IF YOU READ AN ARTICLE ABOUT WOMEN in the wine business at any point after the Financial Crisis, you soon recognized the formula. Start with a blend of statistics: the percentage of female master sommeliers worldwide, the percentage of female Union Hospitality Group sommeliers, culinary program graduation rates. Drop in words that evoke a feeling of oaky, leather-bound prosperity: “rising,” “growing,” “times are changing.” Make an upfront reference to the wine industry as a boys’ club or a bastion of chauvinism. If you’re so inclined, let Sex and the City be your headline spirit guide.
The conversation about women in wine hasn’t exactly improved with age. Across Randolph Street, Logan Square, River North—and pretty much any other culinary nook of Chicago—women helm some of the city’s, if not the country’s, most renowned wine and beverage programs. In one 2014 roundup of the city’s rising sommeliers, exactly half were female. None of this is an accident, and, frankly, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Yet the way we talk about this phenomenon remains frustratingly unchanged.
I spent the last few weeks speaking with a handful of local female wine leaders to better understand what we should talk about when we talk about women in wine—including whether we should be talking about women in wine at all.
From shock factor to moot point
The numbers don’t lie: the volume of women in sommelier and lead beverage positions is trending up. “It’s easier [for young women today] to get their foot in the door and it’s not so much of a shocker or taboo,” says Alpana Singh, master sommelier and proprietor of The Boarding House, Seven Lions and forthcoming Terra & Vine. “It’s definitely more of the norm now.”
It wasn’t always that way. As recently as the early aughts, most restaurant diners harbored a specific schema of who’d be helping them choose between the sangiovese and a tempranillo. Belinda Chang, James Beard award-winner and director of wine and spirits at Maple & Ash, clearly remembers a time when she wasn’t it: “So we’ve got a table full of businessmen… they’re all in suits, they’re looking at this big list, and they ask for the somm and Alpana and I show up 15 years ago, and they’re like—‘Wait a sec, we asked for the somm…’”
The growing number of female sommeliers has made women a visible, established part of the industry and the dining experience. The increase in female leaders—those managing their own wine bars, like Liz Mendez, co-founder of Vera in the West Loop, or rewriting the rulebook on pairing wine with Mexican food, like Jill Gubesch of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo—may be what’s attracting so many young women to the field.
“There have always been women in the industry, but they have more of a voice and more of a forward position [today],” says Rachel Driver Speckan, national wine director for City Winery. “The network is very strong, and because of that there are more and more opportunities for other women to be in leadership positions.”
A responsibility to mentor
The women who have spent the last decade or more nurturing their own wine careers—the “OGs,” as Chang calls them—don’t simply serve as passive role models for the next generation.
“I don’t think it’s an accident that women want other women to be successful. There are only so many seats at the table, especially in Chicago. And in a lot of other industries, you might see women tearing each other down or being competitive to hold on to their territory, but most here are pumping each other up,” explains Liz Mendez. “We have people in the market who are taking initiative to empower women in wine.”
They’re all in suits, they’re looking at this big list, and they ask for the somm and Alpana and I show up and they’re like—‘Wait a sec, we asked for the somm…’
This empowerment comes in many forms. For a woman just embarking on a beverage career, the collaborative network of Chicago’s female wine leaders means always having someone to “answer emails, share insights, or give advice,” says Gubesch, who helped inspire former Topolobampo server Jessica Dennis to become a certified sommelier. It also means more opportunities to learn.
“When I started in the industry there were very few other women proprietors or leaders in the community that I could look up to or study with,” says Driver Speckan. At City Winery, she’s not only working to ensure that men and women entering the field don’t have to go it alone, but that their expertise extends beyond selling vintages to the dinner crowd. “I’m trying to be a place that fosters the opportunity and trains people on how to become a really well rounded industry person. I do a lot of internships with people who are interested in how to someday become a wine director, and show them [that]…it’s not just what happens on the floor. It’s financial, organizational, things like that.”
When Belinda Chang was wine and service director at The Modern in New York City, she focused on assembling an award-winning female team that included Carson Demmond, now associate wine editor at Food & Wine Magazine and Keri Levens, sommelier at Chefs Club by Food & Wine. “Most of the time [that I was at The Modern], it was all women on my wine team and I’ll tell you what, that was not a random decision,” Chang recalls. “Especially in a competitive city that feels very masculine, it’s frickin’ awesome to have women as a part of your wine experience, so I was certainly choosing purposefully the people that I wanted on my team. At that point I felt like it was my responsibility to mentor.”
Surprisingly, though, Chang feels men have an easier time asking her for mentorship than women. “I think it’s a very easy conversation for a guy in the restaurant business to say, ‘Oh Belinda, my dream is to be a somm or a wine director one day,’ for them to approach that conversation and come and be very direct with me and tell me that that’s a goal and feel very comfortable asking my help in getting there,” Chang tells me. By comparison, women, she thinks, assume “we should get things done on our own.”
Men are from malbec, women are from viognier
Framing the women in wine conversation in terms of gender stereotypes is not necessarily progress. That said, in each of the conversations I had, it was hard not to reference a few palpable differences in the way men and women in the industry approach their jobs.
“Most of my experience with strong male somms is more of, ‘I’m the expert, I’m going to tell you what you should have,’ rather than creating a discourse or a conversation about it,” says Driver Speckan, who attributes this approach to traditional sommelier education. “It was just part of the training if you were good and you were able to tell people what to get.”
Chang echoes that sentiment, “I’ve always maintained that I think women are a little more intuitive at the table, and a little less about macho and having that duel, like who can quote more vintages of Bordeaux.”
At the same time, today’s leaders feel that women trying to build a career in the industry could take a lesson from their male counterparts’ greater palate for risk—or simply their egos. “I look at these women sometimes who think, ‘My resume is not perfect; I don’t have what it takes,’ and you read about these gaps about women not going for it,” explains Singh. “Men don’t ask these questions, they just go and apply for it. I think we just need to jump in a little more.”
Life beyond the floor
The fact that more women are willing to pursue wine and beverage jobs than ever before is obviously progress, but the conversation doesn’t end there. Among the wine leaders I spoke to, the focus now is shifting from recruitment to retention.
“There’s a limit to life on the floor. So great, we get all these women to come on the floor and then what happens in 10 years? Where do they go?,” Singh reflects. “We have to give them a farther path for what to do next.”
Particularly in Chicago, where there’s a plurality of women running their own wine programs, leaders are taking the initiative to prepare the incoming class of female sommeliers and wine captains to be assistant directors, directors and even owners. This means not only having an encyclopedic knowledge of reds and whites, but also the entrepreneurial savvy to keep their teams in the black.
“If an owner of a restaurant is going to pay you the big bucks and the big salary, you need to make them money…They don’t care if you have a little red, green or black pin. They want to know if you can make them money,” Chang points out. “That’s what I want to get young women excited about.”
The more women immerse themselves in training that emphasizes financial planning and labor management as much as sales and service, the closer we get to what people like Alpana Singh believe to be the best case scenario: more women business owners. As she sees it, “For women though, a lot of times they look at who they’re working for and it’s a guy. They look at the owners, they look at restaurateurship – you see a sea of men. As more Laura Maniecs [of the Corkbuzz Restaurant and Wine Bar family] and Liz Mendezes start their own restaurants, they see a path toward something better. They see a path to creating something for themselves.”
Work to be done
Where does the conversation go from here?
For some of the women quoted in this article, the hope is to reach a point where it dies down completely. For others, there are still issues of semantics to hash out.
“Until we stop delineating the top 10 ‘female’ chefs, somms, etc., we still have work to do,” says Liz Mendez.
What everyone seems to agree on is this: visibility changes everything. In a city that glorifies its craft beer and cocktails, in a time when restaurant operators question the need for a sommelier at all, women set a precedent for what it means to work in wine by doing, not talking. By founding their own wine bars, by encouraging aspiring sommeliers, by composing wine lists that rebel against categorization by reds, whites or regions, the women leading today’s wine industry invite everyone outside of it to see them not as statistics–but as representations of their profession at the highest standard.
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