If you walked into an upscale restaurant a decade ago and asked to speak to the sommelier, the individual arriving at your table would have likely conformed to a familiar stereotype: an older gentleman with a big knotted tie, a pin on his lapel and a tastevin around his neck, pontificating about which pricey Margaux vintage to pair with your filet.
Enter that same restaurant today, however, and chances are the person bearing the wine list will be in his 20s or 30s. Rather than wearing a suit, he might be dressed in nothing but jeans and a T-shirt-and your sommelier is also far less likely to be a “he” at all.
In recent years, women have succeeded in breaking down the entry barriers to this traditionally male-dominated industry, shattering its old boys’ club image and infusing the ranks with trailblazing female sommeliers. At Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, which comprises a total of 12 restaurants, women now account for more than half of the company’s approximately 30 sommeliers, including industry celebrities like Gramercy Tavern’s Juliette Pope and Mia Van de Water of North End Grill. Along with the Momofuku group’s Jordan Salcito, Alpana Singh of Chicago’s Boarding House and Kelli White of Press in St. Helena, California, they’re members of a new generation of female sommeliers-or sommeliers who happen to be women-who have taken charge of some of the country’s most prestigious beverage programs.
Jane Lopes, a young sommelier at Manhattan’s renowned Eleven Madison Park whom Wine & Spirits named one of its best new sommeliers last year, is in some ways a poster child for the new, more gender-diverse generation. After graduating from the University of Chicago with a degree in English literature, she took a job at a local wine shop, soon found herself promoted to store manager and wound up serving as the opening beverage director at Nashville’s acclaimed Catbird Seat restaurant before arriving in New York in 2013.
Her gender never posed a problem-“If anything, it’s been helpful in certain circumstances,” she says, as some restaurants have looked specifically for women to balance out their teams. But Lopes is quick to point out that “men still hold most of the top wine director jobs in New York City and throughout the country.” She also acknowledges that the lack of resistance she’s encountered as a woman represents a relatively new phenomenon. “I think that women even five or 10 years older than me definitely faced more hurdles and setbacks than I did,” she says. “It’s my impression that it used to be a very different ballgame.”