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 Julia Travis, general manager of Cull & Pistol.
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Raised in Long Island, Julia left for the city at age 18 to pursue a degree in clinical psychology. Like many who find their way into the industry, she started working in restaurants as a way to make money, never considering it a career possibility. After a few years pursuing graduate-level research, however, Julia realized she was much happier applying herself to the joys of food and wine.
Do you remember your first taste of wine? What was it?
My first taste of wine was at Passover Seder in our house growing up; I was probably around 11 or 12. I don’t remember what type it was, beyond the fact that it was red. I do remember thinking it was bitter and tannic (not that I knew that word then!), and I didn’t like it–but I felt like a grown-up getting to have some.
What is the focus of the wine list at The Lobster Place’s Cull & Pistol and how does it complement the food?
The focus of our wine list is definitely a wide spectrum of global whites, with a smattering of sparkling wines, rosés, and a small selection of reds. I try to keep the price points reasonable and focus the list on more obscure, but delicious, value-driven selections. Additionally, we have our Grog Locker, which is our “reserve” portion of the list that has more of the big dogs (e.g. Dauvissat) at very low mark-ups–we love being able to share these wines with our customers and want to make them approachable.
To complement the food, for example, we have lots of mineral driven, high acid wines that are great with oysters. We also have some funkier wines that are great with the more unique dishes on the menu like a lovely Grignolino that is stellar with our fideos negros (squid ink vermicelli with cuttlefish). One of the best parts of our list: Where else can you drink old Chablis while having one of the best lobster rolls in the city?
Are there any challenges being a female in a male-dominated industry? Any perks?
The greatest challenge is being taken seriously, occasionally by people in the business, but more often, by guests. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve approached a table to offer assistance with a wine list and been dismissed because I’m a woman (additionally, one who is short and looks young). The perk is essentially the flip side of the same coin: I love getting to surprise a table that starts out skeptical and ends up with a wine they love, that they wouldn’t have otherwise selected.
Do women and men order wine differently?
I hate to make broad generalizations, but if I had to, I’d say that women tend to go toward wines that they’re familiar with, and men tend to be slightly more open to guidance and trying something new. Too often, women still seem insecure ordering wine. It’s not necessarily because their knowledge level is lower than the average guy, but as far as gender roles go, I think it’s still generally thought about as a male thing. When my boyfriend and I go out to eat, I’ll typically order the wine, and he’s typically offered the taste. Drives me bonkers every time!
Are there any women you admire either in or outside of the wine industry?
There are so many women I admire in the business. To name a few: Juliette Pope, who writes an awesome list at Gramercy Tavern and epitomizes class, and Alicia Nosenzo, who showed me so much about how to manage a restaurant and trusted me enough to let me write my first list (at Kin Shop). Both of them are strong women but both have avoided a common occurrence in business (restaurant and otherwise), which is to de-feminize themselves in order to be taken seriously.
Are there any wines you tire of carrying but do because people want them? I tend to not worry about carrying wines that you “have” to have. When writing the list for Cull & Pistol, I would have loved to forgo red wine entirely. Instead, I found some great seafood reds: a soft Nebbiolo, some fun Gamay, and a Grignolino. I figured, hey, I should have one Cab on there for that guy who only drinks Cab. The good news is we sell almost entirely white wine. Interestingly enough, our most popular red is our Napa Cab! Go figure.
On the next page, Travis talks about an undersung wine region.
Alternatively, are there wines you wish you could offer but doubt customers will order? Anything that I really want to put on, I do. I taste the staff on everything on the list, and I find that if I can get them excited about a wine, we’ll get customers to order it. Oddly enough, I find it hard to sell Chardonnay these days. There’s SO much great Chardonnay out there, but it got a bad reputation from over-oaked buttery versions, that people forget it’s one of the most classic and food-friendly grapes out there.
Have you noticed any consumer trends over the last few years?
As our culture in general, right now, becomes increasingly focused on food, both sourcing and cooking it, wine has also hopped on board. I think that people are more knowledgeable about and interested in wine. Food and wine are definitely having quite the cool moment in time (though they’ve always been cool, if you ask me).
Do you think any wines or regions are overpriced/overhyped? What about undervalued/unsung?
In the overpriced/overhyped category, I would include a lot of what comes out of the United States. Some of it is good, but so often there is just too much manipulation of the fruit and the prices are just too high for the quality. There seems to be too much focus on branding with labels and packaging, etc.
Greek wine, while not necessarily unsung, is definitely undervalued and underappreciated. The terroir is so unique, the wines can have amazing depth and rockin’ salinity, and they come from some of the oldest vines in the world! In a seafood restaurant, they’re one of the best things to have around.
What do you like to drink off the job?
That really depends on the time of year. In the winter, I’m a whiskey girl–and not the fancy stuff. After work I love a Power’s with a few ice cubes. In the summer, it’s all about the Negroni. Year round, I’m always, always, always happy to drink some killer Riesling.
Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing?
More blah, blah, blah about Riesling: A zippy Kabinett, maybe AJ Adam from the Mosel, with super spicy food. Also, Champagne and French fries are equal parts absurd and perfect together.
What interests do you have outside of wine and work?
I’m pretty obsessed with Barre Method (a pilates-based workout, not beverage related, despite its name) in Soho. I spend as much time as I can with my dog, Juniper. When out of the city, in country-type environments, I love hunting for antiques. And whenever possible, which is never enough, travel! Oh, and I can seriously nerd out on some crossword puzzles.
If you could be traveling anywhere right now, where would you be?
While not the most unique choice, the answer to that question will always be Italy. Since I was first there at 15, it has totally captivated me. The food, the wine, the culture, the men, the fashion–all of it! Also, it’s an area with such topographical diversity. If I’m in a city mood, there’s Rome. If I’m feeling bucolic, there’s Tuscany. If I’m feeling a seaside thing, there’s Positano, Sicily, Cinque Terra. Italy, always!