Some of the best sommeliers in NYC are female, and these ladies not only know their wine, they effusively share their knowledge with customers and friends without any of the pretension often (rightly or wrongly) associated with that, ahem, other species of somm. I caught up with six of these women to discuss their love of vino, market trends, and the challenges of working in a male-dominated industry.
This week, I chatted with Pascaline Lepeltier, beverage director at Rouge Tomate. Born in near the ocean in La Rochelle, France, Lepeltier grew up in the Loire Valley surrounded by Chenin Blanc vineyards. How could she not find a career in wine?
Do you remember your first taste of wine? What was it?
I don’t really remember my first sip of wine, but I remember my first sip of Calvados. My grandparents are from Normandy. I was a little girl when I tried it, and now I am a HUGE cider-drinker!
How did you get started in the wine industry?
My very first job, like a lot of people, was a summer job to make a little bit of money during high school. I worked for a high-end caterer in La Rochelle. I really liked it, and when I decided not to follow the original career path I considered (being a philosophy teacher), I decided to go to hospitality school to find a job in catering. But the more I learned about hospitality, and the more I worked in that field, the more I realized that what I really loved was wine.
The decision to go 100 percent into wine happened during the preparation of the wedding of the daughter of the owner of LVMH (he owns Louis Vuitton, and other fashion brands, but also Moet & Chandon, Krug, Cheval Blanc, and d’Yquem, among other wineries). The catering company I was working for at that time, Potel & Chabot, was in charge of it, and during the rehearsal of the main dinner, we had to taste 1937 d’Yquem to make sure it matched the dessert–I took a sip and I was done.
What is the focus of the wine list at Rouge Tomate and how does it complement the food?
The focus of the list is the same as the focus of the restaurant: strong and honest commitments to quality and integrity as well as a focus on social and environmental responsibility without compromising taste and aesthetics. With our food, we pay attention to every aspect of sourcing, the preparation of the ingredients (local, seasonal, and organic, if possible, in order to preserve nutritional density), and the way all the ingredients play together on the plate. We have a full-time nutritionist in-house working with our chefs and with my team.
The wine list follows the same philosophy: We have real, terroir-driven wines of great quality for value, but we are also concerned with the way the grapes are grown and the wine is made. The list is very focused on natural, organic, and biodynamic wines as well as classic benchmarks with some age.
Because of the restaurant’s nutritional focus–we don’t use any cream or butter in our savory dishes, we control the sodium content, and we encourage the consumption of fruits, vegetables, and herbs–our food is very “clean” and very fresh with many examples of extremely delicate cooking and subtle seasoning. This type of cuisine is a dream for nuanced wines that, for example, have high acidity or minerality, are on the softer side of tannins, and have hints of vegetal or floral bitterness. And I think most of our terroir-driven wines are perfect for it.
Are there any challenges being a female in a male-dominated industry? Any perks?
Really, I don’t think so as long as you do your job. It has never been a problem in France, nor in the USA. It has never been a problem with other sommeliers, winemakers, reps, etc. I would say the only problem could be with a woman playing the “woman” card a little too hard and thus not presenting the best image as a female sommelier.
Are there any women you admire either in or outside of the wine industry?
Yes. I admire women who were “first” and helped make things change and happen. As far as idols, from a philosopher perspective, I appreciate Lou Andreas-Salome (muse of Nietzsche and Rilke and friend of Freud), Hannah Arendt (one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century), and Simone de Beauvoir. From the wine business, I admire Lalou Bize-Leroy in Burgundy and Jancis Robinson and Alice Feiring for their committed writing.
Every day, however, I am surrounded by amazing female wine professionals: Laura Maniec, M.S. at Corkbuzz Wine Studio; Juliette Pope at Gramercy Tavern; and Barbara Shinn in Long Island who is a pioneer in this region for organic farming.
Do women and men order wine differently?
Yes. Women pretend way less, and they are very direct; when they don’t know, they don’t know. They will have an idea of what they like and want you to help them to find something they will enjoy. Men, quite often, will pretend they know everything, even when they don’t have any idea.
On page 2: What Lepeltier drinks off the clock.
What do you like to drink off the job?
I like to drink beers, bubbles, and cider! And oxidative, flor-aged wines, especially Vin Jaune and Fino/Manzanilla Sherry. And as a spirit, I am a green chartreuse freak.
Are there any wines you’re tired of carrying but do because people want them?
No. I am lucky to have the wines I want to have on the list.
What about undervalued regions? Any you recommend consumers seek out?
This is a good question, especially right now with so many new wine regions coming up. Bordeaux is still an overpriced region, especially for the grands crus, and, as a paradox, it is also an unsung hero for the smaller, less famous appellations, where you can find beautiful wines. Burgundy is, unfortunately, becoming overpriced, because of the rarity of the wines and the explosion of the demand. Same for Barolo.
The most undervalued regions, for me, are still in Europe: the Loire Valley, Alsace, and Languedoc-Roussillon in France; central and southern Italy; all the Eastern European countries, especially Croatia and Slovenia; “green” Spain; and all the fortified wines of the world–Madeira, Port, and Sherry. When you think about the quality and the age of what you can find in a bottle for the price, they are currently the best value in the world.
Have you noticed any consumer trends over the last few years?
Yes. There is definitely a switch from big, bold, very ripe, and very oaked wines to fresher, brighter, more savory ones. This trend is very evident in California, for example, especially for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Also, people are way more aware of organic and biodynamic wines.
Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing?
I have a lot! One I really love is pairing old Verdelho Madeira (like 1976) with a black truffle risotto we prepare in the winter at Rouge. Currently, I am pairing our chilled pea and mint soup topped with Arctic Char and trout roe with a late harvest Aligote produced in Chablis by Olivier de Moor. But if I have to pick one, it will be Chenin Blanc from the Loire with everything!
What interests do you have outside of wine and work?
As much as I can, I try to go to art museums, play my ukulele, and read some philosophy. Hopefully this year I will have a chance to surf again.
If you could be traveling anywhere right now, where would you be? Italy. I dream of visiting ALL the Italian wine regions.