Culinary institutes and cooking schools admit women and men equally. But do culinary careers follow suit? Or do women run into cultural stereotypes that present unexpected obstacles to their love of food, fine dining, and culinary arts? The culinary careers of women who choose the sommelier's career path give us some insights into the fighting spirit of women who do wine for a living.
At the highest levels of sommelier credentialing, men outnumber women four to one. So, it's not surprising that women graduates of culinary institutes rarely think of going on for sommelier training. Those who do tend to stop with introductory certification, not opting to attempt the rigorous written exams, the wine tasting, service, and sales training needed to become a Master Sommelier. Currently, fewer than 20 American women have Master Sommelier status. However, the idea of the middle-aged, white European male sommelier has gradually given way in the 20 years since Madeline Triffon became the first American woman to earn a Master Sommelier degree.
Moving Up and Moving On
Graduating from a culinary institute and learning wine leads, ideally, to a career as a sommelier or wine director. Sommeliers purchase and serve a restaurant's wine; wine directors have more restaurant-management duties, according to the Wine Spectator's Sam Gugino.
Some of the San Francisco Bay Area's most influential female sommeliers combine their restaurant positions with teaching at culinary schools and owning wine shops. Thus, the 70-hour work week is common to women who buck the stereotypes to do wine.
If it's nurture that tells us a man should suggest and serve our wine, nature may have the last laugh. "All the literature suggests women do have better senses of smell than men," says sensory scientist Marcia Pelchat. So, the next time you order wine, don't be surprised if the new face of wine service is wearing lipstick and mascara.
"Vintage Women," by Elizabeth Bernstein. Restaurant Business 98.15. Aug 01, 1999.
"Women in top sommelier jobs feel secure enough to walk away / Exodus at Fifth Floor, Gary Danko," by W. Blake Gray. San Francisco Chronicle (CA). Aug 05, 2004.