New York City's Pioneering Female Sommeliers

Every couple of years we see a new flood of articles announcing the arrival of women sommeliers. My issue with these well intentioned pieces isn’t the effort to highlight the achievements of 50% of our planet, but that they tend to get some fundamental facts wrong and often fail to give credit to the women who were paving the way twenty years ago. Being a guy in this industry and voicing a critical opinion on the recent round of articles might take some balls, but as Betty White noted… that's a terrible word to denote toughness. As all men know, those things aren’t tough at all and while her analogy gets even funnier... I'll spare you.

A dozen years ago I was living in New York and my wife was a sommelier and her boss was not an old guy with a tastevin and a taste for claret (as one article described the wine scene of ten years past); she was Annie Turso, a former ballet dancer who worked the floor with tremendous grace. The list of names could go on for pages: , , , , Susan LaRossa, , , Beth von Benz, Alexis Brock, Kristie Petrullo… and this is just off the top of my head in one city at a time when the community was far smaller than it is today.  

Just a few days after seeing this piece in the Wall Street Journal, I saw a throwback issue of Wine and Spirits magazine on social media from more than ten years ago with Shelley Lindgren on the cover. I sent the magazine an email, curious if bringing attention to a  female sommelier was an anomaly at that time. Contrary to what you might expect after reading recent characterizations of that era, all but one person (a very young Desi Echavarrie) profiled in that year’s "Best New Sommeliers" were women.

A potential critique might suggest that this only applied to New York City; but ten years back  in Chicago, in Ft Lauderdale, and  in San Francisco were running circles around many of the guys—let's not forget this. The further you get from the major markets I'm sure the less true this was, but you could say the same thing for wine professionals as a whole. Many markets just weren't that developed with less opportunities in our profession.

Don't misunderstand me, the challenges for women in many businesses are very real but many of the pioneers were a generation ago and sometimes they don't get the credit in today's media that they deserve. So instead of continuing another of my grumpy rants, let’s hear from some of the women who might better represent what the NY sommelier scene was like a decade or two ago.

—Geoff Kruth, MS

How and when did you get your start in the wine business?

I was working as a bartender at a hip, new restaurant in the East Village called Global 33. Many of my friends were wine salespeople and would come by, hang at the bar, and taste me on a variety of wines. Finally the owners asked me if I would like to start buying the wines (the list was ten white and ten reds!). The first wine that I bought was Dr Konstantin Frank, Rkatsiteli. 
 —Beth von Benz

I had just graduated from NYU and started working in fine dining. I met Dale Degroff and Andrea Robinson at the Rainbow Room and had been taking wine courses at the International Wine Center with Mary Mulligan MW. I was 22 and trying to make a living in the Big Apple, so I worked as many shifts as possible... I was on a triple shift (yep breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and in between breakfast and lunch Dale walked by the linen room and saw me perched on a stack of tablecloths, head buried in the Oxford Wine Companion... From there he introduced me to Andrea, Beverage Director for (newly reopened) Windows on the World. I started as Assistant Cellar Master (we called it "cellar rat" back then) and gradually worked my way up to Cellar Master, overseeing a team of four Sommeliers and a very large wine cellar.
 —Gillian Ballance

I worked part time in wine retail at Best Cellars on the upper East Side during culinary school in 1998. I fell in love with wine as a whole and knew immediately I wanted to make it my career. During this time the New York Times featured Andrea Immer (now Andrea Robinson) on the front page of the Dining Out section. I cold called her and she answered the phone, told me to fax my resume to the Beverage Department. Less than six months later I was offered a job as Assistant Cellar Master at the largest grossing restaurant in North America.
 —Inez Rubistello

"Ultimately they asked me to leave the bar and just work as Wine Director. I did, and that was
a very good decision." 

I was on the opening team for Union Square Cafe (as a server). It was a very wine-centric restaurant, and that began my interest in wine. By the early '90s I was asked to help with wine inventory, ordering, and stocking.  Wine Director Paul Bolles-Beaven started taking me to wine tastings; we discovered that I had a good palate. My wine enthusiasm and interest grew. I took Kevin Zraly’s wine course and Harriet Lembeck’s class. The next step was being given responsibility for the Wine by the Glass Category. At that time we had set wines by the glass and weekly specials. Paul was promoted to GM and I took over responsibility for USC’s Wine Program in the mid ‘90s while I was working as a bartender, working closely with Paul and Danny. Ultimately they asked me to leave the bar and just work as Wine Director. I did, and that was a very good decision.
 —Karen King

My first job in the wine business was at Windows on the World (WOW) in January 2000. The journey to the wine industry was a long one for me—I transitioned from another career as an attorney in NYC.  As you can imagine, I couldn’t do this overnight. In 1998 I took the introductory WSET classes and became certified by the Sommelier Society of America. By the time I was hired at WOW I was enrolled in the Diploma course. Classes enabled me to meet so many people and help get my foot in the door. Education helped me immensely in having the confidence to make the switch to the wine business. I applied for a job in the WOW cellar in mid-1999, but no positions were available in the beverage department until the end of the year. I was incredibly persistent—emailing, calling, and following up repeatedly with Wine Director Mark Coleman until a spot opened up. I always knew that was where I wanted to work.
 —Susan LaRossa

I got my start volunteering for the International Wine Center and Windows on the World wine classes while working on Wall Street. Once I was bitten by the bug I left and traveled the classic regions of Europe on a Eurail pass for six months. I returned to work as a secretary and envelope-stuffer at the International Wine Center (working under Mary Mulligan MW) then for the Wine Department at Windows on the World. From there I moved up to cellar rat, then sommelier, then Wine Director.
 —Andrea (Immer) Robinson

 

What types of wines were you and your customers most interested in then and how is that different from today?

There was much more of an overall interest in a variety of American wines, something I believe is almost the opposite presently. My first winery trips were to The North Fork and California. Now sommeliers want (and have) the opportunity to go to all over the world. I bought Bonnie Doon wines and loved Randall Graham. Bruce Schneider had just released his first wines from the North Fork, shaking up the Hargraves and blue chip Long Island producers. Mason Sauvignon blanc was a fresh crisp style  rivaling the Fumé Blanc category. Some great wines were coming out of a new wine state—Oregon! But many producers were not represented in the NYC market or were heavily allocated—you had to know the owner to buy William Selyem wines! 
 —Beth

In the late nineties Bordeaux and California Cabernet were all the rage, as were big Chardonnay wines like Marcassin, Kistler, Flowers etc. Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley was also quite popular. We had almost two pages of Williams-Selyem single vineyard wines at rock bottom prices—I did not appreciate the lower prices of wines back then! I look back at some old wine lists and it's jaw-dropping... Older Quintarelli Cabernet Francs for $50, 1947 Calon-Segur at $550 and more. Back then restaurants were the singular source for great wines, boutique and collectible wines. Times have changed, and I feel this has sparked a lot of interest in emerging regions where great wines can be nicely priced on wine lists. Sommeliers are gatekeepers to the influx of these wines.
 —Gillian

Bordeaux and Burgundy were of course the big boys, but in 1999 New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was also a huge rage—Cloudy Bay in particular.  We were pouring a crazy amount of German Riesling by the glass, and we didn’t have White Zinfandel on the list at Windows (very risqué back then).  We experimented with a section devoted to half bottles and I will always remember having Billecart Salmon Brut Rosé and the flagship Veuve Clicquot “Windows on the World” Cuvée by the glass. We poured a Savagnin from the Jura by the glass at Wild Blue (Windows’ much smaller sister restaurant) and I remember feeling especially proud of this esoteric wine. Right before September 11th, 2001 we received our first allocation of Numanthia, a big red from Toro that was making us stop in our tracks. In terms of how everything is different today, the consumer is so much more knowledgeable than they were seventeen years ago. They know their stuff and they want to make sure they are following the hot trends. The average consumer was much older than the average consumer today, and these young entrepreneurs consider it vital to know their wines.
 —Inez

"Customers today know so much more about wine than they did when I started and the array of different wines is much broader." 

From the very beginning we poured Prosecco* by the glass (I found it amusing a few years back when it was touted at something "new"). We had dessert wines by the glass including d’Yquem. The heart of our wine program was Italian wine, though French wines were very important too (Burgundy, Alsace, and Bordeaux mostly) along with California wines. We always had a Beaujolais, Macon-Villages, and a Nebbiolo-based Piemontese wine by the glass.  It was an international list so other wines featured were from Spain, a couple from Australia, South Africa.  I believe I was the first person to pour Grüner Veltliner by the glass (Wieninger). We poured a Kabinett Riesling from the Mosel back before it was the "it" grape. Customers liked our offerings and were up for wine adventures for the most part. My heart was, and remains, with the Old World wines I was brought up on at USC. Customers today know so much more about wine than they did when I started and the array of different wines is much broader. 
 —Karen

Back then sommeliers and wine professionals were interested in Austrian wines—a relatively new phenomenon. We were excited about Santa Barbara, Brewer-Clifton was new on the scene and we couldn’t get enough of those guys at WOW. Customers at the table had much less information at their fingertips than they do now, so we were able to have great conversations about the wines and tell the stories. At WOW, (and later at Vong and Jean-Georges) the mainstays were Bordeaux, Napa, and Burgundy. But we would get plenty of adventurous customers willing to try 75+ year-old Chenin Blanc from Huet or Madeira from the 1800s. That’s what excited us and what we talked about at the end of the night.
 —Susan

California Chardonnay was huge, along with the classics like Bordeaux. Now I see more interest in general, and a greater openness to trying a wider array of wines.
 —Andrea

How do you see the evolution of the sommelier community and wine culture in New York City?

Personally I think the more the merrier! When I started out there was a very small community of sommeliers, now that number has multiplied, and that is good thing. I love when I go to a small restaurant in Brooklyn and there is a smart, compact wine list that someone is paying attention to. We are so lucky now to have so many wine people working who have the passion for creating a great list, whether in a restaurant, wine bar, or retail. We now have many employers who are willing to pay for a good wine list and supply wine service on the floor, which opens opportunities for many types of wine jobs in a wide variety of venues. 
 —Beth

It's greater than I could have ever imagined. I probably would not have made it out to the West Coast if I had been in NYC as a sommelier just 5-10 years ago, it's an incredibly tight-knit community. I also think there are far better working conditions, compensation etc. than in the 90's. Restaurants with deep programs staffed with sommeliers that offered a very high level of knowledge for diners certainly provided the impetus for building great wine lists in fine dining restaurants—not only in Manhattan, but all over the country.
 —Gillian

"Today every serious restaurant (regardless of cuisine or size) has a knowledgeable
wine buyer or sommelier." 

Ironically, the sommelier community has gotten younger and hipper than it was 10-15 years ago. In the late 90s/early 2000s, most sommeliers were in their 30-40s.  Now most of the restaurant sommeliers look like they are in their mid-20s. There is a lot more energy amongst the community and the community is much bigger. Back in the day restaurants that had sommeliers were Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Cafe, Aureole, Picholine, Chanterelle, Montrachet, Alain Ducasse, and River Cafe. Today every serious restaurant (regardless of cuisine or size) has a knowledgeable wine buyer or sommelier.  There are more and more students who want to study wine, almost as many who want to study the culinary arts.
 —Inez

There are SO many more sommeliers working today than when I started. We are lucky to work in an industry that is expanding (versus something like publishing or the music business). Social media has impacted our world tremendously. I feel wine people today often think about branding themselves in ways that didn’t occur or exist when I began. Many more sommeliers are on the Master Sommelier track today. There were many of us in the wine business when I was “coming up” that loved wine and were true enthusiasts; that has not changed today: wine lovers yesterday, today, always.
 —Karen

In the last 15 years, the wine world in NYC has cycled through good and bad economic times over and over again. There have been long periods where wine professionals had to wear multiple hats, which has been difficult for everyone along the wine chain. We certainly did post-9/11. Perhaps the biggest impact on wine culture in NYC and elsewhere has been social media—wine professionals are connected virtually and information is everywhere, in my days on the floor we had to seek out information.
 —Susan

From afar (I now live in Napa but still spend a lot of time in NYC), I still see a lot of collegiality and sharing of ideas that's more vibrant than some other major metro markets.
 —Andrea

 

How did restaurants like Windows on the World and Gramercy Tavern affect this?

Many of my friends were working in wine departments at both GT and WOTW, they were an intricate part of our small sommelier community. So many people (especially at Windows) came up from the ranks of these two iconic restaurants. Here, you had a great example of owners and employers pioneering the hiring of wine directors, sommeliers, cellar rats, etc., in modern NYC restaurants. They were the starting foundation of what we have today.
 —Beth

Wine students used Windows on the World as a training ground for the next big restaurant. Many professionals became assistant cellar masters (a.k.a. glorified box movers) to learn under Kevin Zraly and then Andrea Immer (now Robinson). It was one of the greatest wine learning opportunities in the world. Spend a year at Windows on the World working in the cellar and you could take away enough wine knowledge and experience to work the floor as a sommelier anywhere. When I arrived Gillian Ballance had just left to open Cello on the upper east side as Wine Director.  After a few months Andrea Immer left to become the corporate beverage director for Starwood Hotels.  Shortly afterwards she took with her Chris Goodhart who later became the wine buyer for all of Keith McNally’s restaurants. Alison Junker went to stage at Chateau Lynch-Bages. Mark Coleman left to work for Douglas Polaner. As a student of Windows, you could seriously go anywhere from there. I give Windows all of the credit for being able to get jobs opening Blue Fin in the W-Times Square and the Borgata Casino, Hotel & Spa. I don’t have as much experience speaking to the legacy at Gramercy, but I feel like it was very similar with Steve Olson, Robert Bohr, and Paul Grieco and later Karen King and now Juliette Pope. However, with Gramercy, women were later as opposed to Windows on the World, where women led the pack earlier.
 —Inez

Windows definitely launched a number of wine professionals. It put wine on many peoples’ maps. Gramercy Tavern has always had a stellar, eclectic wine selection with excellent wine service, so in terms of setting a high bar to emulate it has served as an influence. In terms of the sommelier community Gramercy Tavern never had sommeliers on the floor until this year (called Wine Captains). They have historically had the captains take care of guests’ wine questions and service. When I was Wine Director at Gramercy I did not go to a table unless there was a specific request, question, or need by the team (which I found frustrating). The role of Wine Director there was in large part to educate the wait staff about our wines so they could take care of it (loved that part of the job).  The wine community has always looked to Gramercy Tavern for good wines to discover. I think more than ever Juliette Pope’s wine program is a treasure trove of wine adventures.
 —Karen

I really can’t speak to Gramercy Tavern, but WOW certainly created a lasting legacy.  So many great people worked in that legendary restaurant, and I think we pass along so much that we learned to the people we meet even today.  Every time I work a wine event as a sommelier or supplier, or speak with a sommelier about wine, I have the culture of WOW imbedded in my brain and influencing my actions.
 —Susan

"Above all—and this is huge—they trained everyone on the floor towards the level of a
sommelier's wine knowledge." 

Above all—and this is huge—they trained everyone on the floor towards the level of a sommelier's wine knowledge. This positioned every person to give amazing service, creatively curate their guests' experience in their station, and to have a future (if desired) as a sommelier or wine director. Steve Olson started it at Gramercy Tavern and of course my mentor Kevin Zraly was the catalyst for all of it and all of us. He was never threatened by rising talent beneath him—he "got it" about how valuable that was for his program and for the nurturing and development of those he hired. It was and still is inspiring.
 —Andrea

Some recent articles have painted the “Rise of the Female Sommelier” as being a recent phenomenon. Any thoughts on this?

The writers might have done a bit more fact checking! There were many of us around back in the "dark ages": Andrea Robinson, Karen King, Jerri Banks, Kim Anderson, Gwen Goichman, Gillian Ballance and all the WOTW women, Susan Larossa, Inez Ribustello, and many more.
 —Beth

"And upsell we did..." 

Well, journalists have to write about something and there are more women in the sommelier role than there were 10-20 years ago, so that is something to acknowledge. However, in the late 90s and early 2000s there were quite a few of us in the Wine Director/Sommelier role, and I think that is because we were "women". ...And who better to "upsell" some guys from Wall street or Japanese businessman than a woman in what presumably was a "man's" job! And upsell we did...
 —Gillian

Every journalist is looking for some angle on some story. Of course, some think the female sommelier is a new phenomenon. I find it a little crazy to focus on the type of person doing the job instead of the job itself. Why not focus on excellent sommeliers in general as opposed to excellent “female” sommeliers?  If you do a great job the recognition will come. 
 —Inez

Well I was a female working as a sommelier twenty years ago and I was not alone—just in the minority—so it has been rising for a long time now. Today there are definitely more female sommeliers than ever but there are also more male sommeliers than ever. It was unusual for women to be in the wine world but all evolution takes time. Change is a process. I am proud to have been part of the first wave of women being important in the wine landscape.
 —Karen

I love when the spotlight is shined on female sommeliers!  But I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon—I certainly wasn’t a pioneer fifteen years ago. There were countless great female sommeliers/wine directors in NYC that I admired and learned from more than fifteen years ago. Women like Karen King (Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern), Beth Von Benz (Milos, Judson Grill), and many of the wonderful, talented women at WOW: Gillian Ballance, Inez Holderness, Kim Anderson, Alison Junker, and Andrea Immer. I had no shortage of female mentors at WOW and throughout NYC. Women have been on the floor in NYC for a very long time. 
 —Susan

I am glad for it, though it's not so new. I guess some of the articles are written by people who are growing up with a certain generation of female sommeliers. I will say again that Kevin Zraly hired and promoted tons of female sommeliers—some of whom started in the cellar and others as Captains in the dining room. We are all indebted to and inspired by Master Madeline Triffon, who embodied the quiet confidence and ballet-like glide through service that distinguishes the great lady sommeliers.
 —Andrea

 

Was gender a challenge in your career and if so, can you share your thoughts?

When I first started there were some rare instances of my arrival at the table to be dismissed and asked for the (male) Sommelier to be sent over. Most of the time I was well received and customers were actually delighted and interested in the fact I was breaking the stuffy old rules and was working as a sommelier. John Cleese was a regular at one of the restaurants I worked and his first comment upon my arrival to his table was to ask, (in a Monty Python-esque voice) "What do they call a female Sommelier? Sommeli-ella, Sommeli-ess?" My favorites were couples, an old-fashioned husband, Thurstin Howell III-type discussing wine with his wife and me, Lovey sitting there all smiles and winks approving of me being a female sommelier! I was always well-received by tables of women—they gave sighs of relief when they saw me! 
 —Beth

Yes, but I am sure it would be in any career... I was definitely not hired for certain jobs because the GM or Chef/Owner did not think that I could lift cases, stock a cellar, etc. I think that made me work even harder! Finding the right shoes was never easy... Back then most restaurants wanted you in a skirt and heels....yikes! 
 —Gillian

Honestly, when I worked the floor at Windows or Wild Blue, gender was nothing compared to the hell I got for my southern accent. I actually had a guest comment, “Do people think you’re stupid because you’re southern?” Of course, there are always a few dimwits who say things like, "You’re awfully (choose one: young, small, girly) to be recommending such a big wine." If you’re comfortable with your knowledge and your service, it is never an issue. 
 —Inez

"Doing your job well with care
and enthusiasm always wins." 

I never found my gender to be a hindrance in my career. If anything, I think it helped. There was an expectation that the sommelier would be a man followed by surprise that it was a woman. But that made it more fun! The fact that I learned and worked in a very busy, well-known restaurant (that moved a lot of wine and paid its bills on time [:)] ) didn’t hurt, of course. But us gals were definitely always in the minority (10-15%). Doing your job well with care and enthusiasm always wins.
 —Karen

I never considered my gender a challenge. I always thought women as a whole were incredible tasters and that helped us immeasurably. I never felt any gender bias from customers and certainly not from suppliers, though I’m sure the fact that I was still dressing like a lawyer and speaking with authority helped. I did encounter some negativity from some of the old-guard captains at Jean-Georges (who I think didn’t like women on the floor selling and serving wine). They’re all long gone by now.  
 —Susan

Not much—occasionally as the buyer when my sales rep was "old school" and thus not quite sure how to deal with me once I went from Wine Department Secretary to Cellar Master. You worked it through just as you would any other respectful interaction: thinking about the awkwardness from their shoes and taking it in stride. People are people—with views shaped by their background. And as Kevin always said, "They are your customers, too," so authentic hospitality was how we were taught to treat everyone in every situation. They always came around.
 —Andrea


Are there any topics regarding gender that you think the media has not addressed?

I don't think I was paid less because I am a woman. In fact, I think I was quite well-paid in the beginning, possibly more than many men who were working for well-established, Old World restaurants. In our tight-knit community of NYC sommeliers there were few gender issues; we all had mutual respect for each other. I remember a dinner party at my house when Karen King (at Union Square Cafe at the time) asked how much we were all making and she realized she was making significantly less. She was aghast at our salary differences (you can ask her about that!).
 —Beth

Well, there are more women filling the restaurants and making the wine decisions... How do female customers view female sommeliers? Are they more trusting of the same gender, or would they rather have a male to interact with? Is this why GM's choose to "round" out their team? Sure, I bet if one were to study salaries for both men and women, findings would be higher pay for men... especially if hired by men. I have held positions that were previously occupied by men (with families to support), where I (unmarried, no children) was earning  less, but I had more experience...
 —Gillian

I still see the wine list being given to men as a matter of course in a restaurant. I also have experienced being short poured wine many times over the years when I am the sole woman at a table of men.
 —Karen

"The food and wine business is so much fun and often romanticized, but it can take a toll
on your health and your relationships
for both men and women." 

I don’t think the media has talked very much about the wine business and female health. The food and wine business is so much fun and often romanticized, but it can take a toll on your health and your relationships for both men and women. It is hard to properly do your job, have fun and achieve balance, no matter the position in the business.
 —Susan

I think all of these issues are important angles of a useful dialogue, mostly so female sommeliers can advocate for themselves when it comes to pay or opportunities (it's not always second nature for women, or frankly anyone, "rising" (and thus not that experienced) to ask for what they want or deserve in a straightforward and non-personal way). I am fine with what might be thought of as a double-standard around drinking. Alcohol lowers inhibition so given that core male-female dynamics are hard-wired into both genders, no one should let alcohol consumption impair their professional decorum. We're also obliged to be role models for moderation and appropriate-ness--otherwise we invite legitimate criticism of how we handle our product.
 —Andrea

 

What advice would you give to the new generation of wine professionals?

A very difficult question to answer. Times are so different now… I would say: enjoy the wine that you are tasting and take a minute to savor it. It’s not all about the end result. One day you will look back and say, “I wish I had taken the time to drink that wine with food, friends, and enjoy it."
 —Beth

I think younger sommeliers tend to move around a lot because something isn't working for them... But if you look at those that have worked in one place for a very long time, they had to stick it out. There is no such thing as walking into a "dream job." You have to create it, and it takes time. I thought that I would be a sommelier forever... and still consider myself to be one even though I no longer work on the floor of a restaurant.

I use the skills developed by working as a sommelier (20+ years) every single day. I am grateful that the wine industry has grown in such a way that you can develop a career in wine in so many different facets....Hospitality, education, sales, etc. Continuing to study and learn is very, very important. Always challenge yourself!
 —Gillian

"I use the skills developed by working
as a sommelier every single day." 

Keep it real, keep it fun and always give back to the up-and-coming novices. The only reason we are where we are is because someone shared their talents with us in the first place!
 —Inez

Taste as much wine as you can. Work in the cellar. Make sure that you include the business aspects in your skill set. Read about wine and regions as much as you can. Visit wine regions as often as you can! Check out your cohorts in town to see what they are doing. Talk to and share wine with fellow wine lovers. Don’t be in a hurry. It is a huge body of knowledge that is always changing. Put in the time. Find a mentor or mentors to help guide you.
 —Karen

Study and travel to wine regions. Talk to as many people as possible with different backgrounds in the wine business. Try not to be so dogmatic—open your mind and taste. Try to have your own opinions on wine and not follow the crowd.
 —Susan

Anyone with the time and drive can learn a lot about wine. The real career differentiator is how you bring that to life for people, and how you sincerely and authentically care for and attend to their experience with you (whether in service, teaching, writing, or giving a speech). It's a privilege to be a part of someone's intimate experience such as a restaurant meal, or their learning about wine (which, if you are doing this) captivated and transformed you at some point as well. It's not curing cancer, but it is a very special role to have. Honor it.
 —Andrea

 

What is your career focus now and what was your path to getting there?

Working as a sommelier and wine director for many years in NYC restaurants and as a purchaser in retail really created a solid foundation and were essential experiences for me to start my company, MvB Wine Consulting, in 2005. Education has always been one of my main areas of focus. At Judson Grill I held a wine class every Friday for five years, many staff members attended every single class. I am proud of the many coworkers who have gone on to pursue work in the wine world. I am lucky to live in NYC where the opportunity to learn is there for the taking: offering wine tastings, seminars, classes and wine regions a few hours away. Not to mention an enthusiastic group of wine professionals who are incredibly passionate and inspire anyone who wishes to learn, taste, and experience. As a consultant I have been fortunate to have such clients as The US Tennis Open, Restaurant Associates, Sir Terence Conran and many others, both commercial and private. I have changed focus recently to include regional representation for groups such as The Winemakers of Northern Greece, the Bordeaux Wine Council and some producers from Penedes. Many of my business relationships were forged while I was traveling on trips to wine-producing regions such as these. I try to learn something new every day, that’s what keeps my work fresh and exciting!
 —Beth

My husband and I have a restaurant and are in the process of opening a brewery. My outlook on life is so much broader than it once was. While wine is critical to the success of our restaurant I also realize that my talents are better utilized as a mentor than as the sommelier on the floor at night. I love teaching and talking about wine but am more interested in making the town where I grew up a more attractive place for new businesses and young professionals. While I love having a great wine program my biggest goal is growing the restaurant and beverage environment in my community.
 —Inez


 


 

Gillian Ballance MS, DWS has spent the last 20 years working in the best fine dining restaurants in the United States. Ms Ballance began her career at The Rainbow Room, one of the most beloved restaurants in New York City, and worked under Andrea Immer Robinson. When Andrea became the Beverage Director she took Gillian with her. Her career includes opening up Cello in NYC, Wine and Beverage Director at Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara, Plumpjack Group’s Wine Director, Wine Consultant and Sommelier for Bottega Restaurant in Napa Valley, Wine Director for Cavallo Point. In 2012 Ballance passed the Master Sommelier Exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers. Currently Ballance is the National Education Manager for Treasury Wine Estates.
 —Gillian



I have worked in wine distribution for nearly ten years now, currently Director of On Premise Development for Winebow. The long, late hours along of running a beverage program while managing a restaurant floor and staff did not work for me. I wanted to stay in the world of wine in a more civilized way. My understanding and experience of what is takes to run a successful Wine program in a NY restaurant makes me a good candidate for my job. *I have found it amusing over the years when something like Prosecco is painted as "new" (we poured it 30 years ago by the glass!). Or rosé “finally" catching on when we poured rosé by the glass all year-round at least fifteen years ago. Or when sommeliers refer to their close community in a way that makes it seem like it is new—our sommelier community was just as close and talented wine professionals. Or that we didn’t serve esoteric wines, or that up until recently sommeliers were stuffy men wearing tastevins. They were saying that back in the late nineties… The wheel is constantly being reinvented. It is an exciting world to work in. Was then, still is.
 —Karen

"It is an exciting world to work in.
Was then, still is." 

I live in Northern California and own a business, blr wine co., with my husband, Patrick Bickford; we manage national sales and marketing for small wineries in California.  We’re helping build wine brands, which is something I love to do.  Much like my days on the floor, we’re telling stories about the people, the wines and the great vineyards.  The path to get me to this place started of course on the floor; I then worked for a wholesaler in NYC (Polaner Selections) for seven years prior to moving to California.  My first job in California was working for Wind Gap Wines, a winery that is dear to my heart (Pax Mahle’s other label, Pax Wines, is a client).  We’re here to tell a story about wine, through words, photos, apps, or whatever medium excites you, and we must all constantly evolve to stay relevant and interested in what’s happening in this crazy wine world!
 —Susan

I do a lot of consulting, education and media--all of it a direct extension of the education and exploration bent that existed at Windows on the World. In addition to tens of thousands of graduates of the core wine school, we explored and educated about sake, cocktails, craft spirits and beers--all topics that, like female sommeliers, are being watched and talked about as "on the rise" (again). It was awesome and inspired ways of thinking about and bringing to life these topics for an interested audience that is easier than ever to reach and interact with, digitally and otherwise. For example, for my airline client Delta Air Lines, through the web and in-flight entertainment system I am able to reach thousands of flight attendants with wine training, and millions of customers with all kinds of cool info about the onboard wines. My path touched most areas of where consumers experience wine: restaurant from fast-casual to fine dining, retail (Burgundy Wine Company and Target), wine schools, hotel chains at all levels. This was intentional because I wanted to understand and be a part of the customer experience at all levels, not just the elite of wines, because most of us start into wine with pretty inexpensive, commercial stuff. Whether or not we graduate from there is beside the point—we have to understand and validate that part of the bell curve if we like the idea of wine becoming a bigger part of our culture—job security!
 —Andrea

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  • Thank you,  Andrea Robinson, for mentioning Madeline Triffon.  Obviously this piece is solely about NYC-based Sommeliers, and briefly mentions some others around the country, but the discussion of pioneering female Sommeliers isn't a discussion without mentioning Madeline.  She was working as a Sommelier before, and for longer than, some of these fine women and her experiences and stories are awesome.  She's a continual source of inspiration.

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