A rising group of female sommeliers is proving that the DC wine scene isn’t just an old boys’ club anymore.
FROM LEFT: Jennifer Knowles, Zoë Nystrom, and Sabrina Kroeger, shown here at Eno Wine Bar, are rising through the sommelier ranks in DC.
“When I became a sommelier, I didn’t realize it was going to be so male dominated—especially since the women are often picking out the wine [at dinner]!” says Zoë Nystrom, a sommelier at Rasika West End (1190 New Hampshire Ave. NW, 202-466-2500). While more women are rising to the challenge of sommelier certification programs that require blind tasting, mastering service standards, and studying dozens of wine regions and varietals, it will take some time to balance the sexes: Only 21 of 220 master sommeliers worldwide are women, according to the Court of Master Sommeliers.
“I have met so many talented female sommeliers,” says Sabrina Kroeger, wine director at Eno Wine Bar (2810 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202-295-2826), “but the higher you look up the ranks—i.e., advanced and masters—there are definitely still more men around. I am 100 percent sure that with time this will change—after all, women have a much more versatile and refined palate than men, according to several studies!”
The challenge of working long hours on a restaurant floor and learning myriad regions, varietals, climates, histories, flavor profiles, and glassware is part of the reason a crop of smart, up-and-coming Washington women has chosen to make fermented grapes their life’s work.
It’s rewarding yet tough work, says Jennifer Knowles, sommelier at Plume at The Jefferson (1200 16th St. NW, 202-448-2300)—and she’s not just talking about hauling heavy wine cases. Knowles remembers a friend, Emily Wines, who passed the advanced Court of Master Sommeliers exam on her first try, and who is now master sommelier and director of wines for Kimpton Hotels. “She showed what you could do if you were tenacious and fought for it,” says Knowles. “Emily was so badass.” Early in her career, Knowles was also inspired by Karla Kilgore, the former wine director of Lapis San Francisco. “[She] taught me all of the foundation and the groundwork I now teach and espouse,” says Knowles. “I have not met many men who focus on things in the industry like she taught me to do,” such as how to work with and respect everyone in the supply chain, from winemakers to distributors.
Now, as more female wine sommeliers are coming into their own, they’re sharing in the success and recognition. “When you’re around women, you have more courage and you have this fierce energy around you,” Knowles says. “You have this same understanding that there are not that many of us, and we have to stick together.”