New York - When Elyse Lambert ascended to the rank of Master Sommelier at a ceremony last May in Aspen, Colorado, the first thing she did was pop the cork on a bottle of Krug Grande Cuvee Champagne.
She had a lot to celebrate. A wine consultant to Montreal’s Maison Boulud, she was one of 63 candidates who took the tough final master sommelier exam this year, the last step in a long, gruelling four-part process.
Of the mere seven who passed, she was one of just two women.
“There were very few female somms when I started out 15 years ago,” Lambert says. “I began as a waitress. An MS after my name is important to me - and it helps change the image of women and wine in the restaurant world.”
In this enlightened era, only 32 of the world’s 229 Master Sommeliers - that's just under 14 percent - are women. Canada has two. Three-quarters of them ply their trade in the United States.
“The sommelier profession has historically been a male-dominated industry,” admits Andrew McNamara, Chairman of the Court of Master Sommeliers in the Americas. But it’s evolving. The venerable somm stereotype of a snooty, balding French guy with a silver taste-vin hanging from a chain around his neck is thankfully long gone.
In 2009, when Kelli White (now at Napa Valley’s Press restaurant) took a job at New York’s Veritas, the wine-centric restaurant had never had a female sommelier. Heidi Turzyn managed to work her way up to becoming the first female wine director at Gotham Bar and Grill only two years ago. But in an era when male sommeliers are likely to sport tattoos and sabre off the tops of Champagne bottles with bravado, women somms in some places still face an innate bias.
“I was once passed over for a sommelier job because the restaurant worried that I wouldn’t be able to carry cases of wine up and down stairs,” says Shelley Lindgren, wine director and owner of San Francisco’s A16, which won a 2015 James Beard Award for outstanding wine programme. Let's invoke a stereotype to counter that assumption: A case of wine weighs about 40 pounds, the same as a small child.
Indeed, overcoming (often ignoring) old-fashioned sexism is the biggest obstacle cited. Many of the dozen female somms I interviewed have stories of customers who demanded “the real wine guy”, or made “who’s the chick” remarks.
“I still get the occasional guest, usually a male sexagenarian or older, who arches his brow in surprise or scepticism when I approach the table,” says Texan June Rodil. She chose the sommelier route over law school, and was the other woman to pass the MS exam this year.
Being taken seriously was an issue and still is in some cities and countries. Pioneer Madeline Triffon oversees wine for Plum Market in Detroit and was the first American woman to be awarded the MS in 1987: “The credential has been a boon in my career - it opened doors and continues to do so.” Similarly, after becoming an MS, Emily Wines, now senior director of national beverage programmes for the Kimpton Hotel Group, was offered the corporate wine director job she had been trying to create.
At the end of the day, these women somms say, your work ethic is what counts.
French-born Pascaline Lepeltier, another MS and wine director at Manhattan restaurant Rouge Tomate, laments she sees some women go awry by playing a “seduction card” to get ahead: “This fragilises tremendously what a lot of women are trying to acquire - the respect.”
Emily Wines explains: “When young women come to me complaining that the boys’ club aspect of our industry is holding them back, I say you can’t make excuses.”
None of these issues are surprising when you consider that the restaurant business was once mostly closed to women. Most chefs are still men and the gender gap persists in the greater wine world. Men own the vast majority of the world’s great chateaux and a recent study showed that only 10 percent of wineries in California have a woman as the head winemaker.
The biggest barrier to success long-term, of course, is the same lean-in struggle most working women face: motherhood. It's, as Lepeltier says, “how to juggle late night hours and be a mom, just as it is for chefs”.
Yet, in the past few years, the number of women sommeliers has skyrocketed, especially in major urban centres like New York City. “It’s one of the best cities to be a female somm at the moment,” insists Laura Maniec, co-founder of Manhattan’s Corkbuzz, who became a master sommelier in 2009.
In London, the 2013 young sommelier of the year was a woman and in Australia, where 90 percent of the sommeliers in 35 000 restaurants in the Restaurant and Catering Association were men a decade ago, three of Sydney’s powerhouse restaurants have female somms. “Unfortunately, France is still very chauvinistic,” says Lepeltier.
But these women also believe they offer advantages, especially when it comes to service.
“Men are sometimes in a state of shock when I tell them I am the wine director,” says Marika Vida of the Ritz-Carlton in New York. “Ultimately, I think they find it alluring. Women guests think it’s very cool - we’re helping the sisterhood.”
“I would say women tend to be more empathetic and are better at reading body language and might be perceived as less intimidating,” explains Maniec.
Lee Campbell, the wine director at Brooklyn’s Reynard, puts it this way: “For me it’s more about nurturing, providing diners with an experience and unique stories. The male psyche is all about owning, commodifying, and measuring wines. In my early days, at Nick & Toni’s in Easthampton, a hangout for barons of industry, I had to be able to talk about how much the wine was worth! It was like learning to play golf.”