Sister Sommeliers

No Old-School Attitude for Wine’s Women

Posted September 29, 2009 at 4:51pm

On any given weeknight, the dining room at BLT Steak is awash with testosterone. Tables are filled with boisterous men in suits who are in the market for a steak and a bottle of red wine. A few women pepper the dining room of this downtown restaurant, but there is no doubt that the crowd is predominantly male.

Among the men, sommelier Nicole Saladyga can be seen darting from table totable handing out wine lists and giving advice on which bottle goes best with filet mignon. Some of the male diners do a double take as Saladyga introduces herself as the sommelier and offers assistance in choosing a bottle for the table.

“I think men are very often uncomfortable when it’s a woman because they’re so used to seeing men,— Saladyga says of her role at the restaurant. “When I go to the table, it’s quite disarming.—

In Washington, female sommeliers and wine directors are not unusual. Such top-notch eateries as Café Atlantico (Jill Zimorski) and Charlie Palmer Steak (Nadine Brown) have women heading their wine programs.

“I think people don’t realize how many there are,— says Kathy Morgan, sommelier at Georgetown hot spot Citronelle. “You may have seen dozens— and never noticed.

The job involves buying wine, storing it, rotating it in the cellar and — perhaps most significantly — offering advice to customers who might be willing to spend as much on wine as they spend on a meal. The hours are long and the work is physically demanding. A sommelier is often on her feet working the floor for several hours at a time, and the evening shifts sometimes stretch well past midnight.

Saladyga describes the job as 12 hours a day for five or six days a week, leaving little time for a traditional family life. “There comes a certain point and you just have to make a choice,— she says. “It’s a lifestyle. It’s not just a job; it’s a career.—

Of the women interviewed for this story, only one, Elli Benchimol, has children. “I try to get home early at least three nights a week to read them a story for bedtime, and my days off are more like working from home, but at least I get to pick my kids up from school and make them dinner,— she says. “Thank God for BlackBerrys, that’s all I have to say.—

Benchimol spends less time on the floor than the other women and spends many hours managing the wine store attached to Potenza and the wine shop at Zola Wine & Kitchen. Because of her role in the stores, she is able to make it home each night around 8 p.m., whereas the other women are often on the floor until closing.

The tradition of a sommelier, also known as a wine steward, was born in France, where the restaurant industry has traditionally been male-dominated. While women cooked in the home, the idea of preparing meals professionally almost always fell on the shoulders of men, likely because it was a profession and women were traditionally homemakers.

Even with the growing number of female sommeliers, customers sometimes resist the wine advice of a woman. Benchimol notes that customers are not often surprised to see a woman expounding about wine from behind the register. But when she was working the floor at chef Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak in Miami, she found a different reaction altogether.

“Being at Michael Mina, I think people were really surprised,— she says. “The old-school people are a little more surprised, I think.—

Juliana Santos, wine director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which includes Tallula and the soon-to-open Birch & Barley in Logan Circle, agrees that customers at higher-end restaurants tend to be more surprised to see a woman on the floor. Prior to moving over to the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, Santos worked at CityZen, where she says customers were sometimes amazed to see her deliver the wine list.

Saladyga says she has had to deal with customers who had little interest in working with a female sommelier. “It can be very frustrating,— she says. “They’ll say, ‘Well, do you know anything about the list?’ I say, ‘Well, I certainly hope so, since I wrote it.’—

Saladyga combats this attitude by making a joke at the start to try and break the tension. While men may not always be open to the idea of Saladyga at the helm, she says women seem to love it and warm up to the idea quickly.

Even with the influx of female sommeliers in Washington, there is a lot of extra effort required for women to survive in the industry, according to Saladyga.

“I truly believe women need to be twice as knowledgeable as men and work twice as hard,— she says.