Making Waves

Through her wine program at Cooper’s Hawk, and as chair of the board of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, Emily Wines is making it her mission to bring diversity, inclusivity and excitement to the world of wine

Like most sommeliers, I came to this career by accident. Working in restaurants to support my studies at art school, I became drawn to fine dining. I liked the hospitality side of it, the artistry of food and wine, as well as the setting found in these high-end restaurants. To feel more comfortable talking about wine, I began studying it, and fell in love. While I regret not pursuing the arts full time, I find that my creative side is always being tapped in the work I do today.

Becoming a master sommelier in 2008 at 35 was wild! I was blessed to be among a strong community of sommeliers, passing each level with the team I was studying with. While some feel lost after passing, I had sights set on further career goals, so it was simply the first stop in my trajectory.

I started my career working with the “one percent world of wine” ​​— that is, wine as a luxury commodity. That was an amazing experience, but ultimately, I get the greatest pleasure in making wine approachable and understandable to all. The one-upmanship that happens with wine consumers and sommeliers can be off-putting, and frankly, at its worst it is classist. Giving room for consumers to feel good about what they like is critical. Everyone starts their wine journey somewhere, and I think it is important to meet them where they are at.

It is amazing how much the world of wine has changed in the US in the last 20 years. As a young sommelier, I was fixated on classic wines and classic producers. Today, sommeliers are focused on obscure grapes, regions, and winemaking techniques. There is room for all of these, but it is critical to keep an open mind. I also feel that it is important to keep sommeliers focused on the guest first. It is easy to lose the focus on making sure people are drinking the things that they actually like, rather than what you want them to like.

“Bringing wine culture and access into a mix of communities is important, while showing a diverse range of wines is just as critical.

Our wine program at Cooper’s Hawk places simpler wines alongside some of the finest in the world so our customers feel less intimidated by the wine world. And this is what I love most about my work at Cooper’s Hawk. When I see the diverse group of people at our tasting rooms, it further amplifies the lack of diversity in the rest of the wine world to me. Bringing wine culture and access into a mix of communities is important, while showing a diverse range of wines is just as critical. Highlighting wines made by women and people of color, collaborating with personalities that speak to a diversity of people, and making wines that meet our guests at the different points they are in their wine journey are critical.

Since joining the Court’s new board of directors in 2020, my focus has been on shifting our mindset around how sommeliers come to our programs. We have historically considered ourselves a meritocracy — the programs are open to all, and one simply needs to get over the bar in order to pass. Taking a wider vision, this is the wrong approach. The sommelier profession is largely white and male, due in part to the fact that front-of-the-house professionals become whiter and more male as you go up the echelons of restaurants to fine dining. And so, it is critical to make sure that the door is not just open, but that there is a path to that door for all.

To achieve this, we have begun outreach to HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) to host intro-level programs and we give 100 scholarships per year to BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) and female wine students as a way to encourage diversity, starting at the bottom. To create greater safety, we expanded our code of ethics, instigated a third-party hotline for reporting bad behavior and safety issues, and created both a Candidate Bill of Rights and an Anti-Racism Pledge. It was clear that simply saying anyone is welcome to our programs wasn’t proactive enough.

What am I excited about? These days, I’m excited to tell the stories. I love how wine brings people together, usually around food, and I love the way that wine makes a meal better. I don’t have a favorite vintage, per se. Like most sommeliers, I am keen on finding wines from my birth year, but there aren’t many left that are still alive. Luckily 1973 was a better year for me than for wine!

I am always surprised by wine, but I think the last one for me was a red from the Marches in Italy called Lacrima di Morro d’Alba. When it is good, it tastes hauntingly like violets. As far as food and wine pairings, this is where I am often humbled. There is always a place for every single wine. At Cooper’s Hawk, we make an almond sparkling wine, which is a lightly sweet wine aromatized with almond extract. It is, shall we say, a very “specific” flavor, and not at all to my taste. With apple pie, however, it is magical!

Photography ©Camille Proud and Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant

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