derogatory verbiage. Moe takes it in stride and won’t be dissuaded from her mission. She works with the San Diego City Council, Congressmen, and local leaders to try to ensure the community, her community, our community, is safe.
So, what of the members of the WWA? I met a wide swath of the wine landscape that night. I asked a lot of questions having started down one educational wine path, later switching to another. I had considered the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), but it was under scrutiny for some of its members’ behavior towards women. Six Master Sommeliers were eventually found guilty of sexual harassment, had their credentials rescinded, and were expelled from the CMS. The Master Sommeliers crowd is currently 143 men and only 25 women.
Despite the statistics on the CMS, anyone wanting a credential and education in wines can turn instead to the Wine Scholar Guild, The Wine and Spirit Education Trust, and The Institute of Masters of Wine, all of whom offer scholarly programs that provide education and training for would-be sommeliers and the entire spectrum of work in the wine and spirits world.
Members in the WWA carry many of those wine credentials and are armed with knowledge and energy that is simultaneously fascinating and invigorating. That night I met women who are wine tour operators all over San Diego County, a vineyard and winery owner in Escondido, northeast of San Diego, wine distributors for import companies, and a French wine importer and distributor.
The women who volunteer for WWA are also professionals in their own right and they are passionate about wine education, entrepreneurship, and fostering information exchange and communication.
Moe opened the doors that night at Barrel & Board to a host of new ideas and new friendships. Her intentions were at the core of her mission and the women who came to the WWA that night left with a sense of empowerment and had new objectives in a supportive environment. Objectives not dissimilar to Moe’s whose grit and determination are a testament to one woman’s triumphs.