Women are flocking to the sommelier profession, reinvigorating the field and smashing old stereotypes
Aug. 10, 2015 9:52 a.m. ET
Wall Street Journal
IF YOU WALKED INTO an upscale restaurant a decade ago and asked to speak to the sommelier, the individual arriving at your table would have likely conformed to a familiar stereotype: an older gentleman with a big knotted tie, a pin on his lapel and a tastevin around his neck, pontificating about which pricey Margaux vintage to pair with your filet.
Enter that same restaurant today, however, and chances are the person bearing the wine list will be in his 20s or 30s. Rather than wearing a suit, he might be dressed in nothing but jeans and a T-shirt—and your sommelier is also far less likely to be a “he” at all.
In recent years, women have succeeded in breaking down the entry barriers to this traditionally male-dominated industry, shattering its old boys’ club image and infusing the ranks with trailblazing female sommeliers. At Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, which comprises a total of 12 restaurants, women now account for more than half of the company’s approximately 30 sommeliers, including industry celebrities like Gramercy Tavern’s Juliette Pope and Mia Van de Water of North End Grill. Along with the Momofuku group’s Jordan Salcito, Alpana Singh of Chicago’s Boarding House and Kelli White of Press in St. Helena, California, they’re members of a new generation of female sommeliers—or sommeliers who happen to be women—who have taken charge of some of the country’s most prestigious beverage programs.
Jane Lopes, a young sommelier at Manhattan’s renowned Eleven Madison Park whom Wine & Spirits named one of its best new sommeliers last year, is in some ways a poster child for the new, more gender-diverse generation. After graduating from the University of Chicago with a degree in English literature, she took a job at a local wine shop, soon found herself promoted to store manager and wound up serving as the opening beverage director at Nashville’s acclaimed Catbird Seat restaurant before arriving in New York in 2013.
Her gender never posed a problem—“If anything, it’s been helpful in certain circumstances,” she says, as some restaurants have looked specifically for women to balance out their teams. But Lopes is quick to point out that “men still hold most of the top wine director jobs in New York City and throughout the country.” She also acknowledges that the lack of resistance she’s encountered as a woman represents a relatively new phenomenon. “I think that women even five or 10 years older than me definitely faced more hurdles and setbacks than I did,” she says. “It’s my impression that it used to be a very different ballgame.”
It’s a sentiment confirmed by Madeline Triffon, the first American woman to earn the prestigious master sommelier title, in 1987. “When I started out, there were almost no other women,” she recalls, as for years the world of fine dining emulated an antiquated European model that typically hired all-male staffs. Although she avoids identifying as a female sommelier—“First and foremost, I always wanted to be a credible professional”—Triffon welcomes the idea of being a role model: “Over the past 10 years, I’ve realized that I may be providing encouragement as an elder statesperson to young women coming up in the business. If that’s the case, I’m glad.”
For all that pioneers like Triffon have helped to smash the wine world’s glass ceiling, she attributes the increased presence of women in the trade to “a natural progression.” And in many respects, it’s true that the industry’s shrinking gender gap reflects some of the broader generational changes that are redefining the culture as a whole. Not only have age and gender expectations evolved, but gone are the fine-dining days of the wine world’s old guard, when exclusive Burgundy and Bordeaux were the only bottles fit to drink.
Given the general public’s recent infatuation with the profession, it’s safe to say we’ve officially transitioned from the age of the stuffy sommelier to that of the casually hip “somm.” An exchange that once involved a highly formalized set of rituals (pour for the man to taste first, never leave the bottle on the table) now takes place amid the blare of rock music in wine-centric restaurants like Manhattan’s Pearl & Ash or Racines NY, where rather than wax poetic about Latour or Lafite, your somm will likely evangelize about the sherry renaissance or recommend some offbeat natural wine from the Loire.
“There’s been an enormous shift in the way wine service is conducted and who is representing it in restaurants,” explains industry veteran Christie Dufault, who teaches about wine as an associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in California. “Beverage programs are also no longer about the same classic bottles. People are introducing such fresh, exciting wines, and it takes a new style of sommelier to represent those kinds of lists.”
To today’s increasingly wine-curious clientele, the sommelier’s gender is generally no more relevant than her shoe size. Some, like Carla Rzeszewski—formerly of April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman’s group of restaurants, now an entrepreneur with a winemaking project in Australia’s Barossa Valley—are entirely nonplussed by the question of women in wine: “Whenever people raise this issue, I wonder, Why are we making such a big deal of the fact that women are doing these jobs?” she says. “Why should it be so impressive?”
It would be wishful thinking, of course, to assume we’ve completely outgrown the traditional archetype of the sommelier. “You still deal with the occasional overly flirtatious customer, or a group of men who don’t take you seriously at first,” says Michelle Biscieglia, beverage director at Manhattan’s Michelin-starred Blue Hill. “But just by being a tough, confident, professional woman who knows how to talk about wine, you fight against those stereotypes every day without even knowing it.”