Cover Maximal Concepts sommeliers Marie-Paule Herman and Rin Mohamad (Source: Handout)

In their own words, Hong Kong's women in wine tell us why the industry is no longer an old boys' club

While the world of wine was traditionally dominated by men both on the vineyard and in the restaurant, today the very notion that the same industry is still heavily gendered is in itself becoming old-fashioned, as we found out when speaking to the female sommeliers of Hong Kong. With more and more women becoming the face of the wine programmes of their respective restaurants, diners in Hong Kong are experiencing a more equitable vision of wine with every sip, as female sommeliers moderate the drinking experience with a feminine touch and a more inclusive eye towards pioneering female producers to boot.

To mark International Women's Day this year, we're spotlighting five women of wine working in Hong Kong: what brought them to their current role, what challenges they face, and where they see the shifting gender balance of the wine industry going. The proof, it's becoming increasingly apparent, is in the Pinot.

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Camille Glass, Co-Founder, Brut

"Very early on in my career, I realised that my “superpower”—the thing that set me apart in my industry—was my ability to share my love for food and wine through storytelling. In opening Brut, I wanted more than anything to create a culinary exploration. In wine, I found parallels between what was happening on the vineyard and what was happening in our kitchen, and I wanted it all to be as much a journey for myself as it would be for the guests.

When it was just George [Kwok] and I, in the early days of the restaurant, we found a way to blend our cultures into what we later would dub modern Hong Kong cuisine. The wine programme followed suit, showing progressive young winemakers and their original takes on their one-of-a-kind drops.

Whilst being a woman in wine certainly has its shortcomings, I’ve oftentimes found that my more creative, feminine approach to wines is graciously welcomed. Whilst I’m certainly not saying that creativity is a strictly female trait, when you look at someone like Sarah Heller, her incredible, fluid and feminine visual art combined with her wine notes bring something new and womanly to wine. I feel like my curation and descriptions of wine have similar, feminine qualities.

Crushed is another welcome addition to today’s wine retail market. The girls and I were very deliberate in our moves away from the more traditional ways of communicating about our products. There truly is enough space in this industry for all of us to co-exist peacefully and I’m excited to see more women than ever at the helm of these discussions.

I’ve oftentimes found that my more creative, feminine approach to wines is graciously welcomed.
Camille Glass

"For a very long time, women had no place in farming, cellar work, sales or service. Men were more eligible for training or more openly welcomed by male producers, or the men holding ranks in supermarkets and restaurants. They were the ones who were trusted to represent their male counterparts who were making the wine.

Then at a social level, women were also excluded from the old boys’ club culture. So our exposure was limited there, too. It’s been slow to gain access to what has, until very recently, been a closely guarded culture that still has many old guards at the gate—which has both pros and cons. Endemic sexism casts a long shadow, and us women are only just starting to get out into the light, across a variety of industries.

While I love a lady’s lunch as much as the next gal, I really believe that the way forward in this industry, like so many others, is inclusivity. By that, I mean that while we might take comfort in banding together as women, there are a lot of wonderful men in this world who are here to help. My boyfriend considers himself a feminist alongside so many of dearest male friends. It’s important to know who we’re fighting with and what we’re fighting for. Educating yourself, friends and colleagues about the female experience, be it in wine or any other industry that presents hurdles for women is a great place to start. Following woman winemakers on social media, listing more of them in bars and restaurants and simply being attuned to subculture are all ways that we can advocate for change.

Probably the most notable [winemakers] in my mind right now would be Ltd + / Constant Crush. Husband and wife Chad and Bree Stock hold equal weight in their brand, the vision and where they are taking it. Everything they do, they do together. Theirs is the kind of synergy that I certainly strive for in my partnerships, both professional and personal."

Brut

Sai Ying Pun
$ $ $ $
4
'rating'

Dolphin Ip, Sommelier, Skye Roofbar & Dining

"After my graduation, I got a job in a restaurant—it was a coffee shop with buffet-style food—until one evening, we had a wine promotion with a free-flow package. That was my first time learning about wine. I applied for a job in a hotel fine dining restaurant afterwards to get closer to the wine industry, as there would be a proper wine list, storage and even a sommelier I could learn from. At the same time I was studying for a management certificate, but I found that the more I got into the management side of things, the less I was able to focus on my wine studies. So I decided to leave the hotel where I was working to go to a wine restaurant and follow the head sommelier Reeze Choi (now at Somm’s Philosophy) to begin my sommelier journey.

Maybe female sommeliers are more attentive—but I think it depends on the characteristics of a person. I can see so many brilliant senior sommeliers who are so attentive, as we have to foresee what the guest needs before they raise up their hand. And I’m hardly unique but some of the guests might remember me easier as a woman working with wine. I am always happy to be remembered as part of a nice dining experience.

I think not only wine industry, but the whole F&B industry is male-dominated. It is not an easy thing to have a work-life balance in this industry, especially a fine dining restaurant. Mostly likely we work in shifts, spending almost the whole day in the restaurant. And as a sommelier, I have to constantly stay on top of my studies. I am just a junior in this industry; I’m not thinking of changing anything, just to stay humble and keep learning. I believe success driven by personality, not gender."

Skye Roofbar & Dining, The Park Lane, 310 Gloucester Road, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

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Marie-Paule Herman, Group Sommelier, Maximal Concepts

I grew up in a family of third-generation wine importers and exporters, in the small town of Axel in the Netherlands. My first job in hospitality was washing dishes in a local restaurant in my hometown at the age of 14.

After completing my studies at hospitality school in Bruges (with a year specialising in sommelier studies), I went on to work at three-Michelin-starred restaurant De Librije in the Netherlands, El Bulli in Roses, Spain; Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark; and De Kromme Watergang in the Netherlands. In 2012, I came across an opportunity for a job at Amber at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong. Ten years on, I still call Hong Kong my home with no intention to leave anytime soon.

Joining Maximal Concepts in 2017, I initially came on board as the group sommelier, but have since taken on group-wide operations as well. I’m in charge of curating all wine programs for each of our seven Hong Kong venues. Maximal Concepts’ venues are comprised of a wide range of international cuisines, from Chinese to Thai, Mexican and Caribbean, so I construct my wine lists by creating a balance between the ‘big names’, whilst also featuring many lesser-known, small scale producers to delight and surprise customers with new and unexpected bottles.

We need to keep pushing for our dreams and show our powers, as it’s not only men that are good at wine!
Marie-Paule Herman

I think the biggest hindrance as a female sommelier still is quite often when the guests are asking for the sommelier, and you mention ‘that’s me’, they look at you as if they don’t believe you, and we have to prove ourselves really hard—whereas for a male sommelier it’s way easier. However, I feel that’s still mostly the situation in Asia, while in Europe, I’ve never actually had difficulties with it.

These days, you can find more and more female sommeliers in the city. Look at how many amazing female winemakers there are out there all over the world: to name a few, Marie Croutin, Sara Pérez, Anne Gros, and Maggie Harrison (and they hardly began their careers yesterday). That’s not to mention that we have four female Masters of Wine in Hong Kong: Debra Meiburg, Sarah Heller, Jeannie Cho Lee, and Jennifer Docherty. We need to keep pushing for our dreams and show our powers, as it’s not only men that are good at wine!

Constanza Cabello, Executive Head Sommelier, Black Sheep Restaurants

My role at Black Sheep Restaurants is to look after the wine lists of all our restaurants in Wan Chai, as well as training and developing the front-of-house teams in their wine knowledge and managing costs.

My first job in a restaurant was when I was 19 years old. At that time, I was studying public relations, and the job was meant to help pay my way through university, but I found that I was enjoying my restaurant work much more than I enjoyed going to class. I quickly decided to quit university and take some time to explore and connect with myself and figure out what truly I wanted to study. 

Later I moved to another restaurant, a fine dining place. The owners were from Spain, and they had a small curated cellar with some little gems. They were always talking about Vega Sicilia (a Spanish winery), and one day one of our regular guests ordered a bottle but ended up sending it back, telling me the wine was not in good condition. I remember I took the bottle back to the owner, he tasted it and told me: "The bottle is good but never mind. Change the bottle and I will keep this one to share with the team". After a taste of that bottle, my curiosity soon developed into a full-fledged passion for wine and everything that is related to it: the culture, food, people, stories, politics, economics, art… At this point, I believed wine was related to everything!

There is nothing about the role of a sommelier that is inherently better suited to men.
Constanza Cabello

I suppose I have many traits that would stereotypically be called female: I am very emotional, sensible, and passionate. I think perhaps once I would have seen these as weaknesses and disadvantages, but today I believe that understanding body language, being empathetic, trying to understand people's emotions and feelings are also things that make me good at my job.  

Women are exposed to certain kinds of social judgments that men are not, about marriage and the decision of having a family or not, and with the hours that we do in the hospitality industry, it can seem like it would make both those things difficult. But of course, there is nothing about the role of a sommelier that is inherently better suited to men, so I think just being visible, sharing your knowledge and experience with other women is all we need to do to change the industry. I think for many women it isn't that they don't want to work in this field; it just isn't something they ever seriously consider because it is still not that commonplace. 

The wine industry, in general terms from the vineyard to the restaurants, has always been male-dominated. I think it will be a long time until we have a more equitable vision of the wine industry. It is a world built on a lot of legacy, and things change slowly in this kind of environment; there are already women doing great work in the industry but with little recognition. However, I can say which women are an inspiration for me. Personally, the ladies of Champagne, like Isabelle Dielboth and Delphine Boulard, are taking over their family businesses; while back in my home country of Italy, strong women like Laura Catena or Angela Fronti are making wine in Chianti Classico.

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Cyrielle Mascaro, Head Sommelier, Hong Kong Jockey Club

My love for wine is the result of when I first discovered the Burgundy region at the age of 15, as well as my family’s traditions where both food and wine were omnipresent. I knew from an early age that whatever career path I chose, it would be closely related to wine.

In 2011, I started studying wine at La Tour D’Argent and then became a sommelier at two-Michelin-starred restaurant La Table du Lancaster, before moving from Paris to London, where I joined the two-Michelin-starred restaurant Helene Darroze at The Connaught.

After two years as assistant head sommelier, I moved to Texture, a one-Michelin-starred restaurant as head sommelier. During this time, I also signed myself up for the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) as a personal challenge to grow and develop myself.

In 2018, I was accredited as an Advanced Master Sommelier and moved to Hong Kong the same year. I am glad now to be the head sommelier at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, where I had the chance to be part of a new clubhouse opening at Happy Valley last year. This was one of the most exciting experiences in my career.

Even the most sceptical person will not have a word to say in front of a female sommelier if you are professional and knowledgeable.
Cyrielle Mascaro

I have never felt that gender poses a problem in my work. Throughout the years, I have never been faced a situation where I thought that I was lucky or unlucky to be a woman. At the end, you gain respect and trust from other people—be it your team, your management or your customers—through your dedication and hard work. This is the only thing that makes a difference. Even the most sceptical person will not have a word to say in front of a female sommelier if you are professional and knowledgeable.

We’re at the end of an old era, but I have to admit that there are not many women in positions of responsibility [in wine]. It is still a work in progress, but the future looks very promising with more and more empowered women.

Thanks to social media, there is definitely more exposure of women in the wine industry too. In recent years, women have succeeded in breaking down stereotypes in restaurants and in various sectors in the wine industry as well, especially in the vineyards. There are many incredibly talented female winemakers who are widely recognised around the world.

Women and men in the industry have the same goal: our aim is to spread the joy through wine, to give people a special experience by sharing our passion and, above all, to share the heritage and savoir-faire from women and men from all over the world.

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