Not long ago sommeliers fell into two stereotypes: the overbearing yet aloof Frenchman, and the overly effusive American uttering “killer cabernet” and “awesome viognier.”
Thankfully, times are changing, as more and more women are stepping into what was overwhelming a male domain. Women are now even being found in European cellars.
At Le Meurice in Paris the sommelier is Estelle Touzet; Milan’s Principe di Savoia has Alessandra Veronesi; and at Wolfgang Puck’s CUT steakhouse in London, Vanessa Cinti pulls the corks.
Of the prestigious Institute of Masters of Wine group based in London, there are now 87 women among the 287 worldwide masters living in 23 countries. In both 2011 and 2012, there were more new female Masters of Wine than male.
In the US the number of women sommeliers has increased dramatically. Maeve Pesquera, 40, wine director for the 65 branches of Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in 28 states, says more than 40 percent of its sommeliers are women.
“When I started out there weren’t many women in any fine dining job,” she says. “It’s taken a generation for us to work through the ranks, and there was antagonism on both sides of the table towards women. Many people used to think I was the hostess.”
Pesquera says that Fleming wanted to break away from the stereotype of a steakhouse where men came to swig martinis and smoke cigars.
“At our restaurants you see a lot of women who might feel otherwise uncomfortable in a traditional steakhouse,” Pesquera says. “At our restaurants they dine with their friends, discuss wine and order fine bottles. And they are delighted to do so with a woman sommelier.”
Liz Nicholson, 32, is beverage director at New York’s Italian trattoria Maialino in the Gramercy Park Hotel. She got the job over many male contenders with longer resumes because, “I showed more passion for Italy than the others. I toured more than 60 wineries in every region of Italy for three months, and I am just in love with the country’s food, wine and culture.” In the past such a coup was highly unlikely.
At New York’s Gramercy Tavern, Juliette Pope, beverage director since 2004, started as a line cook, became a waiter, then a “cellar helper” required to clean up the wine premises, stock the bar, and take care of inventory. Eventually she became beverage director.
“At Gramercy Tavern they tend to hire from within,” she says, “so I just plugged along and got the job when my mentor left. I was primed and energetic and ready to go.”
Sara Kavanaugh, 32, who spent years in both restaurant kitchens and dining rooms, took over the position of wine director at Windsor Court Grill in New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina caused heavy damage to the wine cellar.
“They had no sommelier after Katrina,” she says. “It was a real mess, so I was able to build the list the way I wanted it to be. Now we have 800 labels and 4,000 bottles.”
She laughs at the memory of approaching a table of men and asking if they wanted to see the wine list, and they’d say yes then ask her to send over the sommelier.
When asked if women bring a different approach to wine service, Kavanaugh said, “I think women do have a more nurturing style, and you have to be able to ‘read a table.’ About 60 percent of our guests know what they want and 40 percent ask for my recommendations.
“Today men love seeing a woman sommelier. I have them eating out of my hand. With ladies, they want to become your friend and ask for more guidance. I like to talk them through wine choices. It’s more of a conversation.”
Liz Nicholson agrees.
“It is in a woman’s nature to be very hospitable,” she says. “If anything, women sommeliers have really helped remove being so uptight about ordering wine. It comes from a place in our heart based on the way we were raised. Our supreme goal is to get people what they want and make them happy. Women bring that spirit.”