Heidi Turzyn, wine director at the prestigious Gotham Bar and Grill in New York City, knew becoming a female sommelier would be difficult. She grew up in the mid-nineties and a woman authoritatively discussing a wine list was about as common as a ‘75 Barbaresco.
Wine is a drink that appeals to masculine sensibilities, and the wine industry has always been male dominated, often functioning like an amiable fraternity within the hospitality industry. In fact, only 21 of the 140 North American somms holding the prestigious Master Sommelier title are women. And when a 15-year-old Heidi first dreamed of doling out recommendations at a major New York City restaurant, while she scooped ice cream at the local Friendly’s, there was only one.
But she was hell bent on changing the numbers. After working her way up from the bottom of the industry, learning on the floor of major restaurants like Friend of a Farmer and David Burke, Heidi landed a job tending bar at Gotham. She spent off hours pursuing a degree with Manhattan's Wine and Spirit Education Trust, where she graduated in 2009. The diploma gave her advanced sommelier status and certification with the Court of Master Sommeliers—everything she needed to take on the New York wine scene. She transitioned to wine at Gotham and continued rising through the ranks of the Union Square institution until 2013 when she became the restaurant's wine director; she's the only woman to ever oversee their famed 800+ wine list.
“To become a female somm, you’ll meet a lot of people who are wonderful and supportive—like where I work now,” Turzyn explained. “But to get to that point, you have to overcome a lot of blatant sexism.”
Being a woman in wine comes with its fair share of obstacles. It can be something as stereotypical as getting the once-over when approaching a new table, or having an image-focused restaurant request their female wine staff wear high heels during eight-hour-long shifts on the floor. Customers often scoff at female sommeliers, too, many requesting that the “real” somm attend to their table instead.
“I once had an older gentleman come into a restaurant where I used to work, and he wouldn’t speak to me,” Heidi confessed. “I walked up to the table to ask if he needed help with the wine list. He looked me up and down, and then turned the other way.”
When Heidi sent her male counterpart to the table, the guest was immediately congenial, accepting this new server’s recommendation on the spot — one that, Heidi knew, was completely ill fitted to the man’s dish.
Other forms of sexism in the industry can be more subtle. “Every once in a while, a guest will make what I’m sure they consider to be a harmless comment. They’ll say I’m the best looking somm they’ve ever seen, or that I don’t look old enough to serve wine,” Heidi says. “These remarks will even occasionally come from men within the industry. I was at a work function one time and when I stood to go to the restroom, I heard someone ask 'Who's the chick?'”
But Heidi was able to navigate the landscape exceptionally well and now sees the once-stuffy New York City restaurant scene is shifting, with many more women working in wine. Thanks to the support of industry vets like Eric Asimov (wine critic for the New York Times) and Michael White (head chef and owner of Marea Group in NYC), female sommeliers are becoming more and more pervasive. In fact, two of the five sommeliers to achieve Master status last year were women. The industry Heidi once described as "a total boys club” seems almost not to exist.
“It’s been amazing to watch things change over the past few years,” she says. “Now, I’ll hear of restaurants calling people up and saying, ‘I want a female somm.’ Whereas when I was promoted to Wine Director of Gotham in 2013, I was the first female they’d ever had in that role — and we’ve had multiple women join the wine staff since then.”
The New York City Heidi’s referencing has been the scene of a revolution for women in wine, where 60% of graduates from the International Culinary Center's wine program are now women. Many other cities, however, lag far behind. (This Eater article for example, called attention to the lack of opportunities for female somms in Los Angeles.)
"I look at places like France," she said. "Where you have all this great wine culture, but almost no female somms," she says. Perhaps they will follow New York's lead.