Where Are Houston's Female Sommeliers?

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Quick, name all of the female sommeliers in Houston.

OK, if you can't name all of them, name at least ten.

Trick question. Here in Houston, we have only a handful: Vanessa Trevino-Boyd (60 Degrees Mastercrafted), Samantha Porter (freelancing), Annette Amaya (Cru Wine Bar), Angie Chang (Sonoma Wine Bar) and Cathy Nguyen (Mark's). There's also Adele Corrigan of 13 Celsius, who many people consider a sommelier, but who hasn't actually taken the test because, as she says, "I just don't need it right now."

"I feel like the word "somm" now days is to describe the position you have, not necessarily your certification," Corrigan explains. "There are so many different schools now that sommelier has become a generalized term. You can call me whatever you want: Sommelier, beverage director, wine lady."

Whatever you choose to call her and her fellow "wine ladies," it's a fact that there are far fewer women in the industry than men. This is true nationwide, but the numbers are particularly startling here in Houston.

On the Court of Master Sommeliers website, one of the frequently asked questions is "How many Master Sommeliers are there? How many are women?" The answer: Of the 140 people who currently hold the title of Master Sommelier, only 21 are women. Fifteen percent. In Texas, we have only two female Masters, both in Dallas.

"The restaurant business definitely lends itself to chauvinistic stereotypes," says Jeremy Parzen, our wine guru. "The pretty girl greets you at the door, and the man opens the red wine. Think about the general oil mogul in Houston. He wants it to stay that way."

Corrigan, too, thinks the lack of female sommeliers in Houston could have something to do with the machismo in the oil industry, where many of the city's wealthy drinkers and diners acquire their riches.

"Even in the oil business, there are no women," Corrigan says. "Maybe because the men are so used to dealing with other men, they want that relationship in the restaurant, too."

Of course it's easy to blame a number of Houston's foibles on the oil business, but looking at the number of female sommeliers and beverage directors across the country, Houston--and Texas as a whole--is behind.

"If you go to other markets like New York, there are so many more high profile woman wine directors," Parzen says. "Even in Portland and Seattle, there are so many more women. Our market is starting to catch up with that. Look at how many women are at the Houston Sommelier Association seminars. I'd like to think that the number of women wine professionals in Texas is growing."

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If young sommeliers and wine professionals like Samantha Porter and Corrigan are any indication, Parzen's prediction is probably right. At 24, Porter is somewhat of a prodigy, writing a much-celebrated wine list at Osteria Mazzantini for her first job as a restaurant beverage director. She's since parted ways with the Italian restaurant, but she's definitely one to watch--and to hold on to here in Houston--as she decides what to do next.

Corrigan says she's content to continue her work at 13 Celsius, rather than hurrying to pass sommelier exams and work her way into a fancy restaurant job. And perhaps that's the way sommeliers in general are headed. When you consider that, the lack of female sommeliers might be more of an attitude problem in general than a chauvinistic issue. When women are accustomed to being overlooked in favor of men, they might figure, why bother?

Corrigan points out that you really have to work hard to be a sommelier. It's not just a matter of studying and memorizing. You have to be confident and willing to sell yourself as an individual. She worries that some women just might not be able to step up and give themselves the credit they deserve.

And that, says Parzen, is a shame, because in his view, women might actually be better at the job than men.

"Women are better sommeliers than men because they trust their palates more readily and they're less likely to let their egos get in the way," he says. "They come to the table more prepared."

He also notes that the split between men and women is more even among members of the Institute of Masters of Wine, a school similar to the Court of Master Sommeliers.

"The test to become a Master of Wine doesn't have the service component, and getting a Master of Wine is like getting a Ph.D.," Parzen says. "You have to do a thesis. It's a little more intellectually geared." And then he adds, simply, "Women are smarter than men."

When asked plainly what the problem is and how we can change it, no one really seems to have answers. Parzen, for one, is optimistic though.

"I think it's changing on its own because there's such restaurant growth here," he says. There are so many people coming from outside who are starting restaurants in Houston and bringing those skill sets with them."

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