The wine women: Philadelphia's female sommeliers

Alexandra Cherniavsky, sommelier at Avance.
Alexandra Cherniavsky, sommelier at Avance. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 22, 2014

About a decade ago, when Melissa Monosoff was working as a sommelier at the Four Seasons, she faced plenty of tests - some from the Court of Master Sommeliers, where she obtained the highest possible certification, and others tableside, from skeptical customers.

"A lot of times I did have to prove myself," she recalled. "I'd approach people and say, 'I see you're looking at the wine list. Can I help you?' And they'd say, 'Yes. If you could get the sommelier, that'd be great.' "

Since then, the city's wine landscape has evolved, and more women are assuming prestigious sommelier posts than ever before.

The highest profile of those is at Volver at the Kimmel Center, where Gordana Kostovski selects champagnes, wines, beers, and sakes to complement chef Jose Garces' elaborate gastronomy "performances." Close on her heels are thoughtful young wine directors like Mariel Wega at a.kitchen + bar at AKA Rittenhouse Square, Lauren Harris at East Passyunk's intimate Townsend, and Alexandra Cherniavsky, who's responsible for the hefty wine list at Avance, the fine-dining successor to Le Bec-Fin. And that's not to mention Kate Jacoby at Vedge and Charlotte Calmels at Le Cheri, both of whom have skillfully wrapped wine-buying into their management responsibilities.

Cherniavsky said attitudes have changed, too.

"When I was first starting out in this industry, I would find that people would be surprised that I was the sommelier, because I'm a woman. But I really haven't come across that in the last few years," said Cherniavsky, who worked her way up at a restaurant in New Jersey.

Parity has been a long time coming, said Marnie Old, who landed her first wine-buying job in 1994 and was, by '96, in the prominent role of sommelier at Striped Bass. There, Old began informally mentoring other women, including Monosoff, then a chef at Striped Bass who volunteered to assist Old on her days off.

Old, now an author, educator, and wine consultant, found that she was a novelty at first.

"A woman sommelier was a refreshing change for people," she said.

It was also an inevitability, she said: As women made strides in the traditionally male role of formal dinner service, they were bound to enter sommelier positions, often the first rung of management.

(The gig, to be clear, often includes overseeing wine, beer, cocktail, and nonalcoholic-beverage programs, purchasing inventory, managing and training servers, even running food and hanging coats. Monosoff, for one, was often mistaken for the "coat-check girl.")

Others came out of the kitchens, driven away by what Old described as the "crazy pirate-ship vibe."

Old liked hiring them: She found they tend to be hard workers who often underestimate their own value. They tend to take a more empathetic approach than men to assisting customers, taking the diner's taste into account when suggesting a wine, rather than informing the diner of the theoretically correct pairing. And they tend to have more sensitive noses than men, making them better wine tasters, she said.

"Americans don't like asking for advice on wine any more than they like stopping the car to ask for directions," Old said. She thought women were better at reducing that stress and awkwardness.

Kostovski takes that empathetic approach at Volver, where her realm includes a cellar stocked with close to a thousand selections to fuel the champagne-soaked Bar Volver and the main dining room.

Her approach - even when it comes to pairings for Garces' 15-course global tasting menu, one of the most expensive meals in town - is simple. "The general consensus is: Drink what you like to drink," she said.

"Wine's subjective," she added. "In some ways, we're translators. If you tell me you like a certain type of wine or grape, it's my job to translate that into the perfect wine for your meal. We have guests who come in who say, 'I only like white wine or I only like red wine,' and I accept that challenge."

Kostovski didn't plan this path: A University of Pennsylvania graduate, she started waiting tables at the now-defunct Cutter's Grand Cafe in Center City to kill time before applying to medical school. Instead she stayed on, and took over Cutter's beverage program.

These days, the prominence of women in wine is self-perpetuating, said Wega.

She had taken a few wine classes as an undergraduate at Cornell, but wasn't sure she could become a sommelier. "There weren't that many women role models," she said. "Now that's changed. They're all over."

Monosoff, who now lives in Texas and oversees exams for the Court of Master Sommeliers, said compensation varies widely, but could range from $30,000 to $100,000 or more, depending on expertise, duties, and compensation structure, such as commissions for wine sales. And she sees more women in the program than ever. Not all sommeliers train for an official certification; instead they learn on the job.

Many women are also taking a greater role in importing and distributing wines, said Megan Storm, French portfolio manager at the Artisan's Cellar in West Chester, who's pushing naturally made wines from small, artisanal, family-owned vineyards.

These days, Wega, 29, and Harris, 32, are both also devoted to that cause.

At 50-seat Townsend, where Harris doubles as general manager, the vision is a culinary pas de deux: "The romantic notion of pairings is that this beverage tastes better with this food, and this food is better with this wine," she said.

So, she chooses wines from small producers in lesser-known European regions, selected to complement chef Townsend Wentz's modern French menu.

Both Harris and Wega got their start working at Tria, where partner Michael McCaulley provides wine education for staffers and the dining public alike.

Wega's vision is likewise all about artisan producers to complement the fare at a.kitchen, which is overseen by Eli Kulp and Ellen Yin of Fork and High Street on Market.

"We're not making Prego; we're making homemade tomato sauce. So that's the kind of wine that's on our list," she said. "I like to serve wine that tells a story."

Wega said guests are occasionally wary of a woman running the wine cellar - but she thinks her young age raises more eyebrows.

"I don't feel at a disadvantage, but, as in any industry, we have to really let our passion push us," she said. "But I love that challenge. I wouldn't have it any other way."


THEIR RESTAURANTS

Alexandra Cherniavsky Avance

1523 Walnut St.

215-405-0700

Gordana Kostovski

Volver

Kimmel Center

300 S. Broad St.

215-670-2303

Mariel Wega

a.kitchen + bar

at AKA Rittenhouse Square

135 S. 18th St.

215-825-7030

Lauren Harris

Townsend

1623 E. Passyunk Ave.

267-639-3203


smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053

@samanthamelamed

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