Sommellerie can seem to be an especially elite and glamorous field, one that’s somehow devoid of the typical challenges facing service industry workers. From the outside, it is easy to overlook the reality that the job of a sommelier is still within the service industry, with labor-intensive duties and hours that often go deep into the night.
“It’s a very physical job,” says Carson Demmond, a former sommelier. “You’re on your feet sometimes twelve hours a day, nonstop. There’s a lot of heavy lifting involved. You’re moving and unpacking heavy cases of wine. It’s very physically demanding.”
These challenges are heightened for sommeliers considering families, and even more so for pregnant sommeliers.
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The few discussions of pregnancy and sommèliere often focus on one of two things—pregnancy’s tendency to enhance the senses, and the shock on diners’ faces at seeing a pregnant woman tasting wine (all seem to agree that the alcoholic content a sommelier needs to consume is not dangerous to pregnancy).
Even for the most talented people in the industry, having a small child at home and working a typical sommelier job is just not sustainable financially. It’s not daytime hours, so you can’t use traditional daycare or childcare.
Yet the service-industry challenges of the job and their incompatibility with a potential pregnancy led Demmond to consider other sides of the wine business. “I initially stopped working in restaurants looking at the long-term and knowing that I would eventually want a family and so ought to develop my career off the floor,” Demmond told VinePair.
It wasn’t just the long hours and the heavy lifting. There were also considerations on the other end of the pregnancy. “Even for the most talented people in the industry, having a small child at home and working a typical sommelier job is just not sustainable financially. It’s not daytime hours, so you can’t use traditional daycare or childcare,” she said.
Though some establishments have mandates in place to allow women to pump, the rhythms of the restaurant continue regardless of a newborn’s needs. “What if that happens and it’s six o’clock and service is starting and you have to disappear for twenty minutes?” Demmond mused. “That puts pressure on the rest of your team to step in to fill your duties for you during that time that you stepped off. Is that going to be looked at as OK? Is there going to be discrimination? Is your team going to be upset because you gave them extra responsibility because of your life choice? There’s a lot at play.”
Demmond is not alone in thinking about these issues. Many female sommeliers share her concerns. Demmond spoke of a fellow sommelier who had accepted a demotion of sorts in order to be able to continue to work during her pregnancy. She could not complete all of her required duties, which involved regularly moving 50 cases of wine down stairs and unpacking them. Her employer protected her new role for three months with no pay after she gave birth, but when she was ready to go back to work, she needed part-time hours due to childcare issues, and the restaurant did not have a part-time position for her.
I fell into loving [sommellerie] for many reasons—the stimulation, the wine, the community,” Collado told VinePair. “I didn’t think about the choices I’d have to make.
The sommelier refused to talk to VinePair. “It’s a touchy subject for a lot of women,” Demmond explained, “Since nobody wants to be blacklisted in their industry.”
Another sommelier facing similar concerns is Christine Collado, who has been Assistant Sommelier at Restaurant Daniel for the past two years. Collado first started the process of becoming a sommelier when she was in her early twenties (she is now almost thirty). “I fell into loving [sommelierie] for many reasons—the stimulation, the wine, the community,” Collado told VinePair. “I didn’t think about the choices I’d have to make.” But now Collado is getting married, and she is plagued by anxieties about her future in the industry.
VinePair reached out to a number of hospitality groups to ask about maternity leave policies. Only two responded—the Dinex Group, which grants qualifying employees 12 weeks of unpaid protected leave and Mario Batali’s firm B&B Hospitality, which also accommodates three months protected unpaid leave.
But Collado represents another side of the conflict, too: the emotional side. For Collado, it’s not so much an industry question as a personal one. “The anxiety comes more from my own desires and the change in lifestyle that I would want when I have a family,” she explained. “I come to work at three [p.m.] and I’m on my way home at one in the morning. It’s not necessarily something I would want to do if I were six, seven months pregnant. I never really pictured myself having to work like that, in a moment in time when I’d want to be taking care of myself in the best possible way.” And even though her company gives employees maternity leave, Collado believes that her career choice might not make it into her family planning. “As much as I love being a sommelier and being on the floor, is that lifestyle more important to me than being a mother? Absolutely not,” she said.
Is sommellerie an industry where women will just have to anticipate short-lived careers?
There are of course positive aspects that accompany family-planning and sommellerie. Master of Wine Jancis Robinson has, on numerous occasions, credited her pregnancy with getting her through the incredibly difficult MW exams. “I think being pregnant helped rather than hindered, as demonstrated by my doing especially well in the tasting papers,” she writes on her website.
Lindsey Geddes, a Master Sommelier at Charlie Palmer’s Las Vegas Aureol, also believes that her pregnancy enhanced her sense of smell. “I could smell Rioja all over the room. It’s a very confusing wine, but it jumped out of the glass at me. I’ll never miss it in a blind tasting ever again,” Geddes told Food and Wine. “All of those secondary aromas suddenly jumped out at me,” she explained. “Volcanic soil smells fennelly, marley soil smells floral, slate-heavy soil smells like petrol.”
Women entering into it know that’s what they’re getting themselves into, but they don’t think of the implications down the road.
Others feel strongly about the pleasures of being on the floor and the desire to continue working in the industry with a family. This includes Carson Demmond, whose mother was a server who waited tables through two pregnancies—with Demmond and with Demmond’s brother. But then, she didn’t have to lift heavy boxes. And financially, especially in a city like New York or San Francisco, the burden of taking leave, even when it’s paid, might just be too much. “Some sommeliers are salaried positions, but some are hourly plus tips,” Demmond explained. “More likely, you’ll get your hourly, which we all know could be pretty close to minimum wage.”
For Demmond, the issue boils down to two separate issues: the pregnancy, which is a policy question, and the post-pregnancy, early-childhood stage, which is a question of each individual woman’s desire.
“Most successful sommeliers recognize it as being a restaurant job first, and a fancy wine job second and third,” she said. “It’s less about wine than it is about restaurants and that’s the framework you’re functioning in. Women entering into it know that’s what they’re getting themselves into, but they don’t think of the implications down the road.” This aspect of the job is one men with young children struggle with too.
Yet pregnancy is a different matter, and one that the industry should protect if it wants to keep women in its ranks. And yet, that’s easier said than done.
“It’s definitely a difficult conversation to start,” Demmond said. “The restaurant industry is really tough financially. It’s not a business that turns much of a profit.” As such, added social pressures on the industry may be difficult to accommodate, and implementing change will likely take significant time and effort.