How did you become interested in wine?
I didn’t grow up around wine so it was unfamiliar to me. The first time I served a bottle without a screw cap, I had no idea what to do! It was then that I decided to learn more about wine. I became serious while studying at the University of Houston and working part-time at Pappas Brothers Steakhouse. Its leather-bound program featured more than 3,000 wines. It was so new to me. I studied really hard, in 2012 passing the intro level at the Court of Master Sommeliers and soon after, winning a competition for a wine trip to Germany.
And how did your career evolve from here?
On graduating with a bachelors in cultural anthropology and a minor in international business, my mum suggested with my love of travel, people and talking about wine, I should become a sommelier. Around this time, a regular customer at the Pappas Brothers opened a fine-dining restaurant in Austin and asked me to join the wine team. I took a leap of faith. In 2015, I passed the Court of Master Sommeliers advanced exam and started working at Bufalina, eventually becoming the wine director and managing partner.
What made you initiative Lift Collective as a platform for advocating equity and inclusion in the wine industry?
The idea sparked in 2018, at the heat of the #MeToo movement. I felt this anger and energy inside my veins at the extra challenges most women face in the wine industry. I reflected on my own struggles in Houston, where, despite my hard work I was passed over for promotions. I thought of the Court, where the whole foundation to excel in your career through the program catered to a small percentage. I had persevered but so many young women walk away. And I knew that if we set out to dismantle what is considered the norm then we can change things for the better.
That’s quite a challenge to take on. How did you set about it?
I ran a series of Instagram interviews with inspirational women in wine, which led to a conference in 2019 where we gathered an amazing group of female speakers. Then when Black Lives Matter exploded, like so many others, we started to examine our own approach. Of the 29 speakers at the original conference, 28 had been white women. Without realizing it, we had limited voices and, thus, perspectives. And so we began focusing on people who have been most marginalized in our communities, to build up their voices.
To reflect this, in March 2021, we rebranded our group as Lift Collective with a virtual conference featuring thought leaders from different facets of the wine industry. It was one of the most dynamic speaker groups I’ve ever heard in a wine conference. It has shown what inclusive spaces can do and it has propelled us to continue pushing forward.
What does being a sommelier mean to you?
It means being an ambassador for producers who are stewards of the land. It means being a cultural anthropologist — building bridges for people between the familiar and unfamiliar. At the same time, it means being able to read people in an environment they may or may not feel comfortable in, processing the nuanced cues and signals they’re giving, and being able to pull from a database of knowledge, what style of wine they might enjoy. I see it as planting a seed, building memories. This is the highlight of my job.
Are your consumers more ready to try new wines and unknown grape varieties?
Absolutely. We live in different times, people travel and there are so many education platforms out there. My guests are definitely asking more questions, are curious and willing to take risks. Many wine programs are exploring the unfamiliar and sommeliers are sharing their excitement about obscure offerings with guests.
Do your guests get excited about the wider brand narrative?
With younger generations, it is about the story and the context; they are willing to trust their palates and make their own decisions. From my own perspective, knowing the wine producers and seeing how they work speaks to your curiosity, and you have people to tie those experiences back to — it solidifies the information.
How do you then transport your guests to that moment?
I focus on the individuality of that producer, why I carry their wine, what excites me. What are they pioneering, what’s different about them, and why should we pay attention to this wine.
Your wine program focuses on low-intervention wines. How important are issues of sustainability, to include fair-labor practices, to your guests?
In truth, more questions are being asked about farming methods than fair-labor practices. Conversations are happening in the trade community and I’m interested to see how, as sommeliers and wine educators, we can best communicate this with our guests. We should use the coffee and chocolate industries’ fair-trade certifications as a model. A few producers are putting labels on their bottles with all the stats, but more can be done.
What have you tasted lately that impressed you?
Benoit Courault “Eglantine” Pétnat Rosé; Lise et Bertrand Jousset “Éxile” Pétnat Rosé; and (and all-time favorite) Peter Lauer “Barrel X” Riesling.
If you were not drinking wine, what would be your chosen tipple?
I love a good gin martini with a twist.