Advising restaurant diners on the wine list has traditionally been the role of a male sommelier — but times are changing.
“When I started out seven years ago there were very few women in this job,” says Dawn Davies, 31, head sommelier and wine buyer at Selfridges, London. “Now most restaurants have at least one female sommelier, even if she’s not the head. Some of the best sommeliers in the world are women.”
Until recently, though, the world of the sommelier has been one of the last remaining bastions of masculinity (along with being a chef, of course, Angela Hartnett notwithstanding). And out of 264 internationally respected Masters of Wine, only 62 are women. A woman only won the UK Sommelier of the Year award for the first time in 2006. But things are definitely changing. US Elle recently celebrated the new “girl gang of sommeliers” who are taking over the New York restaurant scene. This group includes Lee Campbell, 37, sommelier at Nick and Toni’s, a high-end Italian restaurant in the Hamptons.
“It’s not wholly unusual to be a woman sommelier in New York,” she says. “But we still have to be very aware of how we’re perceived. Where I work, the Hamptons, is the microcosm of power in New York City. Everyone that comes here is a baron of industry, men and women. You have to make sure they don’t doubt you.”
In general, though, it’s still the men ordering.
“When you go to a table to serve, nine times out of 10 the man has chosen the wine. As a woman you have to be very aware of how you need to present yourself to be taken seriously. For me, it’s almost a ‘show no weakness’ situation. And as a black woman I have to check that even more,” Campbell says.
Women are part of the democratization of the wine industry, says Neleen Strauss, 43, co-owner and sommelier at Vivat Bacchus in Farringdon, London.
“It is still exceptional to be a woman in the wine industry, but we are helping to defuse the snobbery about wine. I like to remind people that wine is made by farmers in shorts and flip-flops. Being a woman makes that easier. Also, I’m not the biggest person — I’m 5 feet 3 inches [1.6m] — and you can just get away with more. It’s easier to talk to men. You can subtly flirt with them without being over the top,” she says.
Strauss used to run Browns restaurant in South Africa, where she banned wine lists.
“We built a place where you could eat in the wine cellar with 4,000 bottles of wine around you. We canceled the wine list and would just suggest a bottle. It was hands-on, more intimate and you had more to choose from,” she said.
Women sommeliers tend to claim that they are more creative and more open-minded about wine. Because there is a lot of power play around wine in restaurants, using your gender is one way to rise above it all or bring them down to your level.
Joelle Marti-Baron, 36, marketing manager at Champagne Henriot, says: “Customers can be a lot more confrontational with male sommeliers. I remember a situation when a male customer said to me, ‘I want the house wine.’ I replied, ‘I’m afraid we don’t have such a thing,’ and explained what we had. He gave me such a look. It could have gone either way. I thought he was going to tell me to get lost. If I had been a man I think he would have. The French accent doesn’t always help.”
But women get on better with the difficult customers, she says: “The relationship is easier and if you make a recommendation — or a correction -—they will accept it graciously. It is too humiliating for them to take it from a man.”