London’s top female sommeliers
Close your eyes and think of a sommelier. What image springs to mind? Did you picture a middle-aged Frenchman with a bunch of grapes pinned proudly to his lapel?
While this stereotype has been unswervingly pervasive in the wine trade, particularly among consumers, it is one that is proving to be increasingly out of step with reality. In fact, it’s being smashed to pieces by a new tranche of fresh-faced female sommeliers.
Not only are sommeliers getting younger, perhaps a reflection of a rising interest in wine by millennial consumers, but the split between men and women working in the trade is getting narrower. True, of the 229 Master Sommeliers worldwide just 29 are women, giving an insight into the imbalance on a global scale.
However, the number of women working in the industry has expanded exponentially in recent years. This is particularly true of London, a city at the forefront of emerging wine trends and one that more readily welcomes those with passion and perseverance who may be lacking formal qualifications. Of the many female sommeliers working in the capital, six stand out as leading the charge in shaping the city’s wine scene and breaking the mould of what it means to be a sommelier.
Click through for an insight into the wine trade as seen through the eyes of some of London’s most dynamic female sommeliers…
One veteran of London’s wine scene is Loire-born Laure Patry, who has worked in the capital for over a decade. After a brief stint studying literature in north Yorkshire, Patry hit her sommelier stride in 2003, taking up the position of assistant head sommelier at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s, becoming head sommelier at just 25. After helping launch Maze, Patry joined Jason Atherton’s culinary empire as group head sommelier in 2011, overseeing the launch of Pollen Street Social in Mayfair. This year she was handed the reins at Atherton’s latest casual dining venture, Social Wine & Tapas in Marylebone.
For Patry, London’s acceptance of experience over an MS qualification sets it apart from other cities. “All of the top restaurants in Paris have sommeliers and they are mostly male,” she says. “People stay in the same restaurant for a long time and the staff are much older.” By contrast, suggest Patry, “London is more about what you’ve been doing or where you’ve been working and your experience on the floor. You get more opportunities. I’d never have been a head sommelier at my age in France.”
Julia Oudill, who at 25 is head sommelier of Compagnie des Vins Surnaturelle (CVS) in Covent Garden, is a prime example of the opportunities afforded to young sommeliers in London. Oudill began her career working at a handful of two and three Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris.
“To have a young female sommelier was uncommon at the time, so I was already a little bit strange”, she says, admitting that people had trouble trusting her due to her age. Despite working at prestigious restaurants, Oudill felt compelled to do “something younger and more rock and roll” and left Paris for London in November 2013 to work at small grower champion CVS, founded by the brains behind the Experimental Cocktail Club. “I wanted to do something different and to be able to sell a great bottle of wine with a plate of ham while listening to Lenny Kravitz. Wine shouldn’t only be for rich people that can afford to spend £300 on a bottle,” she says, describing the scene in Paris as “a little bit more old-fashioned” than London.
“The top sommeliers are in the game for many years and the wines stay the same. London is more open-minded and everyone wants the best. They don’t care where it comes from, your age, gender or nationality,” she reveals. While keen not to pay too much attention to the prejudice that still surrounds being a woman in a male dominated industry, Oudill admits that she is mindful of how she presents herself on the restaurant floor. “Female sommeliers have to be more professional and work twice as hard as their male colleagues because if you make the slightest mistake then someone will blame it on the fact that you’re a woman”, she says.
Despite pockets of prejudice, Oudill believes that consumers now enjoy having a sommelier that “isn’t a 45-year-old Frenchman”, and equality within the industry has been achieved.
Compared to her French counterparts, US-born sommelier Sandia Chang had a very different introduction to the wine trade. Starting out in California then moving to cutting edge restaurants like René Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen and Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York, Chang felt very little prejudice, despite working in a male dominated industry.
In 2010 Chang moved to London to take up a sommelier position at the five-star Berkeley Hotel in Mayfair, which offered a more traditional experience than Noma or Per Se. “The sommeliers were all men and wore gold badges, but London has changed a lot since then. Today’s chefs have travelled and they come back with a new attitude to eating. Consumers are also a lot younger and know a lot more about food and drink,” she says.
Explaining how London’s attitude towards qualifications has changed, Chang believes people “don’t really care” about that badge on your uniform anymore. “Now when people say they want to get the diploma or MS people make fun of it. Who wants a badge? It’s very old school,” she says.
In 2012, she opened Bubbledogs in Fitzrovia with her husband James Knappett, ex-head chef of Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley. The gourmet hot dog and grower Champagne venue was partly inspired by Crif Dogs in New York’s East Village, which is accessed through a secret door. The couple’s fine dining concept, Kitchen Table, opened in a private dining room at the back of the restaurant shortly after. Asked why more women are choosing to become sommeliers, Chang believes the industry is a “little bit more human” now. “Everyone realised that there needed to be a better work-life balance, more women in the industry and less testosterone trying to prove something,” she says.
One woman who has achieved the notoriously difficult Master Sommelier qualification is Kathrine Larsen, who last year swapped the restaurant floor for the sales floor, becoming an account manager for UK wine wholesaler Enotria.
“I had a feeling that I would have to be off the floor if I wanted to expand my perspective and develop myself, which included getting to know the market from a different angle – and I’d be lying if I didn’t say the hours were more flexible,” says Larsen of the move. While no longer on the restaurant floor, Larsen feels negative reactions to female sommeliers are becoming “less frequent”, but that there is still an expectation that a sommelier should be male, middle-aged and have a southern European accent.
“London and New York are two of the most modern and open-minded cities in the world, and the idea of a female sommelier is more welcome and respected there”, she says, but concedes that in most people’s minds wine is still a male domain. “It has changed a lot over the past decade and is improving by the day. The best way to change people’s view is to expose the public to more female sommeliers,” she says. While as many women as men are now taking the top spots in the industry, there is a greater imbalance further down the hierarchy, which is still dominated by men. “We’re getting closer to equality. I think more women will continue to enter the industry and when younger women hear about their success, they’ll be encouraged to want to work in wine,” she says.
Echoing Larsen’s comments is 27-year-old Sunaina Sethi, co-owner and wine buyer for Michelin-starred Indian restaurants Gymkhana and Trishna, who believes it is the responsibility of the trade to communicate the opportunities available to women in the hospitality industry. “Working in hospitality is seen as a way of earning a bit of money before moving on to something else, but I’d love to see more people viewing it as a career choice”, says Sethi, who turned her back on a promising career in finance to work in catering at the age of 23.
“I worked closely with the then sommelier and realised I could have a career in wine. Before that I saw wine as a hobby. It never dawned on me that it was something you could do as a career,” she says. Recalling her first Bordeaux tasting, Sethi admits her early days in the trade were “tricky” given both her age and gender. “The room was filled with 20 men in suits all over the age of 50. It was as one of the most daunting experiences of my life. You think ‘What am I doing here?’ But I haven’t had an experience like that since”, she says. Having to prove herself to sceptical customers was also a challenge. “It’s quite daunting when you have a table of older gentlemen who know a lot about wine and are keen to order something they like. I was only 23 at the time. They would ask for the sommelier and I would say I was the sommelier and I’d get a few funny looks, but I always enjoyed the challenge. It was a chance to show them that I knew what I was talking about,” she says.
When asked about the perception of women working in the industry, Sethi notes a positive change. “There was a time when female sommeliers had a point to prove, but that’s over now”, she concludes.
Sommelier and wine consultant Emily Harman, who started in the industry 11 years ago as a waitress, is equally confident of London’s progressive nature. Underlining the city’s belief in the value of experience, Harman says: “A lot people come to London because it’s a lot harder to succeed in countries like Italy and France where you have to go to sommelier school. In London you can work your way up,” she says.
Harman’s CV boasts sommelier stints at the River Café in Hammersmith, with Xavier Rousset MS at 28-50 and Texture, and at Melbourne’s Attica. Her most recent position was as group wine buyer and sommelier for The Zetter Group, where she ran the wine list and training programme for Bistrot Bruno Loubet and oversaw the opening of Grain Store near King’s Cross in 2013.
Last year she founded her own wine consultancy Vina Lupa. “What’s great about London is that you have men and women from different backgrounds and cultures. When you put everyone together it’s a melting pot of talent, which is a great thing. A lot of male sommeliers have been a positive influence and have helped me along in my career,” she says.
Believing an increase in young sommeliers to be more significant than gender imbalance, Harman cites Bastien Ferreri, who at 25 became head sommelier at the two-Michelin-starred Hibiscus in Mayfair. “That probably wouldn’t have happened in the past”, she says, adding, “If you look at a lot of head sommelier positions in London there’s been a huge shift in style and age”. While acknowledging that there is still prejudice towards women in the industry, Harman hasn’t personally experienced it. “Everyone realises that they are there to do a job. A lot of women I know that work in the trade are fiercely independent, driven and ambitious,” she says. “Good luck to anyone who challenges them.”