Female sommeliers in London

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Need help choosing wine? Ask a woman. Time Out meets the ladies with a lot of bottle, leading the way in some of London‘s top restaurants

  • Female sommeliers in London

    Sommelier Severine Sloboda of Trinity in Clapham

  • What happened the last time you ordered wine in a restaurant? Only a few years ago, the answer would probably have been that the (male) sommelier handed the (impenetrable) wine list to the man at your table, who then chose the wine (regardless of whether they were the best equipped to do so). Worse still: even if the woman ordered the wine, more likely the bottle would still be brought for the man to inspect and taste.

    Fast forward to 2008, and it’s a different story – now your sommelier is likely to be one of a new generation of dynamic young women who are helping to transform the way we buy and appreciate wine. Likewise, you’re more likely to see women choosing the wine, paying for it and drinking it – often with as much gusto as the men.

    ‘Five years ago the wine world was still male dominated, but it’s changing, just in the same way that you’re seeing more female winemakers coming through,’ says former sommelier Deborah Kemp (29), now operations controller for caterers Company of Cooks, and who recently masterminded the drinks lists of ten bars and two cafés in the new South Bank.

    At the same time, you’ll find the wine world increasingly keen to shrug off some of the pompous mystique which has shrouded it for so long – and women are playing a major part in this.

    Take, for instance, Selfridges’ sommelier and wine buyer Dawn Davies (31), who last year launched a ‘wine jukebox’ in the store’s Wonder Bar. This enables customers to help themselves to a range of 52 regularly updated wines by the glass – at £3 to £100 a go – from a machine like a more sophisticated coffee dispenser.

    61 F DAVIES XXX_crop.jpg
    Dawn Davies: bright wine idea at Selfridges

    The refreshingly unpompous Davies is invariably on hand in either the wine shop next door, or by email (www.selfridges.com), to give advice on wine styles, food pairings and sourcing rare or unusual wines. ‘It’s much more of a service, and I like that,’ says Davies. ‘One thing England badly lacks is good service.’

    Miriam McLachlan, head wine sommelier at Zuma in Knightsbridge (which also has a female saké sommelier, 27-year-old Satomi Okubo), sounds a similar note: ‘In days gone by sommeliers were a little more caught up in their own knowledge, whereas in fact our job is to communicate and listen, not be a salesman. Asking the sommelier about the wines should really be just like asking the waiter “what are the specials?”

    ‘It’s also worth asking for advice because sometimes we have wines that aren’t on the list, and the sommelier might say, “Oh we’ve got something lovely out the back that we’ve just been tasting, you could have a glass of that,” ’ she adds with a wink.

    Leading wine writer Jancis Robinson (www.jancisrobinson.com) agrees that London’s new crop of female sommeliers has helped to make wine less intimidating: ‘I do think that women are much less likely to view wine appreciation as a competitive sport than men,’ she says.

    Over at the revamped Southbank Centre, concert-goers have been lapping up the drinks lists created by Kemp, who has breathed new life into the site. The latest venture, Concrete, a hip little bar which opened next to the Hayward in December 2007, has a particularly imaginative and well-priced choice of wines, unusual premium spirits and beers that makes it worth a visit.

    At the Royal Festival Hall bar visitors can expect a choice that includes four premium gins, a wine list starting at £13.50 a bottle, as well as an array of beers, sherry and Madeira – the latter being something of which Kemp is particularly proud.

    ‘The Royal Festival Hall is still the people’s palace, so the ethos is about choosing good-quality house products and making sure customers aren’t intimidated by the list,’ says Kemp, who first got the wine bug growing up among the vineyards of eastern Australia. ‘I love the job because there are so many different audiences here – it really keeps you on your toes.’

    Severine Sloboda (29), sommelier at Trinity, a Modern European restaurant in Clapham, is similarly enthused about her job. ‘It’s wonderful to give people the pleasure of discovering something different,’ she says. ‘In France if you’re not old with a beard there is a lot of prejudice, but here, au contraire, when you wear the [sommelier’s] jacket they take you seriously.’

    ‘I believe now that men are aware that it’s a position which can work as well for women. I think you need to be strong to be able to fit in a lot of different areas, the restaurant, cellar....’ ponders Laure Patry (28), who, as head sommelier at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, must surely be as strong as they come.

    Not that the wine world can rest on its laurels just yet. ‘Generally speaking the hours are too long and the pay is too low in this industry – yet I love my job. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,’ says Dawn Davies. ‘But when I sit down in a restaurant I’m still never the one who gets handed the wine list.’

    I'll have what she's drinking

    Sommeliers recommend bottles to taste from their list

    Dawn Davies

    SC Pannell 2006 Shiraz from Australia – intense blackcurrant and hints of mocha with soft spice. (£7.50/125ml)Selfridges Wonder Bar, 400 Oxford St, W1A 2LR (0800 123 400) Bond St tube.

    Satomi Okubo

    Shirataki Shizuku saké – creamy but light with flavours of vanilla pod and melon. (£14.50/100ml glass)Zuma, 5 Raphael St, SW7 1DL (020 7584 1010) Knightsbridge tube.

    Severine Sloboda

    Castello Di Ama 2005 from Tuscany – creamy, elegant, floral and fruity. Good with scallops. (£40/bottle)Trinity, 4 The Polygon, SW4 0JG (020 7622 1199) Clapham Common tube.

    Deborah Kemp

    A Pineau des Charentes from Chateau Plessis – unctuous, concentrated but with a dry finish. A great aperitif. (£4/glass)Royal Festival Hall bar, Belvedere Rd, SE1 (0871 663 2501) Waterloo tube/rail or Embankment tube.

    Laure Patry

    David Traeger Verdelho 2006 – dry, and fresh; good value. (£30/bottle)Maze, 10-13 Grosvenor Sq, W1K 6JP (020 7107 0000) Bond St tube.

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