Ellevate Network San Diego organized an event featuring Master Sommelier Laura Williamson titled “Breaking the Wine Glass Ceiling.” At this event, Laura spoke about how she chose to become a pioneer in the wine industry and her plans to disrupt the gender gap in her industry, moderated by chapter co-president, Christina Halkias. Laura also led the group through a wine tasting, using the educational model she teaches.
There are approximately 275 Master Sommeliers in the world, which is the highest certification for someone to demonstrate wine knowledge. It is usually a position for on-premise restaurants, or occasionally in retail. Out of this approximately 275, there are only about 30 women, even though more than 50% of wine consumers are women.
Questions for Laura
How did you get into the industry and why?
“So it’s really kind of a quixotic connection. I had no direction for being a sommelier. I never saw my parents drink wine. I was born in a dry county in Arkansas. So it wasn’t on the forefront of the brain by any stretch. And really, for me, the reason I truly got into wine was because I looked at it as an economy. I was into economics, that’s my degree, economics and business. I was just a couple steps away from the Certified Financial Planning degree.
When I was in college, I transferred in from France. I went to school for two years in Paris and came to the University of Colorado Boulder. I was putting myself through school by working in restaurants. It’s not easy work. I thought if I’m going spend the time to do this, I need to be able to make the most money and economize my time while I do it. So I realized way to do so is to learn wine.
When I was in Paris, I was an au pair for a French diplomat family. I watched them entertain, watch them pull out these crazy bottles of wine, horizontally coated with dirt, dust, and pulling
like crazy to get the cork out. Everyone sat around the table and watched, they stopped talking. That was the first entry. I was 19. So, I really was curious to try it. I was curious of the power association. That’s what fascinated me.
Then I realized, when I came back from Paris, into Colorado, I could actually boost my earnings by learning a little bit then I got into it. You have to taste to be able to talk about it tableside, you’ve got to practice. And I realized I had a gift for it. I had no idea and I thought all these others that were standing around saying you are good at this. I thought they were crazy. When I started thinking about it, I thought if I do have a gift, there must be some kind of test I could pass or not pass, and if I didn’t pass I’d let it go.
So that was the master sommelier exam, the early days when I was the 13th female in the world to pass, in 2005. And I never went back. I never went back to economics or finance. I didn’t finish the CFP though I was one step away from it. I just got so busy with wine and traveling and educating that I never looked back.”
You can play and play different roles now that you’re certified, can you describe some of the roles?
“My background is more diverse than most that achieve the master sommelier. I guess the beauty of that was being a female, you realize you wear a lot of hats. We all know that. And that you get curious about all these different capacities. And because everything is a challenge already, you don’t let that hold you back. I did that, so I can be able to do this, or I should be able to do that, too. So that’s how I ended up doing so many different positions, trying them out.
I never for a moment thought I could already achieve something so challenging. It is the hardest exam in the world. So I thought if that was the case, why not dabble in educating in all these crazy subjects. It was one of the most complex subjects. I was talking about small growers from all over Italy, importing. I wanted to open a restaurant so I opened up restaurants in Arizona. Then I went back to the supplier side, working with imports with Portuguese wines, which was very challenging at the time. The German wines, which are practically unheard of, which are not my favorite.
I realized I had never worked on one of the most elite restaurants in the world [so I wanted to achieve that]. I realized it was the moment where I was at a point in my life that I knew after so many years, these hours are hard. I knew if I was going to do it, I was going to live in one of the three New York Times four-star restaurants. The very few of those positions, I knew was going to be 65-70 hours a week. I ended up running that government corporate position for that restaurant. I also worked at one of the most elite in the world. So I did all that.
Kind of proving I had that side [to my knowledge and skill] as well. I worked in retail, that’s when I met my mentors that were also masters. And they were the ones that helped guide me into wine tasting and really honed my skills. That was one day a week, driving across Colorado through the mountains. I live in Vail, Colorado, but it’s a couple of hours away from Boulder. So pretty crazy, the treacherous road driving in the winter.
So that covers every different venue possible every avenue of income possible. But that also taught me that when I’m encouraging women to get involved, I make sure I tell them at the beginning, you think you’re going to go this one direction, don’t pull anything out. It’s all possible. You might go down this path then you might learn something you haven’t had access to and realize you want to go down a different path.”
You were probably surrounded, especially in the earlier days where you are number 13, in a primarily male-dominated field, likely even the people that were running the restaurants and running the distribution. What’s the industry like now? Is it still that male-dominated? Are you seeing some equality?
“It’s not equal by any stretch, but it is moving in a positive trend. And I think it’s because we have the ability to be very chameleon-like, in a good way. We can adapt, just like that. So women now are definitely considered for important positions.
The flip side to that is that we get more responsibilities but we’re not always compensated for all that. But men know we can do it. So we have more duties, not necessarily equalized pay for all that additional responsibility.”
Can you share any challenges that you remember that you faced in your career? That was part of because you’re a woman during this time?
“I found out early in some of these positions that I was being offered lesser pay. And luckily I knew my predecessor so I was able to pull that knowledge into the table debate and once that was out, there is no way for those superiors to offer less money because then it was a form of discrimination.
So that was one challenge that I dealt with. Another challenge is just being taken seriously, as a female. I think there still is a predisposition to judge women and think that because we are a little bit more light hearted, easygoing and show a little bit more joy, the times that we’re not as serious or as talented for experience ranges. So I think it’s tricky. You really have to ensure that you’re having fun, you’re showing that. But then you also have the serious side that comes into play when you need it. So that there’s this equalize view of you, that you are as experienced in some crazy way, which starts to translate to experience and it’s just a demeanor presence. And I think it’s a misnomer.
Do you now see after almost 15 years, have you seen a change in the industry, leaning more towards equal representation?
“I see with consumers in restaurants, they’re usually much more excited about a female sommelier versus a man. And I kind of watch it and see, because most of us are male.
[For example, when I let my male colleague go first to a table at a restaurant] and then I go, and it would just change the entire energy and this is really crazy. I didn’t expect this, especially for the Manhattan businessman, they think they know more than I did. I had to prove myself a little bit. I had to make one of them a sacrificial lamb. It only took a few moments and then that all dispersed, they knew that they probably should just respect the fact that I’m going to help them.”
Do you see more women wine producers in the world? Is that what the future’s gonna look like?
“More women taking exams and becoming accredited. And I think it’s great. We do know science tells us, women have more acute sensory capacity than men. Do men want to hear that? Absolutely not. But we tend to perform better than many of them once we find our confidence. If we don’t find our confidence, we can struggle, because it’s our own self doubt creating the question, ‘Are you able to do this?’ Because we’ve been told for so long that it wasn’t our role. Historically, sommelier was a European profession, and it was crafted in the high-end restaurants and looked at as a very serious endeavor. Someone that studied wine and was able to pair food and every tableside beverage, including cognac, [from the times of] court, but that was always reserved for men, especially in a very conservative culture. So women were not taken seriously enough, they don’t think that they could fit that role and perform.
So now that that is being disapproved with women passing the exam, many titles, excelling at a higher level than men, that has come full circle. We see more women, especially in the U.S., it’s taking longer in Europe. We see many more women trusting that instinct that their sensory capacity is sustained and realizing that it’s not just our sensory capacity, but we have to have our memories as well. Because your brain becomes your Rolodex of these wines. Because they’re to understand the place, the location, the grapes, the laws, the climate, the terroir, how the wine will taste, what components, how to pair tableside in roughly five seconds.”
It’s actually really interesting, if when she starts to talk like that, you become a little unclear like, how am I going to remember all these little things that we need to know. You literally can look at the glass and be like, okay, this smell came off this brown soil. I could tell it came from this region. What I’ve learned from you has changed the way I drink wine. Because as I started, I was always taught that the best way to learn to drink wine is to drink it. Practice. But you can drink the ones that you always go to, but you know what it’s going to taste like. So how do you learn to drink wine? Or buy a bottle that you don’t know? Where do you start to learn about wine, like what I learned from you and I now can pinpoint or region or country or a year? If I’m at a restaurant with my friends and we’re ordering a bottle of wine, I can pinpoint on the menu what I like. And my tastes have fluctuated.
“I love hearing this. Yeah, this is why we’re friends.”
So it is doable as a consumer, it’s easy to understand as a non-certified person, we don’t all need to be experts. But as consumers, how can we make an impact? Is it knowing what we’re drinking?
“This is a great question. This is the question. How do we learn?
Yeah, part of it is you have to build a little bit of framework around it and you have to attack that framework to create a pattern. Once you create that pattern, you don’t think about it anymore. It’s like a habit.
It would be the same as learning a language or a skill like knitting, whatever you’re doing, you’re creating a pattern that becomes more of a habit where you don’t have to force yourself to think.
I started to teach the group that she’s mentioning about how important their personal preferences are. We don’t need critics to tell us what we like. We just need to listen to ourselves. We are our best critic. No two palettes are alike, like our fingerprints are individual. Our palette is individual. We are enjoying wine because we like to live. Not because we’re forced to put it with food, or any of that ritual that some countries have. Most of the time it’s because we enjoy it. If we enjoy it, we should be ready to step outside the box and embrace what we don’t know.
Because those experiences teach us about personal preference, the more we can look at a list to be centered around ‘Wow, I love 2017s, it’s a cool vintage, classic and kind of racy, transparent, versus 2016 that is a little bit more fleshy and dense.’
Now, I know I used a lot of crazy words. There are two differences and vintages 16 versus 17. Then you can go into countries. What I teach is styles based on climate. How much sun is there? Is it more northerly where there’s not as much sun and the days are cooler, that kind of growing conditions are going to create a little bit more lifted style versus the intense sun like what we have in California where we get so much brightness and power.
So you just learned a little bit about those basics. And then pinpoint your personal preference. That’s what you’ve been looking for when you’re learning and expanding.”
We’ve had a conversation in the group where we talked about how wines get rated and who rates them. So you’ll go to the grocery store and although this has a 91 point or whatever, but we talked about who’s rating them, and is it men rating them and the power is with men?
“Those are the things that you got to take in consideration when you’re going to buy a bottle of wine and most likely a man went ahead and went like, ‘I tasted it, this is what it is, and this is how I’m going to rate it’ but that is his palette and his physical self. So it’s really interesting.”
I know that you are now focusing on making an education of wine more accessible and fun. So can you share what you’re doing personally? I know you’re passionate to make this accessible for women, so we understand that, what it is that we’re getting ourselves involved in what we’re doing.
“So what really hit me from two different angles. When I was in New York, I was there for five years. I realized, first and foremost, being in one of the most high-profile restaurants with
business clients that would come in for lunch. I know it sounds really crazy now here in San Diego, that they would spend $15-20,000 at lunch. And that is because they have a very critical meeting going on and they are entertaining business. They’re trying to close multimillion-dollar contracts. So my request was, it’s really important for women to have this empowered feeling to boost their ability for negotiation. In that kind of scenario, where it’s a little bit more high-power client-oriented, most of that happens usually in a lunch when they’re sitting. So that’s one component that I’m working on right now, to boost the confidence and power.
Now how that breaks down for us, we’re not always in that realm to feel the power from our personal preference, I’m creating a very simple online course that is an interactive course. You could pause it, come back to it, buy the wines of the recommending, some that are not necessarily as producer-oriented but region-oriented. So you can find different options in your local markets or markets. It could be someone in Hong Kong doing a course. But repeat that module-oriented course, to learn a little bit about my personal preference through a consistent framework. So you build up the tools.”
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, that you take with you through your career?
It wasn’t necessarily advice. It was a self-realization that I could do this. I was coming from an area in the world, in the state of Arkansas, that I felt I had to escape to find opportunity. But even if we’re escaping, we still have the baggage of our beliefs and our social customs. I realized I could use all that trust. If I just trusted the knowledge was there, I had to build that knowledge, I had to absorb it, then I could achieve anything.
So I think it’s something that we all have to remember that a lot of these professions are intense professions, but we think that most in those professions are gifted and they just have that ability to handle it. That’s not always the case. In many situations, it’s an accumulation of knowledge, trusting that you can, building that knowledge one foundation, one step at a time, don’t just step off and run a marathon. So that realization, it was important, especially as a female, working to achieve something that very few women had done, to trust that I could do that. I just needed to build the knowledge and maybe even a little bit more than the men because I had to go a little bit more build beyond to just be ready for everything, to prove that I was prepared.
I saw this quote, I really loved it. It’s just a very simple quote. It’s by the customer. And it always comes back. ‘Chance favors the prepared.’ So when you prepare, you have the knowledge. That was really my thought that if I have that base, I can pair anything they want to throw.”
We first start to think about why we have to find the words to describe it, and those words are pretty personal because it really links back to where we were raised. Maybe if we’re raised in Thailand, we have access to all this exotic spice and flavor and the food different than in Arkansas where I had access to fried chicken, catfish, right. One thing that I did really enjoy as a kid, were all the flowers. There’s a lot of tropical, crazy bugs and humidity but lots of flowers. So I remember walking as one of my first original kind of interactions. I was walking to school at about six years old. It was safe back then. It was a Sunday morning. Just walking along the side of the road, the [honeysuckle?]. As a kid, it was my favorite time was just a walk to school, smelling all that heavy stuff. So I started, you know, not only smell it, flick it off, take the end, suck the honey nectar. But just getting that kind of real intense experience. That’s really what those little memories help you put into place some of these characteristics, keywords attributes, you’ll start to associate what you kind of jog your brain for what’s here.
We use this little sheet of terms. I know Rosé is a little tricky because we don’t have it listed here. But think in terms of first, the types of fruit. Go ahead and take a little sip on our palate. Now what kind of fruit do we taste, and we list the fruit. Keep it consistent in our head from the most tart to the sweetest. Then we’ve got a platform that can be consistent.
So on this sheet, it’s a debate whether orchard fruit or citrus is the most tart, they’re both kind of neck and neck because of tart green apple. So if you think about those two, usually start out looking for that. Then you go into a little bit, right first up from tropical, even melon.
The platform that we would use for Rosé, we would mix the fruit. There are the white and the red. Yeah, there’s a lot of strawberry. There’s actually a little bit of watermelon, which is not listed anywhere. But you can even make a case for pretty intense sort of tropical, like passionfruit and then dragon fruit. So we can go down the rabbit hole, think in terms of the fruits that you’re going to encounter. Sometimes the fruits that you haven’t tasted before, because if we get into areas where we don’t get a lot of exotic fruits, we probably don’t ever taste litchi fruit, right?
We’re going to go into the other category after we pick our fruits. The other category has a lot of floral and also has a spice or herbs. Now, spice can be baking spice that would be linked to oak barrels. They can also be other spice that’s not necessarily linked to barrels. That spice it’s not in the oak. It’s how the changes with the [wine aging process]. Then, once we figure out all of the other, we ask ourselves, is there any sort of earthy element? Even if it’s decaying, it was alive at one point. Whereas mineral is more inanimate, it’s more like rock. I think in terms of rock and asphalt, submit harder things that are a little bit more denser versus decaying and actually living. Then of course, the oak that’s really about spice. So that’s what we’re following through.
This is our first stepping point. We’ll build a structure at that point, acidity, alcohol, and we’ll talk about that. We’ll talk about the link below finish. Then, kind of what’s the persona the style?
So that’s kind of what we go through to quantify what we’ve got in a glass.
We didn’t really talk about fermentation because we can go down a rabbit hole with that. But do you think in terms of fermentation, it is kind of like a stale beer taste. There’s none of that [in this first wine]. This is all clean. Fermentation comes from usually time on the [dead he sells?]. The yeast are the creators of the life basically they have the grapes. They kind of start to eat the sugars in the actual fruit, then that’s a byproduct with alcohol and co2. Then they die once they know sugar. That’s all their work there’s nothing left for them to have. So if the wine stays in contact with the [nice?] after a while, it gains a lot of complexity.
If we keep consistent, we build and that it becomes kind of a pattern that we can feel comfortable using. Then we have our own personal system we can mix it up a little bit. Doesn’t have to be just like this. But it makes it easier for us to be able to explain it, we’re tasting but others have that similar language.”
What are your thoughts around our local wine region?
“Temecula is very tricky for wine because it’s so warm there. So they’re able to make really intense, good, powerful styles.
But if you want something that’s a little lighter, that’s hard because there’s so much sunshine, so much intensity, that it’s hard to back away from that. You’ve got to pick the fruit. That’s right. So the sugars keep accumulating with the sun. And that’s going to transfer into alcohol. So you do have higher alcohol wines, where there’s a lot of sun. It’s totally true. And that is why our wines in California are so popular in other places because there’s so much intensity and so much ease about the versus a cooler zone like Germany. And it does have certain geographical features that help intensify the ripeness, emotional extend to the heart mountains. We know if you look at mountain range, especially kind of our rages in California to Eastern Idaho, there is a very dry area called a rain shadow effect where the water comes in. Think of Washington state, the Cascade Mountains. It’s a desert east of it. So in those areas, you have easy ability to ripe fruit and a healthy way if you’re further north than the hemisphere. And you have cooler days to get more sun, but it’s not as intense all day long. So that’s how we get a style it’s a little lighter here versus going further south. We get more intense and more alcohol levels.”
Thank you, Laura!
Thank you, Felena, for hosting us at Hera Hub!