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Trends: Leading Ladies | Sex and the Sommelier

More and more women are landing top sommelier positions, but winning over chauvinist customers is still no easy job.

On hectic Saturday nights at Fortunato, an Italian bistro in Chicago, 31-year-old Amanda Jobb does double duty. She's the sommelier, but she'll help check coats if the hostess gets swamped. This multitasking, alas, can cause confusion. Jobb likes to recount the story of an older couple who, having enjoyed a selection from the all-Italian wine list, asked to meet the person who had discovered the bottle. "So I go over and we talk for 10 minutes about the producer and about grapes," she says. "And when the waiter gets back, the man tells him, 'My, the coat-check girl certainly knows a lot about wine!'"

Like many other veteran diners, the man was accustomed to male sommeliers. Or, more precisely, he still believed in the sommelier stereotype: a supercilious male in a tuxedo with a silver tastevin around his neck. Jobb wants nothing to do with that cliché. "Just so you know, I really don't like being called a sommelier," she says, adding that she prefers the term wine director instead. To her, sommelier is a relic from the era when women weren't allowed to pour a single glass, let alone compile their own lists.

As recently as the 1980s, America's prominent female sommeliers could be counted on the fingers of one hand. In 1987, Madeline Triffon, then at Detroit's London Chop House, became the first American woman to earn the title of master sommelier, awarded by England's Court of Master Sommeliers. It took another five years for a second American woman to be similarly honored.

The biggest barrier was the stubbornness of European-born restaurateurs, who favored all-male staffs. "Plus, men tended to hold on to their positions, so there weren't many openings," says Roger Dagorn, the veteran sommelier at Manhattan's Chanterelle. "If people wanted to get in, they had to go through the proper channels"—a good-old-boys' network that women couldn't access.

As fine dining has become a less rigid, less Gallic experience, male chauvinism has become less of a problem. Women now head the wine programs in top-tier restaurants across the country, from Karen King at Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan to Jill Gubesch at Topolobampo in Chicago to Lisa Minucci at Martini House in Napa Valley. "In the Bay Area, I can name just as many women who work the floor as men," says Christie Dufault, the 33-year-old sommelier at San Francisco's Gary Danko, who mentions such locals as Catherine Fallis at Aqua and Debbie Zachareas at Bacar.

Like so many other female sommeliers, 38-year-old Zachareas was mentored by a man, albeit an American who valued talent over gender. She got her start in 1991 after having an epiphany while filling out a psychology graduate-school application. "There was an essay question that asked, 'Where do you see yourself in five to 10 years?'" she remembers. "I wrote, 'Making enough money to buy lots of wine.'" Realizing that she wasn't pursuing her deepest interest, Zachareas dropped higher education in favor of working in a wine shop. That led to a junior position at Rubicon in San Francisco, under star sommelier Larry Stone.

Cat Silirie, the 38-year-old sommelier at Boston's No. 9 Park, was similarly inspired while slogging through academia. "I always joke with friends that Bacchus spoke to me in a dream while I was struggling in college," she says. After dabbling in writing and painting, Silirie moved to Boston in 1986 and started waitressing at the steak house Grill 23. In her spare time, she read back issues of Robert M. Parker, Jr.'s Wine Advocate until she finally coaxed the sommelier into giving her a tryout.

It was on the restaurant floor that Silirie first encountered the breed of diner she calls "the distinguished gentleman"; a less flattering term might be "the know-it-all male chauvinist." "You know, the guy who has to tell everyone exactly what's in his own cellar," she says. This is the customer most likely to raise an eyebrow when a female sommelier approaches the table, list in hand.

"I had an experience with someone like that just the other night," says Laura Maniec, the 24-year-old sommelier at Blue Fin in Manhattan's Times Square. "I came up to the table, and the customer asked, 'Um, could you please send over the sommelier instead?' I said, 'That's me,' and he was fine after that. But there's that two- or three-minute reaction of 'Really? You?'"

There's bias from suppliers, too. "When I moved to South Florida, I'd walk into tastings and literally be ignored because I was a woman," says Virginia Philip, the 36-year-old sommelier at The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach. "Then I'd put on my name tag that said THE BREAKERS, and all of a sudden they'd come over to chat." The problem is that the rest of the wine world is still a boys' club. Though no hard studies have been done on the number of women in the wine business, Jim Wolpert, chairman of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis, estimates that women hold only about 5 percent of the management positions at California's 850 wineries.

But women have found their niche in the role of sommelier. Putting wary diners at ease requires a deft touch, especially when egos can easily be bruised in the process. Male customers, says Beth von Benz of New York City's Judson Grill, are often reluctant to ask for a sommelier's help—perhaps more so if it means confessing their ignorance to a woman. "It's the whole asking-for-directions thing," she says. "They'll just stare at the Cabernet page for 20 minutes." The trick is for a sommelier to avoid the dreaded "H" word. "I never, ever say, 'Do you need any help?'" says 45-year-old von Benz. "The way I put it is, 'Do you have any questions?'"

Cat Silirie has her own tactics. "Sometimes, coming up to the table and going on and on about technical stuff is just too much," she says. "It's better to talk about travel, about what kind of mood your customers are in. Are they celebrating something? I don't force people to come up with their own descriptive terms, so I'll ask, for example, how they feel about the words round and rich."

The distinguished gentleman asks the most esoteric questions, if for no other reason than to test whether the woman standing before him knows the difference between Gigondas and Vacqueyras. "With wine geeks, there's a common language," says Belinda Chang, the 30-year-old sommelier at San Francisco's Fifth Floor, "and they have to be comfortable that you can speak that language. Once you prove that you can talk about, say, Lafite vintages from the 1800s, their whole attitude changes."

Often, of course, the customer's only question is, "What do you recommend?" The stereotype is that female sommeliers go for crisp, light whites rather than the superextracted, high-alcohol ones—the "penis wines," one female sommelier calls them. There's some truth to this; again and again, I heard female sommeliers rave about Austrian Grüner Veltliner, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Loire Chenin Blanc. Lean and bright were their favorite adjectives, while they used big and fruit-forward almost as slurs.

This preference for more nuanced flavors may have to do with biology. Several studies have found that the majority of so-called supertasters—people blessed with double the normal number of taste buds—are women. Linda Bartoshuk, a professor at the Yale University School of Medicine, has found that 35 percent of American Caucasian women qualify as supertasters compared with just 15 percent of their male counterparts.

The woman sommeliers I spoke to bristled, however, when I suggested they might be tailoring their lists to the female palate. "When you're composing a list, it doesn't matter if you're male or female," insists Maniec, whose 600-bottle list includes small-grower Champagnes like Jacques Selosse as well as cult California Cabernets like Harlan Estate. "I don't like oaky Chardonnays—I actually hate them—but they're popular among my clientele. So I'm going to carry an oaky Chardonnay that's at least structured and well-balanced."

Besides, a lot of the female sommeliers' tastes have to do with age, not gender. Many are in their 20s and 30s, and they tend to focus on innovation over tradition, favoring up-and-coming regions and New World vineyards over Bordeaux and Burgundy. On von Benz's advice, I tried my first-ever Slovenian wine, Movia Turno, a deliciously candylike blend of three pinots (Bianco, Grigio and Nero). Some of the youngest sommeliers even take special care to tout wines made by fellow twentysomethings; Maniec's current favorite, for instance, is the 1998 Rusden Black Guts Shiraz by 27-year-old Australian Christian Canute.

Female sommeliers also seem eager to help out their younger counterparts, giving them opportunities that were hard to find just a decade ago. Zachareas not only hired a young woman last summer as an assistant, but while on maternity leave a few months ago, she left her two assistants in charge of Bacar's wine program.

Soon perhaps even the most distinguished gentleman won't do a double take when a female sommelier approaches the table. Even if it's the same woman who checked his coat.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for the Village Voice.

Published October 2003
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