A few years ago, Naureen Zaim was—just like any other night—working at Hakkasan in Beverly Hills, California, as its sommelier. A customer challenged her in a way she’ll never forget.
“I went over to the table and started talking about sake. The guy just looked at me and said, ‘Can I speak with the sake guy?’ and I said, ‘You’re looking at him. I am the sake guy.’” Unfortunately, the sexism didn’t stop there. On another night, a male diner confused Zaim for a hostess—not the person in charge of the wine list.
Are diners still expecting the buttoned-up, stiff older gentleman in a suit and tie to pour the wine? While for the most part female sommeliers aren’t causing anyone to twist their necks and make remarks like the above, the idea of a male sommelier prevails. And yet some restaurants—such as Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, a collection of 13 eateries, including Gramercy Tavern—claim a growing percentage of women selling wine: in this case, 30 of the company’s 60 sommeliers. Perhaps proof that more females are seeking out the field.
In July, Zaim assumed her latest post, as sommelier at Eveleigh in West Hollywood, California. Like many of today’s sommeliers, regardless of gender, her journey into wine was born out of bartending. At some point, her palate developed beyond what she refers to as “fruit bombs from California.”
“Dare I say it, a man introduced me to older vintages of great wines. I had an epiphany moment. I was in Provence drinking ’82 Château d’Yquem. I couldn’t get my nose out of the glass,” she recalls.
Two weeks later she was drilling the sommeliers about wine while dining at The French Laundry in Yountville, California, and she began taking wine classes. But not all female diners will feel as comfortable as Zaim did in engaging with wine directors or sommeliers. There are advantages to having a woman in that role when a large portion of clientele are women, who might feel flustered or intimidated by a man asking what they’d like to drink or preaching to them about wine. “Women get very excited when I tell them I sell wine. They’re more willing to listen and learn,” Zaim says.
She has also noticed men will order a pricier wine from a woman than they would from a man. It all comes down to making a solid first impression. “When a man orders a bottle of wine for his date, he doesn’t necessarily want her to see the price. He also doesn’t want the woman standing there taking his order to see him as cheap,” she says. “Any guy who wants to impress a woman wants to impress all women.”
Balancing the demands of raising a family with young children—or simply maintaining relationships with peers, romantic partners, and family—is a struggle given a wine professional’s hours. “I am totally consumed as a wine director,” says Zaim. “It’s a 100-percent consuming endeavor because every year it changes with a new vintage,” she says. Testament to the nonstop pace: she’s driving to Spago, Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant in Beverly Hills, California, for a wine luncheon even as we speak. While she currently is not married and does not have children, she respects those women who do. “I don’t know where they find the time,” she says.
What has helped Rachael Lowe, sommelier at Spiaggia in Chicago—where James Beard Foundation Award winner for Best Chef in 2005 Tony Mantuano sits at the helm as chef/partner—navigate this territory is to seek out female mentors. She has turned to Annie Turso, former wine director of Mandarin Oriental in New York City, and Rachel Driver Speckan at City Winery in Chicago, both of whom juggle families and careers. Lowe arrived at the restaurant two years ago after stints at The French Laundry, Bouchon Bistro, also in Yountville, as well as Gordon Ramsay’s first U.S. restaurant at The London NYC, and the Mandarin Oriental in New York City, and Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago. “I think it’s still a male-dominated field, although less and less,” she says. “This industry is difficult no matter what. The hours are ridiculous.”
Like Zaim she’s been confused for someone unqualified to manage the wine list. “I used to get comments like, ‘You look so young. How could you possibly know so much about wine?’ I don’t think someone would say that to a man unless he looks like a little boy,” Lowe says.
She has noticed a sisterhood of women dedicated to supporting each other in careers linking wine and hospitality. “Women are banding together more in this industry than they ever have been,” she says. In October, a group of five female sommeliers from fine-dining restaurants in Chicago, including Lowe, co-hosted a wine dinner at Spiaggia as part of the Jean Banchet Awards and benefiting those with cystic fibrosis.
For some female sommeliers, they’ve always been working as one of the few women in a man’s field. Barbara Werley is a Master Sommelier—one of only 21 in North America and just six in Texas—tasked with building the wine list at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Dallas, a post she’s held since 2007. Before that she worked in Las Vegas. “When I first got to Vegas, I was the first female wine director [in that city],” says Werley, about her job at Caesars Palace from 1996 to 2001. She was also the first CIA graduate to become a Master Sommelier.
“I just really fell into it,” she says about her journey into wine. After graduating from The Culinary Institute of America she joined The Ritz-Carlton, Washington, D.C., as a chef. It wasn’t until she started processing wine orders as the hotel’s director of purchasing that she got hooked on wine.
Regardless of gender, sommelier is a role that practically requires multi-tasking—especially with a lengthy wine list like at Pappas Bros. where 3,200 selections are on the list, built by Werley. “That’s the challenge here, as a sommelier, period—being able to navigate the list. You have to be able to think on your feet [when servicing tables],” she says.
In the end, it’s not so much gender roles but personality traits that make a sommelier successful. “If you don’t come across with a lot of confidence, you’re going to be pushed off,” Werley says. “If you go to the table very quietly, you’re not going to be taken as seriously. It’s not about being arrogant. It’s about having more chutzpah.”