I went to the dentist this morning. His official prescription was “get a new job” because “the stress is ruining your gums”. Then he told me that I should be a dentist. I don’t think he’s very trustworthy, but I did start reflecting on things that make me clench my jaw and grind my teeth. Sitting in traffic is one. The jazz flute is two. The horrible realization that we’re out of maple syrup when we’ve already made pancakes is three.
But there’s something worse. You ask with trepidation, “Something worse than naked pancakes?”
I reply ominously. “Yes.”
“The absolute worst thing…” You trail off. You’re concerned because you remember that time I implied I would murder my husband, Robert, for buying too many grapes.
You begin again, in a whisper. “The absolute worst thing…What could it be? What could possibly be so bad that it would threaten your oral health?”
Well, I’ll tell you. The absolute worst thing is when I select and order wine at a restaurant and the sommelier pours it for Robert to taste instead of me.
After five years of marriage, my husband is pretty attuned to that special moment when my eyes fill with deep, silent rage. I’m pretty sure time stops for him, but he always keeps his presence of mind. He gently tells the offending party that since I ordered the wine, I should be the one tasting it, and that I know more than him anyway*.
At that point, the damage has already been done. My jaw is clicking just thinking about it.
I hope you know I’m being dramatic. Not tasting the wine I’ve ordered isn’t literally the worst thing in the world. I do really hate it, however.
Let’s begin with why you taste a wine in a restaurant before it is served in the first place. You taste the wine to make sure it’s not corked. If the wine is recommended to you by the sommelier, you are also confirming it meets the expectations that were set. If you ask for a light-bodied Pinot Noir, that’s what you should get.
You may have noticed that service professionals and sommeliers go through the tasting ritual even when pouring a bottle with a screw top or plastic cork, when the odds of the wine being tainted are small to nil. That’s because there is an important ceremonial element. The host approves the drink, which is in turn offered to every guest at the table.
The host could be Robert, or it could be me. The sommelier doesn’t know, and assumes Robert. Sometimes it is Robert, but sometimes it’s me. The fact that I’m ordering the wine should make it obvious. Somehow, it doesn’t.
I’m not the only one with this problem.
As first reported by Bloomberg, Virginia Philip, sommelier at The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, is one of only 13 women certified as a Master Sommelier out of approximately 130 worldwide. She oversees a cellar of 28,000 bottles and 1,600 selections at the resort, with prices ranging from $35 to $15,000.
“Unless someone knows who I am, the list is passed to the man, who then hands it back to me,” she reported. “We have worked very diligently in our restaurants over the last five to eight years to not allow that to happen and to offer the list to the table.”
The restaurant industry is going to have to get used to me. I represent a growing, empowered consumer group. A 2009 online survey for Wine Spectator found that women drink 60 percent of the wine consumed in the United States. 93 percent of respondents indicated that they drink wine at least once a week and 79 percent said they preferred red wine over white wine, rosé, or bubbles. In 2012, that primary metric grew. Women purchased a whopping 75 percent of the wine consumed in the United States.
Around 15 percent of the winery owners, winemakers, and master sommeliers in the United States are women. The International Women’s Wine Competition, organized by Vineyard and Winery Management, is an annual competition featuring an all-female judging crew comprised of industry professionals, including winemakers, writers, educators, consultants and sommeliers.
A gender divide exists in the restaurant industry, as it does in the broader wine industry. It’s closing. When Robert and I first started drinking wine together, he got poured my taste approximately 90 percent of the time. Now, I would say that I have a 50/50 chance.
Through the continued achievements of talented women – be they wine drinkers, wine writers, grape growers, winemakers, or all of these things – the gender divide will close completely. Not soon enough. I suspect I’ll be snatching the wine list (and subsequently, his glass) from my husband for several more years. Thankfully, he’s always happy to hand them over. When I asked him if he had any female wine heroes, he replied, “You.”
*I don’t, but it’s nice of him to make the point on my behalf.