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What Does It Mean To Be Tattooed In The Wine Industry Today?

What Does It Mean To Be Tattooed In The Wine Industry Today?

Tattooed wine industry professionals speak out about the pros and cons of being inked in a notoriously traditional field.

Tattoos and wine | Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

It wasn’t long ago that having a tattoo made one virtually unhirable in most professions, but times are quickly changing: tattoo stigma is on the decline.

But what about the wine industry? On one hand, it’s a magnet for creative people, many of whom probably consider themselves to have a hedonistic streak. At the same time, the wine industry is deeply traditional, which means it can be slow to change.

I talked to several tattooed wine professionals to answer the question: What does it mean to be tattooed in the wine industry today? Spoiler alert: There’s no one easy answer. But as the industry struggles to find a new foothold in a changing market and a changing world, there may just be more space in the future for industry professionals to express themselves however they choose.

Limitations Still Exist for Tattooed Wine Professionals

Stiletto and qvevri tattoo | Photo Credit: Henna Bakshi

Tattoo stigma may not be as fierce as it was 20 or 30 years ago, but it certainly still exists, and the wine industry is no exception. This stigma can be exacerbated by other factors, like race. “Yes, I believe my ethnic background has shaped my experience in wine, and doubly so because I have often been stereotyped as a ‘troublesome’-looking Black guy that many slot into a box based on skin color and a plethora of tats, rather than a ‘comfortable’-for-them Black guy such as Colin Powell,” says Leo Braddock, owner and winemaker at Quarky Wines.

Braddock has personally struggled with frustrating perception problems as a wine professional. “Many folks were flabbergasted, many refused to believe it,” he says of some people’s reactions to meeting him in a professional setting. “[They] would ask for the somm; hi, it’s me; the manager; hi, still me; the shop owner; guess what? still me..”
Even outside of judgmental (and racist) reactions from customers, some wine industry positions still require a clean-cut and tattoo-free look. “When I work as a sommelier, I need to hide my tattoos,” says UK-based assistant winemaker Juanita Diusaba Yusunguaira. “In high-standard restaurants, tattoos are usually not well seen, primarily if you work on the floor. The sommelier usually looks clean and precise.”

Breaking Free From Tattoo Stigma

“No grit, no pearl” tattoo | Photo Credit: Devin Parr

For Devin Parr, wine consultant and writer (including editor-in-chief of the Vintner Project), perceptions about tattoos are changing. “I think the wine industry is slowly, but finally starting to accept the idea that wine lovers, wine professionals, and curious new enthusiasts come in all shapes, colors, sizes, and backgrounds … although we clearly still have a ways to go.” For her, getting a tattoo once she was already established in the industry was a way of setting a boundary and a standard around whom she wanted to work with. “I also knew in my heart that I would never work for an entity that wouldn’t accept that I had a tattoo, so getting one almost felt like sealing the deal on that front … like a commitment to that ethos.”

Similarly, wine writer and Eater Atlanta editor Henna Bakshi, who wrote about her experience getting a qvevri tattoo for Wine Enthusiast, found that the process was an empowering act of defiance against cultural expectations. “As a woman raised in India, where drinking alcohol is pretty taboo, I wanted to tell a story of victorious rebellion through my tattoo. It’s my badass moment. It’s dainty, it has a story, and I love it.”

She’s also tired of seemingly old-fashioned notions about what a wine professional should look like. “Gone are the days of the super buttoned-up somm,” she says. “For me, tattoos are the ushering of a new age of wine professionals where we can be cool, expressive, casual, and artistic. I don’t think they need to be covered up anymore. Who doesn’t want a tatted somm pouring some grand cru? I know I do.”

Kate Dingwall, a travel and wine writer, has learned to navigate her status as a tattooed woman depending on the setting she’s in. “If I want a more traditional tasting experience in France, I’ll often cover my tattoos and dress more conservatively, though I’m at a point in my career where I don’t really care anymore,” she explains. She understands what her tattoos might unwittingly communicate to other wine professionals. “With all the news around young folks not embracing wine, coming to a classic region as a young person with tattoos, I guess I probably visually signal a lot of the uncertainty in the industry.”

How Tattoos Are Being Integrated into the Wine Industry

Tattooed arms and hands pouring wine | Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

Of course, in some sectors of the industry, tattoos are quite common. Dingwall says that in the natural wine scene, tattoos are everywhere. “I live in a major North American metropolis and spent a long time working in natural wine. Tattoos are very much ingrained in that scene—a tertiary characteristic of natural wine culture.”

For Stephanie Patrick, a retail buyer and beverage educator in Atlanta, tattoos are a way to reflect her professional resilience. “If you see evidence that I can sit patiently through three hours of bleeding needles puncturing my skin, what makes you think I can’t handle talking to the general public?” Additionally, for her, tattoos can serve a practical emotional function. “I personally think that tattooing can ground us to art in a way that feels fiercely personal in a day and industry that is torn between capitalistic flashpoint trends and damagingly stagnant formality,” she explains.

And some are lucky enough to not have experienced the negative effects of tattoo stigma in a major way. Dylan Walker, national sales manager and winemaking assistant at RoxyAnn Winery in southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley, says that his tattoos haven’t really presented him with many issues. “I’m national sales manager and winemaking assistant for a Willamette Valley property and tattooed from knuckles to shoulder on one arm and have my entire back done with demonic versions of characters from the Wizard of Oz,” he says. “Hasn’t seemed to hold me back at all.”

Sommelier LisaAnn Bear got a tattoo to celebrate her advanced sommelier certification. “My tattoo represents flowing into the next season of my life doing what I love,” she explains. “I have only had positive experiences surrounding it.”

It’s true that tattoo stigma still exists in the wine industry, but perceptions around body art seem to be changing. For an industry that can struggle to embrace change, a growing acceptance of tattoos could be an indication that we’re moving in a more progressive direction.