Monthly Archives: June 2013

Divas Uncorked on Wine, Women, and Friendship

(The ladies of Divas Uncorked: Carole Alkins, Stephanie Browne, Gert Cowan, Barbara Cruz, Carolyn Golden Hebsgaard, Katherine Kennedy, Karen Holmes Ward, Paula Wright. ~ Photo courtesy of Divas Uncorked.)

Like many women, Carolyn Hebsgaard and Karen Holmes Ward enjoyed drinking wine socially, although they admit that they knew little about it. When ordering at a restaurant, their wine specifications rarely extended beyond “red” and “white.”

That changed in 1999, when Hebsgaard, Ward and 10 of their girlfriends decided to educate themselves, and other women, about the history of wine and the art of drinking it. What started as casual gatherings over snacks and Chardonnay expanded into the tour de force known as Divas Uncorked.

For nearly 13 years, the Divas have transformed the fun pastime of sipping wine with friends into a successful side business, international phenomenon and lifelong adventure. “It’s like a hobby run amok,” Hebsgaard chuckles.

Today, eight of the original 12 core members of Divas Uncorked remain committed to the organization and to each other. More than social wine drinkers and business associates, the ladies have become entrepreneurs, experts and the best of friends. “When I have a get together, the first people on my list are the Divas,” says Hebsgaard, a consultant and executive director for the Boston Lawyers Group. “We will always have the Divas in some form, regardless of the business.”

The idea for Divas Uncorked stemmed from dinner outings at Marché, a former restaurant in Boston’s Back Bay area. While working together with The National Coalition of 100 Black Women (NCBW), a nonprofit organization, Hebsgaard and Ward joined four other members after meetings for food, wine and conversation. After visiting the restaurant’s wine cellar, the women realized how little they knew about what they were drinking.

Stephanie Browne, an Information Technology expert and another co-founder of Divas Uncorked, insisted that the group learn more about wine on their own. She offered to host the first dinner party, which she modeled on her mother’s bridge club parties. The six women each invited a friend — totaling 12 professional, self-proclaimed A-type divas, now in their 50s and 60s — forming the core group of the organization. Kicking off the festivities at 2 p.m., the ladies ate, drank and merrily studied the history of wine until midnight.

“The beginning of Divas Uncorked happened innocently,” says Ward, a television host and producer at WCBV-TV. “We just wanted to learn about wine in a fun and relaxed way. Like a ‘spoonful of sugar,’ studying wine is easier with friends.”

The relatively simple fêtes morphed into themed, five-course dinners replete with gift exchanges, guest lecturers and hours of laughter. Friends of the Divas heard about their wine parties and envied the regular celebrations.

Shortly thereafter, they started planning public wine dinners with local experts, including Alicia Towns, wine director at Grill 23, and Jody Adams, chef/owner of Rialto, who appeared on the reality television program “Top Chef.” The dinners grew into larger conferences, attracting a turnout of more than 100 women per gathering.

The get-togethers underscored the importance of friendship while bonding over wine education. The Divas aim to teach women about wine in a fun, relaxed fashion while boosting self-confidence when making wine choices. Having learned the nuances of their own wine preferences while strengthening friendships, the founders of Divas Uncorked want to encourage and teach other women to do the same.

Ward can now describe to sommeliers what she wants to order or pair with appropriate dishes. “I can’t necessarily say that I want a bottle of 1978 such-and-such,” she says. “But I can now attach adjectives to my description and articulate specific preferences.” From her education with Divas Uncorked, Ward has learned that the oaky, vanilla flavors which appeal to her fit the profile of a Chardonnay. Conversely, the grassy, citrus flavors that she avoids are characteristic of a Sauvignon Blanc.

According to the Divas, women are largely neglected by the male-dominated industry and receive less attention from salespeople at wine shops and liquor stores. Ward explains that men and women shop differently for wine. While men tend to spend more money, often to impress a woman, women generally seek value or follow a recommendation. “The wine industry certainly wasn’t responsive to women or people of color,” Hebsgaard says. “So, like divas, we took it on ourselves!”

Since their inception, Divas Uncorked have caught the media’s attention, appearing in O Magazine, Edible Boston and Reuters, as well as a stint on NBC’s “Today Show.” Also, in their free time, the ladies, all of whom have full-time professions outside of Divas Uncorked, represent at food and wine festivals, including South Beach and Martha’s Vineyard; manage their own website (www.divasuncorked.com); sell their own wine, Divas Uncorked Chardonnay, which is produced by the Mendocino Wine Company; and organize wine tasting cruises called Divas at Sea.

Their progress has been conspicuous, although not always easy. Hebsgaard explains that gaining financial support and securing sponsorship for their cause has been challenging. “I still consider us a startup,” she says. “It’s really hard out there for women, especially women of color, to run a successful business.”

 

The obstacles have not deterred the Divas, who plan to continue growing, both personally and professionally. “The more we learn about wine, the more we want to share,” says Hebsgaard. “The best way to do that is to create audiences with groups of women. Just when we thought ‘this is good enough,’ something else would come up.”

The next thing up for the Divas is their second annual cruise in September, when they will sail around the Mediterranean Sea for 11 days. As advertised on their site, the “wine savvy, not wine snobby” ladies invite interested parties to join them and a sommelier on board to learn about wine and visit Italy, Turkey and the Greek Islands.

Although the Divas pride themselves on “first-class, five-star service” for their events, they also stress the importance of humility in their organization. Ward claims that their goal is to demystify the process of ordering and learning about wine, as well as removing the “Frasier Crane, snooty approach.”

The future of Divas Uncorked has not been determined, but the cohesion of the core group of friends is stronger than ever. “The thing I know for certain is that we’ll be together for the rest of our lives,” Hebsgaard says. “We will always have the thing we started with: wine, food, friendship.”

(This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Exhale magazine.)

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Homeland Security…at the Cost of Personal Liberty?

I used to love to travel. Flying never scared me. I vaguely recall the good old days when airport fears included lost passports, arrival at the wrong terminal, and running out of fuel over the Atlantic Ocean.

Since that infamous day–September 11, 2001–air travel, and the fears associated with it, have radically changed.

A new breed of concerns and escalated suspicions have emerged. I make flight plans more carefully these days, avoiding air travel if at all possible.

My shifted focus is neither on terrorism nor undetected box cutters, though. It is on the security forces created to protect travelers from such perceived threats; namely, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The TSA is a branch of the United States Department of Homeland Security, created in 2002. The administration of former president George W. Bush spearheaded the department in response to the 9/11 attacks.

The federal government claims that the TSA’s objective is to promote increased security of American citizens, particularly against potential acts terrorism and aircraft hijacking.

On paper, this reads like a reasonable step in safe air travel.

However, in practice, that security has been imposed, under the guise of benevolent protection from evil foreigners determined to destroy the American way of life, in exchange for personal privacy and civil liberties.

Since its incipience, the TSA has:

• Reserved the right to open and search any passenger’s luggage, in the name of security screening. Such invasive procedures often involve breaking, cutting open or destroying locks; displacement and occasional theft of personal belongings; perusal of all packed items.

• Imposed strict sanctions of carry-on luggage, most notably containers containing more than 3.4 ounces of liquid or gel. Passengers at security checkpoints are regularly stripped of shampoo and conditioner, body lotion, cosmetics, perfume, beer, wine and other alcohol, peanut butter, drinking water and scores of other mundane fluids which used to be integral to any carry-on luggage.

• Enforced the pre-screening removal of belts, jewelry, and since the ‘shoe bomber’ incident in December 2001, footwear.

• Added new screening procedures November 2010, in response to the ‘underwear bomber’ who smuggled plastic explosives onto an airplane in Amsterdam in December 2009. The enhanced screening subjects passengers either to backscatter X-rays and millimeter wave scans, or full-body pat-downs. The former displays nude images of passengers’ bodies to TSA officers. The latter allows agents to touch all body parts of clothed passengers.

According to Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “We’re getting closer and closer to a required strip-search to board an airplane.”

The ACLU, a national non-profit organization which promotes the Constitutional rights of Americans, received over 900 passenger complaints about the TSA enhanced screening within the first month of mandatory pat-downs.

One of the most high-profile cases is that of Susie Castillo, crowned Miss USA in 2003. Castillo was traveling from Rio de Janeiro to Los Angeles, in April 2011. While changing planes in Dallas, Texas, Castillo objected to the electronic scanner and underwent the required pat-down.

In a self-made iPhone video, now posted on YouTube, Castillo tearfully describes her experience immediately after the pat-down. “[The TSA screener] actually felt, touched my vagina,” she says. “They’re making me choose to either be molested, because that’s what I feel like, or go through this machine that’s completely unhealthy and dangerous.”

In response, the TSA claimed that agents were simply doing their jobs. “We have reviewed this passenger’s screening experience and found that the officer followed proper procedures,” TSA spokeswoman Kristin Lee said.

Lee may be right. Individual TSA agents, for the most part, are obeying orders and following security protocol. The problem therein lies with the federal government imposing these measures. If employees accept such orders as business as usual, then the burden of defending personal rights and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution lies with the people who are demanded by their government to relinquish privacy and comfort.

Acquiescence comes in the form of payment, as well as action. For the fiscal year of 2011, the TSA has a budget of over $8 billion USD. The government is using tax dollars–and a lot of them–to pay agents to invade the privacy of tax payers.

However, a backlash movement is growing more powerful with increased malcontent among travelers. In May 2011 a bill was unanimously passed in the Texas senate that challenges enhanced security measures enforced by Homeland Security.
The bill prohibits “anyone conducting searches to touch the anus, sexual organ, buttocks, or breast of another person” including through clothing [. . .] and searches “that would be offensive to a reasonable person.”

In turn, the Department of Justice notified Texas legislators that the anti-groping bill violates federal law and “could cause the Transportation Security Administration to cancel any flight or series of flights for which it could not ensure the safety of passengers and crew.”

The concern for protection against terrorism is understandable. However, Homeland Security is busy insisting on experimental body scans and invasive groping of anyone from small children and their teddy bears to rape victims to the elderly and disabled. Meanwhile, potential terrorists may find newer, more high tech ways to slip by undetected.

And I don’t feel any more protected than I did before; just more violated as my rights as an American are stripped, even if my clothing is not…yet.

The TSA may claim to be protecting passengers from terrorists, bombs, hijacking, more than three ounces of shampoo and other such threats to Homeland Security.

But, who is going to protect us from the TSA?

(This article originally appeared in the June 27, 2011 issue of The Politico magazine: http://the-politico.com/international/astrid-lium/homeland-security-at-the-cost-of-personal-liberty/)

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