Virginie Naigeon-Malek wears multiple hats, which at first seem very different. As the global head of women’s empowerment, social impact and sustainability at the beauty marketing company Mary Kay, she works with a wide range of partners and organizations to advocate for women’s equality. As wine director of Avanti Restaurant in Dallas, which she co-owns with her husband, she oversees a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence–winning wine list of about 110 selections.
When she recognized an opportunity to reconcile these two worlds, it was a lightbulb moment.
She’d been reading studies on gender inequality in the wine industry while experiencing that imbalance first-hand, and with her background in corporate communications and championing women’s rights, she knew she had the power to do something. “I was even almost mad at myself,” she recalls. “I was like, while I'm working on the wine program, how come I didn't think of that?”
She quickly got to work, launching an initiative on March 8, 2021, International Women’s Day, committing to achieving a gender-equal wine list by 2022. This means that half of the list will be selections from wineries with women leaders, from CEOs and founders to winemakers and strategic business executives. An icon next to each of those selections increases their visibility and encourages guests to ask questions, which leads to awareness and hopefully new habits when those guests dine out or shop at retail.
Part of Naigeon-Malek’s motivation to support women in the industry stems from the self-doubt she faced in her own position. Though she grew up in Burgundy and lived there until 2001, she had zero professional wine or restaurant experience when she joined her husband five years ago at Avanti. Now, after taking over management of the wine program, she’s thriving in the role at the neighborhood Italian restaurant that has been open for 30 years.
Several months into launching the wine-list initiative, Naigeon-Malek does feel like she’s making a tangible impact. And she points out that the steps she’s taking are easy for other restaurants to replicate. “It doesn't imply that you have to redo your wine program; you just need to commit to evolving it gradually,” she says. “This is how restaurateurs can drive change and organically contribute to diversity, equality and inclusion.”
Naigeon-Malek spoke with Wine Spectator associate editor Julie Harans about her path into the wine world, the progress she’s made on that 50-percent goal and her thoughts on the future of the industry.
Wine Spectator: What was it like growing up in Burgundy?
Virginie Naigeon-Malek: I grew up in a small city in Burgundy named Tonnerre, very close to Chablis, so Montee de Tonnerre is probably one of “my” wines. I grew up surrounded by the vines, the vineyards and winemakers, obviously. Wine is kind of sacred in France, and especially in Bourgogne. We're very serious about our wines, but at the same time, it's something that keeps us grounded. It's part of our roots, of our culture, who we are, so it's always been part of my life.
WS: How did your love of wine turn into your career?
VNM: My husband saw my passion for wine when I was working with him and he said, “Why don't you launch a new wine program?” And to be honest with you, I immediately thought about all the reasons why I should not do that, or why I could not do that. I thought, “I'm not an expert, I'm not specially trained.” And now that I've distanced myself from this, I realize it sounds very typical for a woman. We tend to set the bar very high, we want perfection.
So I gave it some thought, and I realized it wouldn't be the first time in my career that I would manage a line of work that I was not necessarily an expert at. I was trying to think, “Believe you can do it, and you can do it somehow.” It’s never comfortable to work on something new; you have to learn and work very hard and study. … So you just have to go for it, and past the discomfort of not being an expert, you find your place that allows you to look at things with an open mind and try new things.
WS: If you overcame all that self-doubt and really pushed yourself to take this on, you must really love wine! What is it about that world that draws you in, other than your upbringing in such a major wine region?
VNM: Wine is such a connector, and growing up in my family and then spending a lot of time in the restaurant, I could see that. So I wanted to explore this world and I wanted to be able to help people share these kinds of moments. Because wine is really about the moment and who you share it with, right?
I realized very early that it's required to be very humble to embrace this career, because the world of wine is endless. You have to learn every day. Through wine you get a chance to explore so much, and the exploration of this world opens you to diversity of experience, and to a whole new perception. … It's really about humanity, and the connection between human craftsmanship and nature.
WS: What was the first step of launching the gender-equal wine list initiative?
VNM: I looked at the list and I saw that I was on the right track, but I saw that I should accelerate and I should do better. The list was formerly at 20 or 25 percent [women-led wineries], and then I said, “OK, can I set a goal to get to 50 percent?” And then I thought, “What can my team and I do to use our purchasing power to make a difference?” So when I meet with my vendors, I connect with them beforehand, and I say, “I ask that priority is given to women-led wineries.” And it's not about sacrificing on quality, because women are so good at what they do. You just need to be intentional about it.
WS: What percentage are you at now?
VNM: I think I'm at 35 percent. But the goal really is to gradually progress. Because again, it's about keeping the bar high, and it's not the only way I look at the wine program; I need to stay representative of other regions and make sure the price points are fair, all of this is part of it. … I think now my vendors are used to it, so with time I'm hoping that the portfolios of the companies will also evolve. If we all ask for it, there will probably be a shift in the portfolio of big houses and all the big players.
WS: Has the shift on the wine list, with the symbols indicating those women-led wineries, been successfully sparking conversations with guests?
VNM: Yes. Our staff or myself engages with that when we either create the opportunity or capture an opportunity. And then they're interested, so it’s been very welcome. I’ve also had some comments, saying, “Why are you politicizing wine?” And I say, “It’s not about politics. It’s just about fairness and justice.” So it shows that the topic is still polarizing to some extent.
WS: Have you noticed a shift in the representation of women in the wine industry? How do you see things progressing in the future?
VNM: Women are speaking up more. I think they feel more comfortable speaking up, sharing their stories, than was the case before the #MeToo movement, but there's still so much work to be done. In the teams I'm working with, for instance, distributors and retail, I still see a lot of men and not enough women.
It makes me optimistic to see that people are sharing their experience and have more confidence in telling their stories. And everybody needs to be part of it—men as well, 100 percent. So I think that women will get there, but the fact that in 2021 the world is still not aware of the amplitude of women's contribution to the wine industry, that's problematic.
WS: Aside from the gender-equality mission, do you have any other goals for the wine program that you're working on right now?
VNM: The list is more Italian- and Mediterranean-driven because of the cuisine that we have, but I wanted to have some local wine. I'm still a bit surprised to see that there are some very good wines here and that Texans have still not totally embraced their own wines. So this is something I'm working on, like making sure I offer some Texas wines by the glass and that there's always some representation for Texas on the list.
Then there are some things like all the Greek wines, the wines from Portugal—it's always a challenge to convince a guest to try something new, because I think we are comfortable with what we love and what we're used to. When I moved to the United States from Burgundy, my palate was built a certain way. So when I tried Californian wines for the first time, it was like, “Wow!” It was a shock to me. It took me a while to appreciate them, to really enjoy them fully. And this taught me a lesson, because you cannot expect someone who's new to wine to appreciate it immediately. You should get to the point where you can get the person to be open to trying.
WS: Do you have a favorite wine at the moment?
VNM: Nickel & Nickel Branding Iron [Cabernet Sauvignon], that's a really good one that I love right now. It's still hot in Texas, so I also enjoy a Lambrusco from Cleto Chiarli. I'm very open; it depends on the moment. … I love Cabernet Franc from Coquerel. I think it's interesting to be able to drink a single-vineyard Cabernet Franc by itself and get to really taste the grape.
WS: But I'm sure you still have a very special place in your heart for Burgundy?
VNM: Yes. It's again the power of wine, because each time I drink Burgundy, I feel at home. It's an incredible feeling. They are in my heart. I’ve noticed that wine is really connected to emotions, and again, the moment and the people you discover them with.
Keep up with the latest restaurant news from our award winners: Subscribe to our free Private Guide to Dining newsletter, and follow us on Twitter at @WSRestoAwards and Instagram at @WSRestaurantAwards.