As more women get into the field, customers still seek out male sommeliers.
By JENNIFER SERGENT
Chances are getting better these days that if you ask for a wine steward at a fine restaurant, the person approaching will be a woman.
And that's great for the customer, these wine women say. Studies show women have a better sense of taste and smell than men -- an essential asset in the wine business.
And women sommeliers, as wine stewards are known, say their customers tell them they are more personable, approachable and less snobby than their male counterparts.
But in an industry full of snob appeal, men still comprise the vast majority. Of the 70 Americans who've earned the top credentials -- either Master of Wine or Master Sommelier -- just nine are women.
Contrary to what these statistics might suggest, the women insist there is no glass ceiling in the wine business. The lack of women "made it very easy" to achieve success, said Master of Wine Mary Ewing-Mulligan, president of the International Wine Center, in New York.
Chose wine over fashion
Early on in her career, when she worked for the Italian government, Ewing-Mulligan had to choose whether to advance by promoting fashion or wine. She chose wine simply because the people in that industry were so much nicer, she said.
"People in the wine business are so kind and supportive and helpful, and they really want you to learn," she said. "From my point of view, it's an industry that welcomes women. I don't see the slightest disadvantage of being a woman."
Madeline Triffon was the first American woman to earn the title of Master Sommelier, a credential that focuses more on restaurant service than the academic Master of Wine certificate. Both titles are awarded by organizations based in the United Kingdom.
Triffon earned her title in 1987. It would be nearly 10 years before another American woman would earn that honor.
"There's no 'good ol' boys' network," Triffon said, pointing out that even her male colleagues want to see the industry more balanced. "I was the only American woman for 10 years for no good reason."
Nevertheless, the clear dominance of men has created a perception that works against women, other top female sommeliers say.
Just as people attach a "she" to the term "teacher" or "nurse," they naturally think of sommeliers as men, said wine author and former Food Network host Andrea Immer.
"I don't think it's a prejudice as much as it's a habit," she said.
Therefore, Immer explained, restaurateurs tend to lean toward males when hiring a sommelier.
Customers also tend to look for a man to help them select wine, said Virginia Philip of the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla. Philip earned her Master Sommelier title in November.
"People have doubted my expertise or doubted my credentials" in the past, she said. But they always come around once she starts talking to them.
"I'm very easygoing," she said. "I don't take myself too seriously."
Immer added that customers are disarmed when a woman approaches the table.
"It's a plus," she said, when people realize "this isn't the guy in the tuxedo with a sneer on his face."
Having more women in the business will boost industry sales, said Evan Goldstein, the immediate past chairman of the Court of Master Sommeliers's American chapter.
"Statistics will prove out that women buy more wine than men do," he said. "I also think that women in general are often perceived as being more approachable. It's the whole one-upsmanship and snootiness factor that unfortunately comes with testosterone."