Pity the waitstaff. After decades of automatically offering the wine list to the gentleman at the table, of showing him the bottle, of pouring him that first sip and waiting for the nod of approval, the permission to fill the lady's glass, there comes along a woman like Diane Nares, a longtime local wine rep who now works as a key accounts manager for Regal Wine Group. "The list may be put in front of my husband," explains Nares, "but it always gets itself right over to me. He always wants me to pick the wine, just because I'm in the industry."
Picture it: the list, still folded shut, passed, in silent rebuttal to the automatic and the expected, from the gentleman to the lady. As the list makes its way from Himself to Herself, it's easy to imagine the briefest moment of panic on the part of the server -- Oh crap; did I just piss someone off and cost myself on the tip? -- before reading the good nature in Nares's eyes.
(And it's not a moment reserved for those hardy feminine souls in the wine biz. Lisa Redwine, general manager and sommelier for Molly's restaurant, is happy to grant that "I can't tell you how many times I'll go to open a bottle at a table and automatically assume it's going to the gentleman," only to discover that the gentleman in question is eager to "defer to the woman." More on Redwine in a moment.)
It's still something of a rarity, but it's getting less rare. "I started in the wine business a little over 15 years ago," says Nares. Years of working with restaurant management had convinced her that she didn't want her own place, but she still wanted to stay close to that world. A (female) wine rep told her about a position with Wine Warehouse, and she went for it. "I started out calling on all the liquor stores in San Diego County while I waited for a restaurant territory to open up. It was really rough -- I schlepped a lot of cases and put them up while people just stared at me." Back then, "There was a core group of women" in the field, but nothing like today. This is a good thing. "When I speak to people who own or manage distributorships, they're always happy about the increase of women in the industry, because women are great salespeople." She's not looking to start any battles of the sexes, but she is willing to say that "Women have a tendency to build really great, loyal relationships. They're very natural when it comes to wine appreciation and wine sales. And they have great palates."
Over the last "five to seven years," she says, she's even seen a rise in the number of women on the buyer's side of the table. "It's probably just a quarter of our buyers, but it's more and more." One of those women was Tracy Borkum, the restaurateur behind the overhaul of Kensington Grill, the opening of Chive, and the new face of Laurel. "When she opened up Kensington Grill, I was a buyer's rep at Paterno Imports. We've been friends for quite some time." In 2003, the two started talking about wanting a better understanding of wine and a tasting experience broader than just their own lists. "We identified at least a dozen other women in the food or wine business who would join us," and that year saw the beginning of Women in Wine.
The two didn't set out to create an alternative to other, more male-dominated tasting groups -- it was more a matter of coming up with an appealing model for themselves. Still, Nares does think that the all-female atmosphere "is conducive to women enjoying each other's company. I think women like to get together with women. It's a fun environment. We're all serious about our wine education, no doubt, but we enjoy each other's company. And each person who is steady in the group brings something to offer -- everyone has different wine-related travel experiences. And because we're all in the business, we share an awful lot. We really like each other, too."
The group meets one Monday a month in the private dining room at Laurel. "We have about 30-40 members, with a steady group of about 15." The members come from both the buying and selling sides of things, but Nares stresses that there isn't a pressurized business atmosphere to the proceedings. "The buyers are not even having to blink an eye about having five salespeople in front of them, sharing wine at table. It's very cool. It's more like we're all friends, increasing our knowledge." They start with a sparkler and chat and then sit down to an interactive presentation on this or that region, this or that varietal, etc. "Sometimes, it's PowerPoint, sometimes a lecture, but we always have time to go around the table and ask questions, so that it's not just Teacher and Student. This is a very subjective topic, and it's important to engage in conversation." And of course, there is wine -- six to eight offerings, provided by the members, with appropriate accompaniments from chef Brian O'Connor. And always, there is at least one wine tasted blind "so we can go around the table and have everyone participate in the analysis." Not a bad night for $25.
In the beginning, various people gave various presentations, based on their own expertise -- Nares had a handle on France and Italy, so that was her beat. (She recalls that after one of her earlier presentations, "People were walking away saying, 'I finally understand the difference between Piedmont and Tuscany.' It make them look at that section of their wine list and take it more seriously.") Gail Berquist taught (and still teaches) Germany. But when Nares started selling to Lisa Redwine and discovered Redwine's interest in education, Women in Wine gained a regular instructor. That was two years ago.
"There's a fantastic sense of supporting each other, an underlying network," says Redwine. "We're all really proud of each other and of what we've accomplished in our professional lives. But sometimes, because you don't have a whole lot of time, it's hard to keep up with your learning. The members really enjoy meeting once a month for a couple of hours, being able to focus."
And that focus is bearing fruit, helping to expand and diversify the market. "When you look at the people in the group and the impact they have on the wine community...This might be a gross overgeneralization, but I do find that women are a little bit more adventurous when it comes to trying different varietals. If I have a table full of women at my restaurant who enjoy wine, they will try anything. They're really open to experiencing new things." That's why she offers a class called "Weird Wines" at least twice a year. "I put a smattering of German wines on my list to see if it could withstand being a global wine list. I sold out of almost everything. I sold out a case of Grüner Veltliner in maybe two weeks. I'm seeing a tremendous interest in value-centered imports -- things in the $40--$60 range that have an interesting story and that you can't find just anywhere."