“When there’s a challenge in front of you, you put on your blinders and you run with it,” or in Alpana Singh’s case, you drink it down. As if becoming the youngest person to pass the Master Sommelier exam at age 26 wasn’t impressive enough, Singh also became one of just 21 women Master Sommeliers in the male-dominated wine industry, where 119 men hold the same title.
It’s without a doubt that men have controlled the food and beverage industry, even though women reportedly purchase 75 percent of wine in the United States and despite the long held idea that the kitchen is “a woman’s domain.”
According to “Stirring the Pot: Women in a Male Dominated Kitchen” by Elizabeth Roscoe, it is gender inequality in the workplace that keeps women cooking and cleaning in the private sphere, while their male counterparts reign in the public.
The wine industry, from winemaking to business ventures, has a “boy’s club” mentality, similar to other fields, that has had residual effects on women. The 21st century has seen a drastic change in the “traditional” family dynamic of the husband as the breadwinner and the wife as a stay-at-home mom. Now more than ever, women are assuming head positions in the workplace, including the wine industry.
For Singh, it’s women like Madeline Triffon and Sally Moore, the first and second woman in the U.S. to pass the Master Somm. exam, that have paved the way for more women to enter in to what was once a man’s world.
“Anytime you look at a more male dominated profession and you see women, like the CEO of Yahoo or Hillary Clinton in politics, these women are the first to break down barriers and you can then stand on their shoulders,” Singh added.
During her seven year journey to becoming a Master Somm., Singh realized three things: she was young, she was a woman and she was Indian. Despite these trifold social and cultural factors, Singh made leaps and bounds, or more suitably, vats and barrels, in the wine world after passing the Master Somm. exam.
“The attractiveness of it is the impossibleness of it,” Singh said about the exam, which has a passing rate of just 3 percent.
Upon earning her title, Singh co-founded The Boarding House, a 13,000 square foot restaurant originally built in 1872, where she showcases a distinguished wine list and also authored her 2006 book Alpana Pours: About Being a Woman, Loving Wine, and Having Great Relationships.
Similarly, Erica Landon, a wine instructor at the Wine and Spirits Archive in Portland, and co-founder of Walter Scott Wines, has become a strong force in the wine industry, despite the fact that she noticed a higher ratio of men to women in the upper levels of Advanced Sommelier to Master Sommelier.
“I feel that the [wine] industry has always been male dominated, and if anything, along with lots of industries, it is seeing more and more women leading the charge,” Landon said. “I try to support both men and women who are passionate about the food industry, which is not determined by gender.”
Jennifer Cossey Hendrickson, a sommelier and beverage manager at The Yellowstone Club in Montana, also notes the emergence of more women in the industry, and stresses the need for collaboration amongst both women and men for professional and personal growth.
“Too often I see women lash out, ignore and not encourage other women because they see them as a threat or somehow as competition…,” Hendrickson said. “We should be encouraging each other's growth and using whatever competitive feelings we have as a way to encourage our own growth.”
Hendrickson also says that not only are we beginning to shift perspectives surrounding women and food culture, but food culture in general.
“In the states...we separated ourselves from the land; we built walls between the dining rooms and living rooms and the kitchens; we separated ourselves and our culture from food and the celebration of food,” Hendrickson said.
But according to Hendrickson, the way back to a healthy relationship with food and drink can be seen in how hard both men and women work to produce a single glass of wine.
“Wines tell the story of the past year and people put their hands in the dirt, and raise glasses to each other and celebrate the land, and food and the kitchen,” Hendrickson said. “We are getting into the dirt, planting things, growing things and cooking things together. It’s taken us a while to get here, but it seems we are starting to move in the right direction.”
All three women say that a sense of collaboration, specifically mentorship, is the key to success. Hendrickson notes that when someone believes in you, “it give you a sense of worth and that is something you can hang onto for a career and something that translates into all parts of life, not just professionally.”
And the mentorship doesn’t end with them.
“I was told a long time ago by somebody,” Singh said, “You want to know what the secret to success is? As soon as you get into a job, find someone who’s going to take it over, so you can move on and do other things.” It’s all about mentorship at the end of the day.”
Kathryn Peifer is a graduate of the University of Portland, where she spent most of her time writing, helping others write and reading what others had written. She continues to write at Willamette Week and in her spare time, eats Supergrain Salads from Vita Cafe, sun-kissed cantaloupe, and mostly peanut butter.